One mother’s search to discover the truth about ADHD

This week we are pleased to interview Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Katherine Ellison, author of Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention. Both Ellison and her son, whom she calls ”Buzz,” have been diagnosed with Attention-deficit/​Hyperactivity Disorder. After her son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 9, Ellison devoted her professional skills to investigating what genuine relief from ADHD, if any, might be found in the confusing array of goods sold by our modern mental health industry.   This page-turner memoir is engaging, funny, and honest – and packed with helpful insights.

Edge:  Katherine, thank you so much for speaking with us about your journey to sort through the blizzard of information about ADHD.  Why don’t we start with why you wrote the book?

Ellison:  I wrote “Buzz” for many reasons, but mainly to cope with an overwhelming sense of isolation — to give myself the company I craved, as I was struggling to help my son and myself.

There is so much judgment of kids with ADHD and their parents. It’s easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed. Compounding this problem is what I call the ADHD Industrial Complex: the array of pharmaceutical companies and ADHD alternative treatments, many of them questionable, that advertize directly to panicking parents.

Like millions of other parents in this predicament, I needed to educate myself about ADHD in a hurry and figure out how to help my child, and myself. I was fortunate my book contract gave me carte blanche to call up the world’s leading experts on ADHD and ask for information.

Still, I’m also extraordinarily distractible — so it helped quite a bit to have deadlines built-in for this project.  Not to mention than the scary deadline of my son’s approaching teenage years!

Edge:   What is the most important lesson you learned about ADHD that other parents should know?

Ellison:  If I had to choose, I’d say the bottom line of “Buzz” is that parents have to pay attention to their own neurological quirks before they can genuinely help their kids. ADHD is a strongly hereditary condition, so it’s quite likely that if you have a child with a diagnosis, you will  also qualify (as I did).

I ultimately felt that my challenging son gave me a gift by forcing me to look at the ways I was reacting to the world, and find some way to calm down. I tell the story of all the strategies I used to do that in the book.

Edge:   What are your favorite news resources for ADHD?

Ellison:  That’s a tricky question, since the Internet is full of all kinds of ADHD hype and outright misinformation about ADHD. You need to choose your sources of information very carefully. I stick to mainstream news organizations like the New York Times, but at this point get a lot of scientific papers sent to me, which helps me stay ahead of the news to some extent.  As I sort through the news and write my own stories, I’m posting them on the Facebook page for “Buzz.” Please join!

Edge: What would be the top five things on your checklist for parents of children newly diagnosed with ADHD?

Ellison:  First and foremost, make sure you’re doing everything you can to stay calm, and don’t stint on help to get you there. Being in this position can be incredibly stressful, but you can’t afford to be reactive. So finding stress-relief strategies, and what Harvard’s Brian Little calls “restorative niches” is a must.

  •  Learn as much as you can. This includes getting a neuropsychological profile of your child– if you’re lucky, your school will pay for it — so you’re sure of the diagnosis and are aware of any co-existing conditions you need to address.
  •  Pay attention to sleep. If your child’s sleeping habits are out-of-whack, that could be causing ADHD-like symptoms, although ADHD and the  anxiety that often accompanies ADHD can also interfere with sleep.
  • Don’t be intimidated by your child’s school. Once you’ve educated yourself about ADHD, make sure you’re an effective advocate for your child, and make sure his or her school environment isn’t toxic.
  •  Find ways to help your child shine. He or she is getting so much negative feedback each day that it is vital to cultivate strengths that bring in positive reactions.  Very important!!!

Edge:  What did you decide about using ADHD medication for your family? What promising alternatives to ADHD medication did you uncover?

Ellison: I have a long chapter about ADHD medication in the book. It was very difficult for me and my husband to decide to try meds, as it is for many parents. We ultimately tried medication for a year, during which my son did much better in many ways. Then he decided he didn’t want to stay on medication, which is extremely common for kids — doctors tell me the average time on meds is less than two years. So we had to look for alternatives.

Very, very fortunately, my son has gotten into physical fitness, which is helping him a lot. He is now spending more than an hour a night most nights at the gym. There’s a great deal of research confirming the benefits of exercise and ADHD. I also think that neurofeedback was worth it — and there’s some interesting data on how it can help, particularly with anxiety — although I frankly couldn’t have afforded it without my book contract. Last summer, both my son and I tried working-memory training, and there’s very good research on that. I also think it did some good for him, although the changes are subtle.

Edge:  We noticed that you didn’t cover ADHD coaching as an alternative to medication.  Not surprising since coaching is relatively unknown, but effective way to work with ADHD.  After reading the information on our research, what is your view on the promise of coaching to help students with ADHD?

Ellison:  The research looks good! And I do think it’s fairly obvious that good human relationships are key for people with ADHD. The coach relationship sounds wonderful.

Edge: We can’t end this interview without asking “how is your son?”

Ellison: He is now 16, a junior in our public high school, and I’m seeing some new signs of maturity. Last year he joined the varsity tennis team, and on my birthday earlier this month, he bought me roses, which are still on our living room table even though they’ve begun to wilt.

In addition to “Buzz,” Ellison has written four other books including “The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter.” Look for her next book due out in 2013 titled, “Troublemaker: From Hyperactive to Harvard, and What My Journey Means for Your Child and the Future of Education.” She has two sons and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Have you read “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention?” What did you think about it? Do you have any questions or comments about the book?  Leave them in the comments and we’ll be sure she gets them.

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3 Responses

  1. Nick Head

    I read Buzz and loved it. It is a great first person account of a parent’s journey of discovery, love and hard one understandings. As a parent, and as someone late to understanding my own ADD, I found myself again and again saying, “Oh, yeah!”
    No simple love fest, rather it captures hard one win’s for both Elizabeth and her son. I came away richer for reading it, both for the clear-eyed look at a variety of treatment approaches, as well as the sense of being in good company as a parent of an ADHD child.
    Recommended without reservation.
    Nick Head

  2. Frankie

    Today, I went to the beachfront with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the
    shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is
    totally off topic but I had to tell someone!

    • Peggy