Caffeine, ADHD and Stimming Behaviours

Today I was prompted to recall how about ten years ago, I attended a very interesting seminar presented by a visiting psychologist from Sydney. Sadly, I can't remember his name anymore. The presenter described himself as having undiagnosed ADHD, paced back and forth rapidly and constantly as he spoke, and presented a lot of information in a very condensed, speedy fashion. A great deal of concentration was required to take it all in.

But boy was there a wealth of good stuff in there. I think that seminar helped me to see my son more clearly and with a deeper compassion. And in many respects, I think this has coloured most of my interactions with my son and my decisions since then. Below are a couple of key things I got out of the seminar.

Caffeine & ADHD

The presenter told us about the medications used for ADHD, and how their stimulant effect would allow neural connections to happen between the frontal lobe and the base of the brain, creating calm and more organised thought, and hence allowing clear and better decision making to occur. Impulse control is made possible by these medications, and he explained how terrifying it must be for kids who were unable to control themselves. He described how without these connections, spontaneous and risky decisions could be made because once an idea was present, the neural connections were not there to prevent the action from taking place. By way of explanation he mentioned that scars on the fingers of young children had at one time been used as a diagnostic observation for autism, because if the child had been told "Don't touch the stove, it's hot," they would automatically reach out and touch the stove. The idea had been presented, but there was no connection to the part of the brain that would prevent the action from occurring. (I guess this is also an early indication of the many overlaps between autism and ADHD).

He then went on to say that caffeine, also being a stimulant, could have a similar effect. He said that giving caffeine to a child with genuine ADHD would calm them, and could even help with sleep problems. He also touched on the frequent misdiagnosis of energetic young boys with ADHD and described how caffeine could be used as a rudimentary diagnostic test. "Give your child a glass of coke," he said, "And if they calm down or even get sleepy, they more than likely have ADHD. You should then get them properly assessed."

It's interesting to see the studies play out this caffeine theory. Here's an interesting research-based article on the subject - Caffeine's Effect on ADHD Symptoms. 

There are many other articles out there on the internet on this topic. Plenty of stuff to read. There's heaps of info out there about the benefits and side-effects, be sure to do your research before you start pumping your children full of caffeine! And make sure to look at the scientific/medical studies as well as anecdotal evidence. The long term effects of excessive caffeine use can be quite harmful if you're not careful. A quick Google search will be worth the effort.

Stimming behaviours

Another thing I found extremely useful that day was a lengthy discussion about what we call "stimming" behaviours. Stimming is a term used to encompass a number of different physical behaviours which provide much needed and specific stimulation for the nervous system of the individual concerned. Some of the more common of these seen in autism are hand-flapping, spinning, jumping/bouncing, rocking, swinging and licking/mouthing. In someone with ADHD, it might look like something simple like a jiggly foot while seated, or a wriggly bottom in a seat.

The key message from the psychologist was never to simply suppress the behaviour. He made it abundantly clear that if we try to suppress the unusual behaviour, a more bizarre (and/or more annoying) behaviour will usually move in to replace it. If we try to stop someone jiggling their foot, they still need an action, so they might start tapping their pencil on the table, or repeatedly clicking the button on the end of their pen. If we try to physically hold down flappy hands (yes, I was once advised to do this by a supposed autism "expert" - but I was horrified and never did it), the nervous system still needs whatever it is seeking through flapping, so another behaviour will pop up in its place. And what that might be is unpredictable. It might be something much more awkward or embarrassing, like hands down pants in public places.

So his advice was, if you want to get rid of a certain behaviour, first of all decide whether your need to do so is really that important. What is motivating your desire to remove that behaviour? Who really benefits from getting rid of it? Does it really matter? Are you just allowing yourself to be embarrassed by something which isn't a big deal in the bigger picture? Are you being too controlling or worrying too much what other people think? Will it be more distressing for your child to get rid of it than to just allow it to continue?

Is it really causing any harm?

