What Ritalin Told Me (So Far)

Filed Under (Acceptance, Autism and Learning, Pharma) by Estee on 23-02-2011

Adam went on a short trial of Ritalin last week, not for autism but for the ADHD he now apparently “has.” Please, I’m not trying to be cynical. I just believe in a healthy dose of skepticism for the sake of getting things right for my son. There are many of you with a lot more experience with medications, and I value the input you have given me on my Facebook page.

When Adam turned thirteen months of age, he didn’t walk, he just started running. Now, Adam has to sit at a desk and concentrate. Yes, like so many other families with hyperactive kids, we decided to give this a try. Yes, like so many other families, particularly ones with autistic family members in them, I’m not entirely happy to put Adam on anything and wish he could have more sensory breaks in his day as part of his accommodation. And yes, I’m taking my personal bias out of this because I’m trying to find the best options for Adam. I mean, what if Ritalin, or something like this helps him learn because he can focus more, right? At least that’s the logic that I’ve been hearing, and it sounds reasonable.

It was an extremely interesting trial, and it’s not over. We have debated for years what consitutes a “high or low functioning” autistic person. So often, kids with lots of “behaviours” and non verbal learning disabilities are deemed “mentally retarded.” For proof, take a look at this chart I found today which describes someone who is classically autistic and non verbal as likely retarded or severely delayed:

Many people have delays. I don’t think that that’s the real issue.

Adam is distractable. He is given very junior work at school because he has trouble responding in typical ways. Until he does, he is held back. It seems reasonable on the one hand — generally teachers do not want to go to fast or assume a child understands or comprehends if they cannot respond fluidly. I’m not blaming the teachers. I can see the logic in teaching a child how to respond and trying to figure out what the child actually comprehends. On the other hand, what if a child does and s/he cannot type fast yet, or is so distractable that it’s difficult to know what they comprehend? Ah, the rub of teaching the intelligent non verbal autistic person. (Yes, the ones we have also called mentally retarded and low functioning…but I must be fair… there are more people who get that Adam is a very bright little boy too).

The Ritalin was proof for me about what Adam understands — you can’t learn what he knows in the two days he was on it. It confirmed what I knew all along. He could listen to many instructions, complete tasks, do things I’ve never seen him do before so quickly. And yet. His legs couldn’t stop moving. He seemed agitated. His smile disappeared. He did not want anyone to touch him.

I’ve always thought that Adam was classically autistic. I’ve always known that he understands me, can comprehend so much, and knows how to do so many things. He naturally learns in his enivornment and yet, his disability makes it so difficult for him to focus and respond. Still, he can respond and learn and it appears (to us) like a slower process. He needs to complete tasks and work ten to fifteen minutes at a time. For the work he is really into, he can concentrate for long periods of time (hmmm…usually those are called obsessive interests or preserverations. His would be animals, planets…)

What price do autistic people have to pay? I think so much…more than we would expect of typical children, although we medicate them too. I’m sorry to say that one drug has had to confirm that my autistic son is intelligent and has so much ability. He has a disability that we are still learning to work with, educate and accommodate, yet our kids are part of a generation of trial and error. Sure, we might be a little farther ahead than the previous generation of autistics but I’m not so sure, either.

I do not want to make Adam into a zombie-robot. That’s what I saw (granted it was only a two-day trial and I’ll have more to say as we garner more experience). I’m interested to learn and discover of how to accommodate Adam without taking away his innate joy, smile, and HIS desire to connect with other people. I’m also not certain what part of the autistic learning process it may also be suppressing. Since we don’t value the way autistic people learn naturally, I have to question this too.

I think we should all be asking a helluva a lot more questions. I’m trying to find the right questions to ask.


About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.