When children behave in ways that schools or parents dislike, this behaviour is often characterised as an illness. Depending on the nuances of the behaviour concerned, a child might be deemed to have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or any one of a growing range of other illnesses.
However, there is something unusual about these diseases. First of all, they are defined entirely in terms of their symptoms, not in terms of some malfunction of the body. Why is this unusual? After all, before the underlying cause was known, diseases like AIDS and SARS, too, were recognised in terms of their symptoms. But that is different. It is perfectly meaningful to say: “that looks like SARS, but it might just be a bad cold, or the person might be deliberately exaggerating his symptoms”. Hence also, with real diseases, it is possible to have an asymptomatic disease, like asymptomatic Hepatitis C. But it is not possible, even in principle, to have asymptomatic ADHD.
There is another unusual feature of diseases like ODD that should give us pause: they are typically treated without the patient's consent; and indeed the “treatments” are often physically identical to what would in a non-medical context be called punishments. This breach of human rights is casually justified as being “for their own good”.
ADHD and its ilk really aren't diseases in the same sense as, say, Hepatitis C. They are metaphorical diseases, the names of which denote behaviours that are deemed to be morally unacceptable. In other words, the child has a certain opinion about what he ought to be doing and this opinion is different from his parents' opinion about what he ought to be doing.
Take ODD as an example, the diagnostic criteria are:
A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which four (or more) of the following are present:
1. often loses temper
2. often argues with adults
3. often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
4. often deliberately annoys people
5. often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
6. is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
7. is often angry and resentful
8. is often spiteful or vindictive
Note the many moral judgements that are necessary to make any diagnosis according to this definition: “actively defies”, “deliberately annoys” and so on. These are not deemed to be disease symptoms when a child does them to an intending kidnapper, or to the parents' political opponents at a demonstration, for example. These states of the child's brain become diseases only when a certain condition – disapproval – exists in the brain of another person – the parent or other authority. The treatment is also metaphorical and for ODD it consists of conversations and discipline. Again, this is very different from other diseases: bacteria are not great conversationalists, one cannot debate diabetes, but apparently ODD can be disposed of by talking to it.
The entire purpose of these diseases is, in fact, to give these vile “treatments” a gloss of medical and scientific respectability. Then no attention need be paid to whether the child is right to behave defiantly toward his parents in specific cases. No effort needs to be wasted on such fripperies as rational argument or considering that the child might have a point if they repeatedly refuse to obey their parents or say that they are bored in school. How very convenient for the force-users.
There is one last oddity to note. Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Dublin University has recently said that geniuses such as Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Andy Warhol may have had a mental disease called Asperger's syndrome characterised by not wanting to talk to people and having “restricted” interests with “abnormal” intensity. Now, suppose that having Asperger's syndrome for a while would help you to complete a great work on a “restricted” interest since you wouldn't have to spend time on conversations that would distract you from your work and you would be able to focus intensely on it. Might one not prefer to have Asperger's symdrome to being mentally healthy under such circumstances?
What does that make a person who “cures” it by force?