Definition of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Varies Among Cultures, Says UMass Researcher

AMHERST, Mass. - Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) is a culturally defined disorder rather than a medical one, says University of Massachusetts Ph.D. candidate in anthropology Ken Jacobson.

Between January and July of this year, Jacobson studied a group of 53 English 10- and 11-year-olds to determine why the English diagnose AD/HD much less frequently than their counterparts in America. Jacobson will present the findings of his research at the 98th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association Nov. 17 in Chicago.

According to Jacobson, all English children defined as "normal" by that country''s standards exhibit the "symptoms" of AD/HD as it s defined in America. However, Jacobson says, English students are rarely diagnosed with the disorder or treated with the drug Ritalin. "Either English children have dramatically different genes than American children, or the English are defining the expression of those genes differently," says Jacobson.

Jacobson believes that there is no biological basis for dividing children into groups like "learning disabled," "gifted," and "abnormal" because these are socially constructed terms that vary across cultures. Jacobson says the different rates at which AD/HD is diagnosed in England and America underscore this fact. According to Jacobson, less than 1 percent of English children are diagnosed as having behavioral difficulties severe enough to require intensive behavioral modification interventions, while approximately 5 percent of American children are labeled as having AD/HD. Jacobson says this is largely because the English have a more liberal definition of what is considered "normal" than do Americans a definition that accepts hyperactive behavior at certain times in certain places.

Jacobson does feel that some children exhibiting AD/HD-like behaviors are indeed suffering from some sort of disorder. In these cases, he believes, the child s culture and environment may have acted as stressors causing the "architecture of the brain to actually change." With this small group, Jacobson says, there may be less brain predisposition to inhibit socially inappropriate behaviors.

Currently Jacobson is conducting a similar study with 10- and 11-year-olds in a town near Amherst. While he cannot reveal the site of his study for confidentiality reasons, he does say he will compile and hopefully publish the results during the coming months.