Why I Want to Change the Name for ADHD

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Shakespeare asked, "What's in a name?" Quite a bit actually. Consider the name "Special Olympics," an organization that allows people to compete, no matter their ability or disability. This program is a global success because it offers inclusion to “special” people who may have been excluded from traditional Olympic venues.

How would people feel if the word “special” was replaced with another word, say “disorder?” Would people be as eager to sign up for the “Disorder Olympics?” Or, the name Special Olympics could change to the “Deficit Olympics." Would individuals want to compete in an organization emphasizing their vulnerabilities, instead of honoring their strengths? Also, could the use the of the words disorder and deficit provide fuel to bullies? I believe that most people would agree, calling it the Disorder Olympics would change the way the world viewed the organization. These examples are more than a rhetorical device: They show the power of a single word in shaping public opinion.

Let's consider the term, "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," the full name for ADHD. The American Psychiatric Society (APS) coined this phrase in the 1970s, classifying ADHD as a mental disorder. Do you think that the descriptors, deficit and disorder, along with it being classified as a mental disorder, have a negative effect on the way society views people with ADHD? I believe that a strong case can be made that it does.

How do people with ADHD feel about the descriptors, deficit and disorder? I posed this question to a group of adults with ADHD. Not surprisingly, none of the seventy respondents were happy with either term. One man said he thought that "deficit and disorder implies a disability " and "it could be seen as prejudicial, especially by young folks." Another person said the term ADHD had a "negative connotation" while a woman said it was a "dis-abelling label."

I have the hyperactive form of ADHD, so the word hyperactive in the ADHD word train has never offended me. A woman with the inattentive form of ADHD set me straight, saying that .

the term hyperactive grated on her because it was inaccurate. Another felt that it was rude to "misdescribe" someone.

In the last thirty years, people have begun to realize that biased and stereotypical words can inflict emotional damage on people. A movement has followed, advocating for an end to biased and stereotypical words. A few years ago, the NCAA forced my alma mater, the University of North Dakota, to change its logo from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks. Recently, the Land O Lakes dairy cooperative removed the kneeling “squaw” from its logo, replacing her with “Since 1921." These examples were changed because of the trend to remove insensitive language from names.

With three of four words in the name ADHD so problematic, I can't help wondering why the name wasn't changed long ago. The APS has retained the name for nearly fifty years, even though the theory of "attention deficits" for which it is named, is considered outdated. I find it sadly ironic that an organization devoted to patient mental health still uses words that are insensitive and prejudicial.

Recent research indicates that ADHD is caused by differences in executive function (EF), which is the brain’s control center, responsible for organizing, planning, and prioritizing. In keeping with this theory, I propose eliminating the triple whammies of stigma, the words deficit, hyperactive, and disorder, replacing them with neutral words—executive function adaptation (EFA). To learn about how adaptation plays a role in the new name, see my post, The Hunter Versus Farmer Theory.

So what do you think? Is it time to remove the negative labels from the name ADHD? Are you ready to join my mission of empowerment? Do you agree with me that an important step in empowering people with ADHD is to change its name?


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