Could symptoms of ADHD also be signs of something else? The answer is yes.
It turns out that behaviors commonly associated with ADHD are similar to those we observe in kids and adults with an underdeveloped pons and midbrain, poor vestibular and proprioceptive processing, and delayed auditory processing. In fact, when we understand how the brain is supposed to function—and what happens when such development is incomplete—we have a better understanding as to why some kids and adults have a difficult time paying attention.
So, what are examples of how incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to focus?
1) A fully developed midbrain (part of the lower brain) filters and prioritizes incoming sensory information. However, if such development is incomplete, a barrage of information continually floods the cortex, causing everything to now compete for the brain’s attention. When this happens, we become easily distracted by something as innocuous as clothing tags or the hum of an air conditioner—no matter how much we want to pay attention to the task at hand.
2) When the pons (also part of the lower brain) is fully developed, we have a good range of visual and auditory awareness. Yet, when this development is incomplete, we’re not wired to give the kind of attention that most people expect. For example, we may not “hear” someone call our name if that person is standing behind us. That’s because if we have a significantly underdeveloped pons, our “world” really is just whatever is directly in front of us.
3) The vestibular system helps keep us alert. But if it’s sluggish, kids will rock and fidget in their seats because such movement actually stimulates this system. In other words, these kids move so that they can pay attention. Yet, such kids are often viewed as being inattentive and goofing around when they do so.
4) Our balance is also affected by vestibular processing. That’s why kids who are in constant motion throughout the day may be compensating for poor vestibular processing. Namely, it’s easier to balance when we’re moving. Yet, we rarely (if ever) think about the relationship between poor vestibular processing and natural balance when we was ask kids to “be still.”
5) With good proprioception, we have an innate sense of our body parts. But what if, for example, a child doesn’t “know” where his foot is when the teacher is giving the assignment directions? If so, he may start to tap his foot. That’s because such action stimulates proprioceptors and gives the brain the information it’s seeking. But since we don’t usually make that connection, we tell the child to “stop tapping.” Only now he’s distracted again since his brain is back to being preoccupied with: Where’s that foot?
6) Delayed auditory processing is also often mistaken for not paying attention. For example, when kids process speech at a rate slightly slower than the rest of us, they’ll frequently say, “Huh?” or “What?” This compensation buys them a little more time to process what was just said; however, it’s often misinterpreted as yet another example of not paying attention.
These are just a few examples of how incomplete lower brain development can adversely our ability to be still and focus.
But does that mean people don’t really have ADHD? In terms of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change), we can view ADHD any way we like since a diagnosis (or no diagnosis) has no bearing on how we organize the brain to make it function more efficiently. It also doesn’t matter if we’re on medication or if we’ve opted not to go that route when we’re organizing the brain.
That’s what makes a neuroplasticity approach so appealing. No one has to defend any position. We can open the door to new possibilities (i.e. complete the development), without having to shut other doors (i.e. question a diagnosis or change current treatment).
Nancy Sokol Green is the founder and executive director of the Brain Highways Program (www.brainhighways.com). This unique, educational program teaches parents how to facilitate their child’s brain organization and adults to facilitate such organization for themselves. The program is offered at the Brain Highways Centers in San Diego and Denver, as well as an online program for those who live elsewhere.