What’s in a Name? Part 3 – Misdiagnoses/Misunderstandings

By:  Julie Beem

My child has __________________ (pick one or several: Bipolar, ADHD, autism, ODD, anxiety, executive functioning problems).  When parents of traumatized children turn to professionals for diagnoses and treatment, coming away with at RAD or Developmental Trauma Disorder diagnosis isn’t a sure thing.  If I had a dollar for every time a parent told me, “but my child has only been diagnosed with ADHD,” I could fund ATN’s activities well into the next decade.  Nearly every child I’ve met with attachment or trauma problems carries an ADD or ADHD diagnosis.  Don’t misunderstand me, children can have both attachment & trauma problems and ADHD.  But do they always co-exist?  No.
Mother Worrying about Daughter
The hyper- or hypo-arousal that result from being traumatized can look very much like inattentiveness and hyper-activity.  A vigilant child looks extremely unfocused to the untrained eye, because they are focusing on their own lack of perceived safety and not on whatever the adult wants them focused on.

The Bipolar diagnosis is equally troubling.  Bipolar disorder is very real, and not uncommon for many of our children because many bio parents who are unable to care for their children may have bipolar (or other mental illnesses), so genetically it makes sense that their children may have this as well.  But Bipolar shouldn’t be the first diagnosis considered when early childhood trauma and its effect on attachment are much more likely to be the reasons for behaviors, especially for very young children who have been exposed to early childhood trauma. 

The Autism spectrum is another diagnosis that can often be confused with early childhood trauma, especially in children exhibiting Developmental Trauma symptoms that can include sensory processing dysfunction, communication lags, and other behaviors associated with other developmental disabilities.
The truth is that abuse and neglect early in a child’s life has a lasting impact on their emotional, behavioral and even physical health.  Diagnosticians must recognize the impact of these disorders .  Treating PTSD, RAD or DTD involved highly specialized therapies and parenting strategies.  Medications and interventions for ADHD, Bipolar or Autism don’t necessarily help our children. 

Nothing is sadder to me that a family that’s floundered for years and years, treating their child for a disorder he/she didn’t have and both the parents and child feeling like failures because no one ever mentioned the impact of trauma and attachment.

Julie has been ATN's Executive Director since 2009. She joined the organization in 2004 after finding incredible support from fellow ATNers when she was searching for answers about her own daughter's early childhood trauma and attachment disorders. Julie leads a staff of passionate professionals and acts as spokesperson for the organization. Prior to ATN, Julie was the president of a marketing and communications consultancy, The Epiphany Group, and has over two decades of experience in professional services marketing, strategic planning and communication strategies. As a graduate of Partners in Policymaking and through personal experience, Julie has garnered a great deal of experience in the areas of special education, school issues, and disabilities advocacy. A published author, Julie wrote a chapter in the EMK Press Adoption Parenting book and was the special needs blogger at Adoptionblogs.com for two years. She frequently presents workshops on attachment and trauma to local and national groups. Email Julie. Julie holds an MBA from Avila College in Kansas City and was a Certified Professional Services Marketer. Julie, and her husband Dave, are parents to four (bio, step and adoptive), including their youngest daughter, adopted from China. This daughter’s attachment difficulties and developmental trauma disorder have changed their lives significantly…in amazing ways.