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ADHD: biology or environment?

Posted by Claudia M Gold  September 26, 2012 07:06 PM

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When I write from my clinical experience as a behavioral pediatrician, I am careful to change identifying information to protect the privacy of my patients. It is rather freeing, therefore, to write  about characters in a novel. Left Neglected by Lisa Genova, who is also a neuroscientist (perhaps she took the story from some real cases) offers some important insights into this complex subject.

The story revolves around Sarah, a 37-year-old mother of three young children, who, distracted by her cell phone on her drive to her high-powered job, crashes her car and suffers a traumatic brain injury. In the days just before the accident, she and her husband are called in to see their seven-year-old son's teacher who says, in not so many words, that they should have him evaluated for ADHD and possibly medicated. During the time that Sarah is hospitalized, he is in fact diagnosed and started on Concerta.

But there is another relevant story line. We learn that when she was a child, Sarah's 6-year-old brother accidentally drowned in a neighbor's pool. When Sarah's mother comes to take care of her in the wake of her accident, we gain further insight into the havoc this event wreaked on their relationship. Her mother is holding her hand in the hospital. She writes:

After Nate died, at first she held my hand a little tighter. I'm seven, and my hand is in hers when we cross the street, when she leads me through a crowded parking lot, when she paints my nails. Her hands are confident and safe. And then I'm eight, and my hand must be too awkward to hold along with all that grief, so she just lets go. Now I'm thirty-seven, and my hand is in hers.
Sarah acknowledges that her intense drive to succeed has been at least in part powered by this double loss of her mother and brother. In her pre-accident life she is a master multitasker who works very long hours and is rarely home for in time dinner. She clearly adores her kids and is devoted to them, but is usually answering emails while getting them ready for school.

As she and her mother work to heal their relationship, we see a new kind of calm in Sarah (part of this is necessitated by the restrictions on her life imposed by her brain injury.)  In a lovely scene where she is helping her son with his homework, she is present with him in a way that she was not in her prior frenetic lifestyle. Together they figure out that he works better standing up. If they cut out the problems, he can do them individually and not be distracted by all of the questions on the page. Both are thrilled by his success.
Jubilant pride skips along every inch of his face. It strikes me that he looks like me.
I recognize that these are fictional characters. Yet I think that an assessment, as I do with real patients I see in my practice, can offer some insight into this complex question of the interaction between biology and environment.

There is likely a genetic vulnerability for attention problems in Sarah's family. Her brother's accidental death may have in part been due to an impulsivity that can go along with these traits. Sarah herself may have some attention problems, but her behavior is also in large part fueled by the loss of her brother and her troubled relationship with her mother.

Her son may have this same genetic vulnerability, but his symptoms are also tied to his mother's intense, driven behavior. She may have difficulty being emotionally present with him, particularly as he reaches the age her brother was when he died. As Sarah's relationship with her own mother is healed, in turn she is able to be more fully emotionally present with her son.

My hope for these fictional characters is that Sarah's process of grieving and healing with her mother will in turn help to lessen her son's symptoms of inattention and distractibility, and so support his healthy development.

Grief and loss are frequently present in the family history of children who have been diagnosed with ADHD. But often, as in this story, these losses go unacknowledged for many years, sometimes for generations. They may take the form of "family secrets."


As I was working on this post, I suddenly recognized the double meaning of the book's title. Left neglect is the name given to the disability that results from Sarah's injury. But Sarah was also left neglected by her mother's grief.  Ironically it takes the first to repair the second. My hope for real families confronting similar issues to this fictional one is that they can find a way to address these unmourned losses and heal relationships without needing a devastating life event to motivate them. 


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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