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I began reading The Little
Monster after dinner on a recent evening, intending to finish the first few
chapters and then turn to other projects, but the book moves so quickly that I
couldn't stop reading, and I finished it that night. Robert Jergen is an
engaging writer and, as an autobiographer should, he knows his subject very
well. When he recounts anecdotes from his childhood revealing the extent of the
impairment caused by his ADHD symptoms, and when he writes about how even
today, as a university professor, his symptoms get him into trouble, his book
makes for fascinating reading. However, readers should be warned that it is not
always a reliable source of scientific information about ADHD.
Jergen begins with an
introductory chapter, "The Power of ADHD," in which he describes
general features of the disorder, including the three classes of symptoms
(inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity). Many of his points about the
difficulty of diagnosing ADHD and the high incidence of misdiagnosis will be
useful for readers. Unfortunately, he also claims in this chapter that "people
with ADHD tend to be very smart or even cognitively gifted." This is a
claim that he repeats elsewhere in the book, despite evidence to the contrary;
although there are certainly people who have ADHD and a very high IQ,
research has consistently shown that the average intelligence level is not
higher in individuals with ADHD.
Several following chapters focus
on Jergen's childhood and adolescence. One important theme in this section is
the author's transition from a generally happy child to a frustrated and upset
young man. In the early grades of elementary school, children with ADHD may
have behavior problems, but they are unlikely to be particularly anxious or
depressed. However, as teachers and other students respond poorly to them, they
begin to develop symptoms of depression such as low self-esteem. This happens
to Jergen, and although it is hard to be sympathetic when reading about to his
severe misbehavior as a young child, his painful loneliness as an adolescent is
easy to sympathize with.
Another theme in the section on
Jergen's childhood is his poor sense of time, a quality that research has consistently
associated with ADHD. Jergen lives in the present, forgets things easily, and
does not think ahead to the consequences that may result from his actions.
Although these are all qualities of normal children (when they are compared to
adults), Jergen's degree of immaturity in this area was far more severe than
that experienced by other children his age. The importance of this lack of time
sense cannot be overstated—all planning behaviors, from the very short term to
the very long term, require judgments about when things will happen, and
rely on memory for when things happened in the past. The impaired sense
of time keeps Jergen (and many others with ADHD) from planning, effectively
reducing his will power to be able to do things.
As adults, individuals with ADHD
are able to find less confining environments, but the standards for appropriate
behavior are also higher. These two features of adulthood are illustrated well
in Jergen's description of his life in college, graduate school, and beyond. He
is able to choose classes that interest him, but some classes meet for three
hours at a time, and he is unable to sit through them without leaving the room
several times. As he begins romantic relationships, the same features are
evident: he is free to live as he chooses, but finding women who will accept
his lifestyle is another matter. He finds it very difficult to get a second
date with anyone, in part because of his tendency to say whatever is on his
mind, regardless of its appropriateness.
It is also only in adulthood,
while taking a graduate class in special education, that Jergen was finally
diagnosed with ADHD. An abnormal EEG and MRI scan, and a visit to a CHADD (an
ADHD advocacy organization) support group meeting led him to the proper
diagnosis. Like many individuals with ADHD, the diagnosis made a world of
difference in the way that Jergen understood himself, made him feel less alone,
and gave him hope for improvement. Unfortunately, very little improvement in
his symptoms was ever realized, even though he was able to graduate with a
Ph.D. in special education and go on to become a tenured professor.
The final chapters are devoted to
Jergen's recommendations for people who have ADHD, based on his own strategies
for getting through life. Unfortunately, many of his comments here are not
based on research, and his status as a professor of special education may lead
some readers to think of his recommendations as coming from an expert. For
instance, although Jergen points out both advantages and disadvantages of
medication for ADHD, it is irresponsible to comment offhandedly that "In
fact, I have heard about cases where children have actually died from various
medications for ADHD" without any documentation. He also says that alcohol
helps him to concentrate, and that this is "not uncommon for people with
ADHD," although there is no research to support this, and alcohol
typically has the opposite effect of stimulant medications used for ADHD.
In sum, The Little Monster
is a fine book for understanding Robert Jergen but should not be taken as an
advice book regarding ADHD in general. Although Jergen's life story is itself a
good introduction to the social consequences of ADHD, readers would do well to
be skeptical of his confident comments about people with ADHD as a group.
Especially problematic is his view that ADHD is a gift that confers high
intelligence, creativity, and energy upon the bearer. Indeed, Jergen's own
life, filled with pain and tragedy, is the best evidence against his romantic
view of this serious neurological disorder.
© 2006 Ben Lovett
Ben Lovett is currently a doctoral
candidate in the psychology department at Syracuse University, where his
research interests include learning disabilities and ADHD. For more
information, see his website: http://web.syr.edu/~bjlovett/