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.

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