Then, if you have a socially unacceptable behaviour to deal with - such as hands down pants in public places, always be sure to negotiate something more socially appropriate to replace it, or you could find yourself with a much bigger problem. Maybe offer a fidget toy. Try many options until something works.

For example, the psychologist, throughout the presentation, was fiddling with his wedding ring and twirling it around his finger. Until he pointed this out though, I was completely oblivious. He explained that this was a behaviour he had given himself which was virtually invisible and completely acceptable, but helped him to organise his thoughts and served the physical need he had to fidget.

Always remember the behaviour has appeared for a physical reason, and never punish for doing it. This behaviour isn't intentionally there to annoy you, so don't take it personally and don't get angry about it. It is very difficult for people to drop compulsive habits, so a more supportive attitude is needed if you want to make positive headway.  Certainly offer regular rewards for any show of self control. How you do this is up to you, but it's vital to any chance of success.

Take what you want from these ideas - but for what it's worth, everything he presented that day has turned out to be excellent advice as far as I'm concerned.

Businesses hiring autistic people

There is a trend among businesses requiring a specific kind of attention to detail and focus, to hire autistic people to fill the need. This is because of special traits which tend to be present in autistic people. Below is a fantastic, exciting and inspiring example of this, in SAP Germany. Be sure to check out the thinking behind all of this in the video from the SAP web site.

Diversity and Inclusion Video from SAP web site:

SAP is embarking on a global program to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists, the company announced Tuesday. Autistic employees can offer competitive advantages, according to SAP, while helping the individuals secure meaningful employment.
May 24, 2013

MSN News: German company seeks to hire 650 autistic people
May 22, 2013


On why murdering special needs children is always bad

I was replying to a post elsewhere, where the author showed deep compassion and sympathy for Dorothy Spourdalakis. She didn't have any special needs children herself, and took the position of thinking it wasn't fair to judge because she could never know what Dorothy's experience had been. She was deeply affected by Alex's story and I can understand how she felt she was walking a kind and non-judgmental road, but she had really missed the point - which is that murdering our children is never okay.

As I replied and tried to inform her of a different world view, it came to me like a revelation, the simple explanation for others of why it is not okay to do this.

FACT: Special needs parents are not somehow especially able to kill our children, and we shouldn't be afforded extra privileges to do so either.

FACT: Parents who do kill their children have their own special thing going on in their heads, and it's not because of the child. It was there already, their capacity to kill. Autism has nothing to do with it.

I can't currently think of a way to make it any simpler.

We value our children as much as you value yours. We would put our lives on the line for our children just like you. Killing our children is not on our agenda any more than it is on yours. If people from within our ranks kill their children, they absolutely deserve judgement, just like you do if you kill yours.


RIP Alex Spourdalakis - yet another autism murder

Alex Spourdalakis, autistic 14-year-old, was murdered last week by the very people entrusted with his care. 

RIP Alex Spourdalakis

Alex is one of such a long list. And his story has really gotten under my skin, for a number of reasons, as outlined below.

What happened?
His own mother, Dorothy Spourdalakis, with the support of his godmother Jolanta Agata (Agatha) Skrodska, stabbed him four times in the chest. This happened several hours after they had attempted to give him a drug overdose of sleeping pills and decided they couldn't wait any more to see if the medication would kill him. So his own mother went to the kitchen, chose a knife, went back to the bedroom, and plunged it into her own child's chest, over and over again, while he lay sleeping in his bed. She also nearly severed his hand while slitting his wrist.

She then handed the knife to her co-conspirator, his godmother and co-carer, who proceeded to use it to kill the family cat because they didn't want it to go to a shelter. Then the two women cleaned the knife, returned it to the kitchen knife block, and attempted to overdose themselves on sleeping pills. After locking the bedroom door, they laid down beside poor dead Alex and went to sleep.

The only small mercy I can see in this is that Alex was fast asleep when his mother stabbed him.

