Many schools still treat ADHD like simple bad behaviour. These parents are sounding the alarm.


Too often, ADHD is treated as bad behaviour rather than as a mental health disorder or disability. Parents say their children are suffering as a result.

Ashton has been suspended twice, and he's yet to start high school.

Plenty of parents would be angry about that, but Ashton's mother, Catherine Cook, is adamant that it's not her son's fault.

"He's not just being naughty for the sake of it. There's a reason," she says. It's a reason she's intimately familiar with: Catherine, like her 11-year-old son, suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

ADHD, as the name suggests, can manifest as problems with attention, problems with hyperactivity and impulsivity, or all of the above. Symptoms can include difficulty sustaining attention on a task, making seemingly careless mistakes or frequently losing items, fidgeting and squirming, experiencing difficulty waiting in turn, and more.

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but it's understood to be a neurodevelopmental disorder. And yet ADHD is often dismissed as a behavioural issue for kids, a symptom of poor parenting that stems from a lack of discipline.

The debate over its legitimacy has had a profound impact on the way it is diagnosed, treated and supported -- so much so that children with ADHD aren't eligible for disability support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

That means that schools don't receive any extra funding to support ADHD-affected students in the classroom. For parents, it means that their frequent trips to see a doctor, psychologist or paediatrician aren't subsidised.

Ashton plays in his backyard
Ashton plays in his backyard.
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For parents like Catherine, that adds up to a deeply frustrating lack of support.

"He's got a Ferrari brain with a bicycle brake," she says of Ashton.

"You wouldn't say to somebody in a wheelchair 'wake up to yourself and walk!' They can't help it, but you can see that, so you just wouldn't say that."

"But ADHD, you can't see that."

Research conducted by Parents for ADHD Advocacy Australia found that a quarter of ADHD students had been suspended from school, often many times.

The survey found that nearly half of the students who had been suspended were under seven.

Nine-year-old Henry is currently on a 15-day suspension. He's been taking ADHD medication since he was six.

Recently, his mother Anabel had her worst nightmare come true after she received a call from the school principal. Henry had had an outburst in the classroom. It scared his teachers and fellow classmates. The police were called to the school to handle it.

"They had to restrain him with handcuffs," she told The Feed. "My nine-year-old boy."

Nine-year-old Henry's ADHD is referred to as an 'emotional disturbance' in the school system. His mother worries he isn't getting the support he needs.
Nine-year-old Henry has struggled to find a school environment that supports his needs as a child with ADHD.
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In the classroom, there are a number of things teachers can do to cater to the needs of ADHD students. But Anabel has found that not every school is committed or consistent with individual learning programs.

"I think there's a lot of teachers out there that are trying hard, and they're trying to do the right thing, but I think they're let down by either the way that the system is run, or the fact that they're not receiving the support at high levels because ADHD isn't viewed as an independent disability."

Instead Henry's condition is referred to as an 'emotional disturbance' in the school system.

But recent studies have indicated that ADHD is likely a lot more than that.

David Coghill, the Chair of Developmental Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, has been working in the field of ADHD for over 25 years, and he says that recent research "leaves no doubt that ADHD is a biological disorder, and a biological disorder of the brain."

"Kids with ADHD often get in trouble, but their problems don't arise from the way that they're parented -- their problems arise from differences in the way that their brain develops," he says.

Coghill thinks that ADHD should be considered a disability, and that people with ADHD should be supported accordingly.

"The real impact of not being noticed, not being recognized, means that you don't get the support that you need."

If this story brings up issues for you, there’s always someone you can talk to at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36. You can reach Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.