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People First Language and ADD

How many times have you heard a child described as “an ADD child" or an "ADD student?” This language is everywhere! When you are speaking of a person, coupled with a disability or condition, it is better to put the person first. The condition or disability is mentioned second. This is what “people first” language is about.

I first heard of people first language in one of my Special Education courses. I’ll be honest, the language seemed clunky to me. It just seemed so much longer to say “child with autism,” rather than “autistic child.” I was used to saying “ADD kid,” and saying “kid with ADD” did not seem natural to me. Then, my teacher explained the reason for using people first language, and the need for employing this type of language became clear to me.

People first language is a description of a person with a disability or condition. This description says, “People are more than their disability or condition. They should not be defined by this one aspect of their lives.” So, an ADD/ADHD mom should be seen as more than her condition. As a mom with ADD/ADHD she is a child care expert, organizer, comforter, money manager, time management artist, and chief cook and bottle washer. This mom with ADD/ADHD is more than the sum of her Attention Deficit Disorder. She is a person first! Her condition influences many parts of her life; this is true. However, Attention Deficit Disorder is not who she is.

When a school or teacher defines a student as an ADD child, rather than a child with ADD, they are in danger of overlooking all of the parts of the child that have nothing to do with Attention Deficit Disorder. When somebody hears the phrase “ADD child,” sometimes having the ADD as the first descriptor causes the mind to stop there. The term “ADD” when used first, may overwhelm all of the other descriptors of that child. Is he a child who cares about peers? Could talented athlete or artist be a part of who he is?

There are many stereotypes that are associated with Attention Deficit Disorder. Most of these are unbelievably negative. As people who live with ADD, we understand that the stereotypes don’t always apply to people who we know with ADD. Stereotypes usually have a small kernel of truth within them. They are the ways that people try to make sense of who other folks are, but are often destructive to true understanding. If a child is an “ADD student” the stereotypes kick in first. Some ideas that might be immediately associated with that child are inattentive, lazy, disruptive, talkative, wild, and out of control. Sometimes kids have one or more of these symptoms before they learn to use interventions to help sort their ADD out. Other children may have already learned how to manage symptoms. When they are just thought of as an “ADD kid” these kids are put into a very small box that is filled with a stereotype of what ADD is thought to be.

People are bundles of talents, energies, contradictions, and conditions. They are more than a stereotype of one condition. I like to think of a whole, complicated person. This is why using people first language is so important to building a deep understanding of who a person truly is. It is easier to say “ADD child,” rather than “child with ADD.” It takes time to remember to use people first language. But I have found that I must be careful to do so. To do otherwise is to perpetuate stereotypes and to narrowly define people by one aspect of their being.

While not all aspects of having ADD are negative, some are. One thing that helps with positive self-talk, is to reduce some of the negative symptoms of ADD. Dr. Russell Barkley's book contains strategies for helping to improve the symptoms of ADD. It is highly recommended.

Taking Charge of Adult ADHD

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Building School Success with ADD
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Content copyright © 2018 by Connie Mistler Davidson. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Connie Mistler Davidson. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Connie Mistler Davidson for details.


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