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Youngest in class more likely to be medicated for ADHD

Researchers have found that the youngest children in classrooms are twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as their older peers, raising concerns that kids are being medicated with amphetamine-based drugs for age-related immaturity.

The study found that among children aged 6-10 years old, those born in June – the last month of Western Australia’s school-year intake – had double the chances of being diagnosed with ADHD and medicated than those born in the previous July, the last month of WA’s school intake. The research is published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

These findings are consistent with previous research in Canada, Taiwan and the US, which found that younger children in classrooms are more likely to receive ADHD medication.

ADHD drugs, like Ritalin, are often amphetamine-based.

A study published in the British Medical Journal has also linked Ritalin use to a higher risk of heart disease in kids.

The research was led by Dr Martin Whitely, a Curtin University adjunct research fellow, former WA Labor politician, former high school teacher from 1995 to 2001, and a health advocate who campaigns against the use of ADHD medication. He has also published a PhD thesis critiquing the use of ADHD medication.

Whitely’s study didn’t confirm why younger children are more likely to be medicated with ADHD. He speculated that inflexibility with school starting dates could play a role.

“Teachers are asked to fill in a tick-list, usually, on the child’s behaviour against age appropriate norms,” Whitely explained. “And of course when a child is, say a six-year-old in year 1 and the other kids in the class are six years and 11 months, they’re significantly younger. So that age-related immaturity, that’s just a function of being the youngest kid in the class, [and] is mistaken for a psychiatric disorder.”

Teachers often a play a substantial role in gathering the evidence required for an ADHD diagnosis. Hyperactivity, impulsiveness and disruptive behaviour are common symptoms of ADHD, though the American Psychiatric Association requires these symptoms to be present for six months or more and to an extent which is uncommon in a child of that age. The World Health Organization estimated that ADHD affected 39 million people in 2013.

Whitely also said that children from poorer areas are more likely to be misdiagnosed with ADHD, as are those being bullied, those who went through trauma, and those who have hearing and sight difficulties.

“Some kids do have problems and you have to find out what’s causing the problem,” Whitely said. “Not just give them a silly label and mask their behaviour with behaviour-altering drugs. I mean nothing will alter behaviour faster than an amphetamine. It does it within 20 minutes, but that doesn’t mean the child’s got ADHD – that effect is universal. [For] the vast majority of people, if they take low-dose oral amphetamines, it narrows their focus.”

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