Linda Labadi believed two of her four children were hyperactive. They’d been that way since they were toddlers. But as a busy working mother of four in Lombard, IL, she didn’t view it as detrimental. That is, until they went to school.
“My middle son’s teachers complained about his behavior in class constantly, which led me to seek out additional support and clarification from their general practitioner,” Labadi tells Parentology.
Many parents juggling careers and children rely on teachers and pediatricians to assist in identifying a problem. They’re the experts, after all. So Labadi didn’t argue when her doctor sent her son to a psychologist. After a short evaluation, it was determined her son had Attention-deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), was put on ADHD medication, and monitored.
“Once [the psychologist and teachers] felt he was stable, they transferred the care back to his pediatrician,” Labadi says. “Although it helped him manage his ADHD symptoms, it led to something none of us could have predicted – a drug dependency. Because ADHD drugs are often stimulants, he told me the ‘rush’ he’d get from the drug led to his desire for similar rushes from other drugs. Most devastating, it was this constant search for a rush that led to his overdose and subsequent death in 2017.”
It was only later that Labadi learned ADHD may not have been her son’s problem.
ADHD Overdiagnosis and Misdiagnosis – A Real Issue
“The DSM-5 [American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition] estimates that 5% of children have ADHD, yet in the community, there are about 9-10% of children that are being diagnosed with ADHD, suggesting that there may be over-diagnosis or misdiagnosis of this disorder,” Dr. Joanne Bruno, a New Jersey-based MD and PhD specializing in internal medicine tells Parentology.
Where you live also makes an impact, too. The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology published a study in June 2019. It found that parents in Australia and the United States are far more likely than parents in Norway, Denmark and Sweden to report ADHD or Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms to doctors. These Scandinavian parents were also more likely to accurately diagnose ADHD than their American or Australian counterparts.
“Unfortunately, as with all psychiatric illness, there is no one specific diagnostic test that can absolutely confirm the diagnosis,” says Bruno. “Instead, we rely on a standardized set of diagnostic criteria as outlined in the DSM-5 to make these diagnoses. Though, this diagnostic criterion is subjective at best and heavily relies on parents and caregivers to accurately report incidence and severity as early as possible.”
ADHD? — Maybe It’s Something Else
For Labadi, her son’s diagnosis led the same practitioner to put her three other children on similar medication. However, when her youngest daughter received an entirely different medical diagnosis, it completely changed Labadi’s view of her family’s ADHD diagnosis and treatment.
“When my youngest daughter was in fifth grade, she was diagnosed with celiac disease,” she says. “Leading up to that, she suffered from the same [supposed] ADHD symptoms as my middle and eldest sons. Because I’d been through it with two others, we put her on the same medication. However, the biggest change we noticed wasn’t due to the ADHD medication – it was the drastic change in her diet due to the celiac.”
Labadi isn’t the only parent who believes their child’s diagnosis and overall symptoms could have been caused by another medical issue. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are many factors that can cause an ADHD misdiagnosis, and diet is just one of them.
One NIH study found that children born in December, a school cut-off month, are often misdiagnosed with ADHD. Also misdiagnosed are children evaluated between the ages of 5 and 7. Scientists and psychologists also found that mood disorders, like depression, anxiety, bipolar and irritability, are often misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD. Additionally, in some cases, children with autism are diagnosed as having ADHD, which can be detrimental in their overall development.
Like Labadi’s children, allergies and medical issues can often produce ADHD-like symptoms, many of which are solved once the child’s diet is changed. A 2011 study published in Medical News Today found that out of 67 participants tested, 10 had celiac disease, and after 6 months of following a gluten-free diet, their ADHD symptoms nearly disappeared or improved drastically.
“Because celiac ruins the gut, all of my kids also had allergies caused by it. I believe with my whole heart that these allergies caused the behavioral and focus issues they all faced when they were young children,” Labadi says.
To his point, Bruno says, “The first step in any ADHD diagnosis, I believe, is to make sure there is nothing else going on that would explain the patient’s symptoms.” Beyond allergy tests, she says, “This would include a physical exam by a pediatrician, hearing tests, vision tests, and bloodwork to exclude any non-psychiatric illness as many other diseases can manifest with similar symptoms as these.”
For Labadi, realizing so many of her children’s issues came from something completely different from the ADHD diagnosis led her to follow a career in holistic health.
“I wish I knew then that allopathic doctors managed illnesses, not health,” she says, referring to doctors who use medications or surgery to treat or suppress symptoms or the ill-effects of disease. “I’ve done so much research on my own and in my profession that has given me a great platform to help my grandchildren. At least I can do for them what I couldn’t do for my own children.”
For Bruno, her biggest piece of advice is simple: do your research and come with questions.
“As a parent myself, I think you should always follow your gut in these situations,” Bruno says. “You know your child better than anyone, so if something your pediatrician or a specialist is saying doesn’t sit well with you, then it is always reasonable to advocate for your child.”