The Media Message

The media is failing Alex. As a whole, the message is currently focused on the idea that Alex was a difficult autistic teen who weighed 200 pounds and was prone to violent outbursts. His mother and godmother were "overwhelmed" and "beyond exhaustion". The media are saying that the system, by leaving them unsupported, drove these two women to commit premeditated violent murder of a helpless autistic teen.

What the media seems to not realise is this: the message they are spreading is that the lack of supports and services probably justified murder, even premeditated murder. It's apparently not their fault. It's everyone else's. Also, an autistic person's life has no real value, and it's okay to commit murder in order to step back from personally difficult circumstances.

I would appeal to the media to spend more time looking into Alex's story, finding out who he really was and how he touched lives, sharing those details with us. If this were not a disabled child, the media would automatically do so. They would raise him up, spend time talking about how wonderful he had been in life, how he had touched so many lives, how loved he was by his community, and would share little personal stories offered by people who had known him.  They would do this while concurrently pushing home the point that murdering one's children is not okay, and publicly vilifying the parent.

But because Alex is autistic, and despite the crime being so violent and awful - and premeditated - once again the message is one of sympathy for the murdering parent. Why is it justifiable to violently kill an autistic teen, but not okay to kill a neurotypical one? Why is that the default position of the media?

The media needs to turn this lens on the choice of focus they use, because they are propagating the tragic and horrific idea that disabled children's lives don't hold the same worth as other children's lives. They need to pick up their game and get the message right.

Let's look at the situation more bluntly and honestly.

Earlier in 2013, Alex's mother had publicly appealed for help and she claims that help had not been forthcoming. She purportedly received $15,000 in cash raised from concerned citizens who sent money. Nobody seems to know how that money was dispersed. And later there was an additional appeal for more money. She did receive an offer of DCFS services via the hospital two weeks before she killed Alex, but she apparently rejected those services.

Instead, she took Alex out of hospital. She took him home, and after just a week, started to conspire with his godmother to kill him. 

She gave up on her own son.
She chose to kill him.
She spent a week talking about it and planning it with another person.
She premeditated it.
There was no sudden mental snap.
It wasn't a crime of passion.
She didn't suddenly fly into a rage and do something terrible in the heat of the moment.
She planned it.
And then carried it out, three times.
She gave him an overdose of sleeping pills.
She waited for hours, checking his pulse and breathing to see if he was dead yet.
That was murder attempt number one. 
Eventually she decided more drastic action was needed.
So, after attempting to murder him once and failing, she decided to do it again.
She went and got that knife from the kitchen.
She probably spent time deciding which knife would be best for the job.
Then she went back to the bedroom, stood over her sleeping son.
She probably took a moment to think about which way would be best to stab him. 
Then she plunged the knife into her son's chest.
And she did it again.
And she did it again.
And she did it one final time.
That was murder number two. 
Then she sliced open his wrist for good measure - this would be the third attempt to kill him.
She nearly took off his hand, she cut his wrist so deep.

She murdered her own son in three different ways, to make sure it was really done. She was methodical, systematic and patient. She made sure the job was done and there was no chance of his survival.

There is nothing here to be sympathetic about.

I am also suspicious of the supposed suicide attempt by these two women. Given they already had seen the sleeping pills not work in their attempt to kill Alex, I question the veracity of their claims that they were attempting suicide. I am of the view that they more likely wanted to make themselves look like victims and garner sympathy after they were found.

So, what's to be done?
It's really very simple.

Next time you hear of an autistic or disabled child killed by his/her parents, instead of thinking,
"Oh those poor parents, they must've been desperate."
Remind yourself to think this:
"Oh that poor child, how awful."

It comes down to people seeing it differently, and reminding others to do so as well. Murder of a child is simply not the behaviour of a normal caring person.  It is a crime, regardless of the circumstances. It's that easy to understand.

Also, there is a Community Vigil for Alex scheduled for 7am 16 June.  Click for details.

Other articles about Alex: