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Dr. Temple Grandin may be the most extraordinary person you’ve never heard of. As a leading expert in the field of animal science and humane livestock-handling methodology, Grandin holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois and is the published author of eight books – covering subject matter from animal welfare to social relationships to specialized teaching strategies. Her professional accomplishments have been lauded in major televised news shows and national publications, and in the title essay of neurologist Oliver Sacks‘ 1995 release, An Anthropologist on Mars, a moving account of Grandin’s struggles and successes in experiencing life with autism.

Diagnosed when she was three years old, Grandin credits the support of teachers and mentors throughout her schooling that enabled her to adapt to – and succeed in – life in a neurotypical world. Indeed, rather than impairing her professional work, Grandin has used her considerable talents and skills to far surpass others in her field, raising awareness for the ethical treatment of animals, and creating equipment and methods that, at heart, demonstrate a respect not often witnessed in the cattle industry.

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow – BBC feature

Medical knowledge and understanding of autism is, like most neurological disorders, still in its infancy. A diagnosis of autism is made after the careful analysis of numerous and specific atypical symptoms, such as repetitive behaviors and impaired social skills, rather than a recognized physical impairment. While the causes behind the disorder are still unknown, and there is no known cure, doctors and researchers have committed tremendous energy to addressing the unique behaviors and to helping those with autism develop coping mechanisms that better channel the fixations of the autistic mind.

Grandin has described her mental processes as a video playback machine – working through images, rather than words. When designing complex equipment, Grandin can view the completed machinery in her mind, at any angle, to discern possible engineering problems – all before a single component is welded together. She also uses her encyclopedic memory to combine workable solutions from disassociated fields – such as swimming pool filtration systems, cattle ramps, and fence construction – into the development of more humane, efficient handling methods.

While her mental idiosyncrasies have benefited her on a professional level, Grandin does acknowledge the challenges that autism brings to her life. The unique viewpoint from inside an atypical mind, she feels, has gifted her with an understanding for animal psychology but is markedly less helpful in human relationships. Like others with autism, she is unable to read social cues – such as body language, vocal tone, and facial movements – that neurotypicals learn intuitively from an early age, and rely on during interactions with other people.  In her personal life, Grandin has admitted to a lack of interest in emotional relationships, instead channeling her energies to her work.

Grandin has become a worldwide advocate for those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) – giving voice to a neurological disorder that has mystified those in the medical community, as well as the general public. Temple Grandin’s descriptions of how her brain processes information is providing an enlightening glimpse into a private, little understood world and changing previously held beliefs about what those with autism can accomplish.  Or indeed, what any of us can achieve, if we put our minds to it.

Through my involvement with the Edge Foundation, and my own personal experiences, I well understand how difficult the initial diagnosis of ADHD can be for parents and children alike.  But amid the questions and concerns it should be noted that with ADHD, as in most challenges in life, there lies a tremendous opportunity for achievement and triumph.

While research on ADHD has led to a better understanding of the disorder in recent decades, there has been speculation that some of the greatest talents and minds in human history may have struggled with it as well – among them Leonardo da Vinci,Mozart, Albert Einstein, and John Lennon. While we may never know for certain, biographers and historians have found ample evidence for these diagnoses, often crediting the disorder itself, or rather the ‘Hyper Focusing’ brought on by it, in helping these men to achieve such seemingly impossible feats.

As I have previously noted, professional athletes are among the highest population of those with ADHD, or its related disorders, who have managed to transform their challenges into tools for success. One of the most inspiring examples of these athletes is swimmer Michael Phelps, considered to be the greatest Olympian of all time and – for a few shining weeks last summer – America’s Golden Boy.

Raised in Baltimore, Maryland by his mother, Debbie Phelps, Michael began swimming at age 7 as a way to channel his energy. At 9, after a teacher noticed that Michael was unable to concentrate and ‘couldn’t focus on anything’ , he was diagnosed with ADHD.

Debbie, now a middle school principal, has a unique understanding of the challenges ADHD presents, as well as the importance of parental involvement. Using his passion for swimming, Debbie worked with his teachers and tutors, helping him build an interest in reading through the stories of successful athletes and the daily sports pages, and making sense of math problems by the addition of swimming analogies.

Though her solutions may seem unusual, there is no arguing with the results. Michael studied sports management and marketing at the University of Michigan, while maintaining a rigorous training schedule for Club Wolverine – one of the country’s premier swimming clubs.

During the excitement of last summer’s Olympic Games, in which Michael won 8 gold medals, much was made of Michael’s calm demeanor by his coaches, teammates and competitors. Throughout a daunting schedule of events, the clamor of the Water Cube audience, and the pressure of the American public holding its breath, Michael remained singularly focused on the task at hand. Many ADHD bloggers have credited this ‘Hyper Focus‘ as a key component of his success as an athlete and is a prime example of how something that could be viewed by some as a setback, can be turned into one’s greatest strength.

Since the Olympics, Debbie has been able to share her experiences and raise awareness of ADHD, supporting a website, ADHDMoms, and relaying her experiences in speaking engagements and interviews.

For those struggling with a recent diagnosis, or those who have faced the challenges and hurdles of being ADHD for years, there is no reason to feel isolated or defeated. Just remember back to Beijing in the summer of 2008, and how the whole world spelled success, P-H-E-L-P-S.

Michael Pehlps Wins his Eighth Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

One of the toughest decisions parents have to make is in regard to their children’s education.  In the past, for most Americans, the decision was straightforward.  By and large, we sent our kids to public schools.  Today the educational landscape has changed dramatically.  Public schools have been caught in the political crossfire between factions competing to put their stamp on the educational agenda.  As many parents have fled from the public school system, funding has been reduced leading to concerns about the quality of the education delivered by public schools.  A recent focus on standardized testing has often led to dislocations of scarce resources and increased pressure on children to score well on tests.  Now, with huge state budget deficits looming as a result of the current economic crisis, spending on education by states is further threatened.

In response to many of these concerns, homeschooling has emerged as the single fastest growing educational trend in the United States, and that trend is expanding worldwide.  Recent research on homeschooling by Dr. Brain Ray points out some interesting facts.  First the number of homeschooled children is growing at about 15 percent annually. Today, there are between 3 and 4 million homeschooled children.

However, homeschooling remains something of a mystery to most Americans – a hidden corner in the world of education.  Parents have many fears about home schooling – for example:

  • Kids who are homeschooled won’t be properly socialized because they have been educated in relative isolation.
  • Homeschooled children won’t be adequately prepared for college or work life.
  • Adults who were homeschooled won’t participate in community or political life.

In his study, Dr. Ray surveyed 7,000 adults who had been homeschooled and discovered the following:

  • Ninety-five percent of homeschoolers had an adequate comprehension of politics and government, compared to 65% of U.S. adults.
  • Seventy-one percent of homeschool graduates participate in ongoing community service activities, including politics, compared to 37% of adults in similar ages.
  • Eighty-eight percent of HS graduates are members of organizations (community groups, church, or professional organizations) compared to 50% of U.S. adults.
  • Significantly, 76% of homeschool graduates voted in a national or state election within the past 5 years, compared to 29 percent of similar U.S. adults.

The homeschooling scene today is very robust.  Companies like Global Student Network and International Virtual Learning Academy provide provide curricula and online educational support services to families who are homeschooling.  There are homeschooling magazine like Home Education Magazine and  Practical Homeschooling, numerous vendors that provide extracurricular activities and events for homeschooled children asell as hundreds of support groups and blogs to help families.

One of the things about homeschooling that interests me is its potential effectiveness for helping kids with ADD and ADHD.  There is growing anecdotal evidence that for some ADD / ADHD kids, homeschooling may provide a better learning environment than either public or private schools can offer.  For families who are able to homeschool their kids, this may be an attractive educational alternative.

Homeschooling has a long history in America.  It has morphed from primarily agrarian roots prior to the mid nineteenth century, to a fringe educational alternative in the 1960′s and 70′s, to use by Christian groups as an alternative to secular public education, and finally to today’s homeschooling which is diverse and mainstream.   One thing we can be sure about – homeschooling will continue to change and no doubt get a 21st century makeover.  All things old are new again.

A diagnosis of ADHD for a child can often carry with it significant expense for diagnosis and treatment.   These costs can include:

  • Psychological testing and diagnosis
  • Medication
  • Educational tutors
  • ADHD coaches
  • Accommodation in private schools better equipped to work with ADHD children

There are tax benefits available for ADD / ADHD and help with expenses can be obtained through Federal and state government programs.  Parents can also negotiate with their health plans to obtain overrides to get increased reimbursement for prescription and other treatment costs.  Many families have been very creative at helping their ADHD children get the treatment they need to be productive members of society.  But this takes time, research and persistence to successfully navigate this maze.

Funding for Federal grant programs that serve families who have kids with disabilities are authorized and administered under two pieces of legislation:

According to the editors of ADDitutde:

To be eligible for services under IDEA, a child must meet the criteria for one of 13 specific disability categories. AD/HD is not among these, but your child may be eligible if he is also affected by one of the specified conditions, which include learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and developmental delays. Most ADDers, however, qualify under another IDEA category: “Other Health Impairments.” In either case, it must be shown that having AD/HD substantially limits the child’s ability to learn.

Section 504 covers AD/HD kids who don’t meet the criteria for special-education under IDEA, but who would benefit from accommodations in the classroom, such as extra time on tests.

Actual IDEA Part B spending (covering (K-12 programs) has been relatively flat during the past 4 years at about $4 billion.

Private health insurance plans have a spotty record of covering medical expenses related to ADHD.  ADHD treatment falls under “mental health treatment” benefits, so if your health plan doesn’t include mental health coverage, you don’t have a claim. Your plan may even specifically exclude coverage of ADHD.  Even if you have a health plan, be it group or individual, that appears to have generous mental health coverage, you may still have out-of-pocket co-insurance payments or deductibles, or maxing out your allowable outpatient visits for the year.  ADHD is a neuro-behavioral disorder (see video below) and may present with symptoms that overlap with other psychiatric conditions – e.g.

  • Disruptive behavior disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Tics and Tourette Syndrome
  • Learning disabilities

These conditions must also be diagnosed by a mental health professional and coverage for these problems also varies widely among insurers.  All of this makes getting reimbursement for ADHD treatment more complicated.

New legislation recently passed by Congress, which takes effect in January 2010, will eliminate discriminatory health insurance treatment of many mental and psychiatric disorders, including ADHD.  It essentially ensures parity of coverage between physical and psychiatric disorders.  This should make it somewhat easier for parents of ADHD children to get reimbursed by their health plans for medical expenses related to the condition.

With the economy in what some economists are calling the worst crisis since the Great Depression, there has been concern about whether the incoming Obama administration will be able to service both the economic and social priorities to which it has committed.

We believe that the two sets of priorities are inextricably linked.  We put our whole society at risk when we sacrifice the health of any of our children.  As has been amply documented in this blog and elsewhere, many of our greatest leaders in business, politics, entertainment and sports are individuals diagnosed with ADHD.  Without the support they received early on in school our society may have been deprived of the benefits of their significant contributinos.