Malcolm Gladwell famously observed in his best selling book, Outliers, that children with summer birthdays are at a disadvantage in achieving both athletic and academic success. Conversely, Gladwell found from his research that having a January-April birthday is correlated with higher achievement. Kids whose birthdays fall in these months are among the oldest in their class, and this gives them a physical and intellectual advantage over their younger peers.
Now, a major new research study from Britain shows that having a summer birthday not only means that a child’s academic achievement could be negatively affected. It also means that a child with a summer birthday is more likely than his older classmates to be diagnosed with a mental disorder of ADHD, a communication impairment, or a learning disability.
The government-backed British study found that a summer birthday puts a child at risk for being labeled with ADHD, communication problems (autistic spectrum disorder), and/or learning disabilities. The study, reported in the British Daily Telegraph on December 28, 2012, pulls together findings involving over 6,000 children. The researchers concluded that “children born in the summer are being wrongly classed as having special needs when they are just young for their school year.”
The British study included a number of factors, including economic status, racial category and the time of year when the children were born. The researchers noted that “children born in the months of May to August – the youngest in their year groups – were twice as likely to be identified as having Special Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) than those born between September and December.” Teachers, the study noted, are inappropriately identifying children as having special educational needs when the truth of the matter is that they are simply among the youngest in their class.
The results of this study are concordant with three earlier studies (from Canada and Iceland) which I cited in a previous Psychology Today blog post, “Why Younger Kids have more ADHD.” These studies similarly concluded that children were being inappropriately diagnosed as having ADHD when in fact they were simply younger and less mature than their classmates. Canadian researchers found that kids with December birthdays were “48 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and given medication, compared to children with January birthdays.”
What do these studies suggest for children in the United States, who are by far the largest consumers of Ritalin, Adderall and other ADHD medications in the world? With the recent lowering of the age at which a child may be labeled with ADHD in the United States, the findings of these studies are further cause for alarm. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics ominously lowered the age at which a child can be diagnosed with ADHD from age 5 to age 4. This means that a four-year-old who is not able to sit still or focus for as long a period of time as a child who is as much as 25% older than himself is at risk of being diagnosed with a mental disorder and medicated with psychiatric drugs.
Because most American child psychiatrists view ADHD and communication disorders as having biological rather than contextual etiologies, the age of the child is not usually considered to be a factor in a child’s misbehavior or inability to sit still and focus on school work. Similarly, communication problems are believed to have a biological cause--though no biological, biochemical or genetic cause has been conclusively identified.
With the ever-widening diagnostic nets cast for ADHD and communication problems, and the strict focus on biological aetiology, American doctors rarely consider contextual factors--such as a child's age and maturity--before making a diagnosis of ADHD or a communication disorder and prescribing psychiatric medications. These studies from abroad are a call to action to American researchers and clinicians to conduct similar studies in this country, which explore contextual factors such as a child's age and maturity with respect to his classmates. The results of such studies may well put an end to diagnosing normal American children with mental disorders that they do not have.
© Copyright Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.