An Open Letter to the Today Show About ADHD, Sleep

Research shows that sleeping disorders don't cause ADHD.

Dear Today Show Family,

I’m a Today Show junkie. As soon as I wake up in the morning, I tune in and within minutes I know the weather forecast, how to make a refreshing gazpacho and that, unfortunately, 80’s fashions are back in style. I trust Matt, Natalie, Al and Savannah to give me infotainment that has been thoroughly researched and to interview experts who actually know the best food excursions in Puerto Vallarta (www.vallertaeats.com) or whether gum really does take seven years to digest (no). At the very least, I expect them to know more than I do.  

However, I am sad to say that this morning my trust in you was irrevocably destroyed. I watched my friend Natalie interview two “pediatric sleep specialists” who advised parents how to get kids back on good sleep cycles for the beginning of the school year.

As I was half listening to their proficient benign advice while making my bed, I heard Natalie ask, “If kids don’t get the optimal amount of sleep, what kind of behavior problems do we see?”  To which one of these sleep specialists answered, “ADHD, learning disorders, anxiety and depression, obesity … studies show kids really don’t perform as well in school which is really no surprise.”

Wait, what?  I absolutely could not have heard that correctly. My head snapped up like my dog’s does when I say “ball” and I saw, emblazoned across the bottom of the screen, “Poor sleeping habits may lead to ADHD, obesity, learning disorders and behavioral problems.” Yep, I heard correctly, this self-proclaimed expert said lack of sleep can cause ADHD and learning disabilities. I can just imagine thousands of parents thinking all their learning disabled kid needed was a few good nights' sleep and all would be right in their world. Really, Today Show?!

Although I was 99.9% sure this statement was not at all valid, I researched this claim anyway. This is what I know for sure (from www.help4adhd.org/en/treatment/coexisting/WWK5D):

  • Two-thirds of children with ADHD are reported to have at least one co-existing condition.
  • The most common co-existing conditions include learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and sleep disorders.
  • Since sleep disorders can mimic ADHD symptoms, children who have sleep problems can be misdiagnosed with ADHD.

I have read that snoring can lead to ADHD due to either poor sleep or a drop of oxygen in the blood. But in each article I read identifying snoring as a cause of ADHD, the ADHD symptoms usually dramatically improve with better sleep, thus raising the question as to the validity of the ADHD diagnosis.

Just to make double-sure, I called my go-to for all things cognitive, neuropsychologist Dr. Ellen Preen, and read her the quote.  After she stopped laughing, she informed me that this was indeed, as I thought, “pseudoscience.”  She explained that “there is a correlation relationship between sleep disorders and ADHD/learning disabilities, but no causality.”

What does this mean? In causality, one thing causes the other, like smoking causes lung cancer. But in a correlation, certain things may happen at the same time but one does not cause the other. 

According to Dr. Preen,” there is no causation between sleep deprivation and learning disorders and ADHD.” She went on to say, “a person with prolonged sleep deprivation can exhibit symptoms of ADHD, learning difficulties, and/or mood disorders; and exacerbate these preexisting conditions.” When someone is sleep deprived all they need to do is get caught up on their sleep and magically, no more symptoms!

Today Show family, I am very disappointed in you. How many other un- and half-truths have you told me? How many other pseudo-experts sat opposite Matt or Savannah or Natalie misleading your loyal followers?  For these reasons I feel I must end our longstanding relationship. It’s not you, it’s me.  Also, I kind of have a thing for George Stephanopoulos.


Sue Schaefer, M. ED., M.A.T

Proclaimed an Education Expert by my Friends and Others Who Know What They’re Talking About

 About this column: Susan Schaefer, director and founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an academic coach, student advocate, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com. You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

Ed Putman August 29, 2012 at 03:17 PM
So, Dr. Ellen Preen showed more proof of her position than did the two pediatric speech specialists? I missed that submission. Neither did you make note of what blind tests produced your confident declaration that there is no causual effect. Both you and I would doubt any, but then we are not sleep specialists, are we?
Ellen Preen August 30, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Mr. Putnam: My "proof" as you put it, is the result of having been exposed to many research articles by qualified experts and professionals published in peer-reviewed journals; as well as the fundamental understanding of rudimentary principles of research and statistics. I am not a sleep specialist, nor do I claim to be one. For one to make a claim of causality between sleep and ADHD, the salient question for these two specialists on The Today's show is : Where is their data to support this claim? Have the data/results been reviewed by their professional peers AND published by reputable journals to substantiate this claim? Again, correlation does not equal causation (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_equal_causation). Here is a reputable pediatrician, Dr. Alan Greene's (a pediatrician and a clinical faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine) view of the frequency of children with sleep deprivation are mislabeled as having ADHD and he rightfully included many references to many reputable journals (http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/health/add/dr-alan-greene-on-sleep-deprivation-and-addadhd) to support his view. This is, of course, just one of many competent and reputable professionals in the field who shared similar view as yours truly, Dr. Ellen Preen. p/s: I think you meant to say "sleep specialists" and not "speech specialists?!"
Bill Rogers August 30, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Dear Susan, I, too, saw the same segment on the Today Show and here are my thoughts: 1. You're overreacting, and your post is overly dramatic. Don't call them your "Today Show family" and then close by saying you're "ending the longstanding relationship." Your post is an attempt for you to gain more visibility for yourself, and I hope that the Today Show ignores your attempts to do so. 2. Clearly you've misunderstood what they were saying. Please don't jump to attacking professionals who actually did make a valid point. Not ONCE in the segment did anyone say, "Sleep deprivation causes ADHD." What they did say was sleep deprivation CAN (and does) make learning more difficult... which is NO surprise. Think about it... anyone who's deprived of sleep is expected NOT to perform at their best... this is common knowledge. You've twisted what they've said, and you're completely wrong. 3. The research you've provided is correct, but it was unnecessary. Perhaps had you been FULLY paying attention to the segment, you would've heard the same thing. It seems that making your bed while watching TV has caused you to miss out on very important details. 4. I've been diagnosed with ADHD, and I can say that while I watched the segment, I agreed 100% with what they had to say. When I don't get enough sleep, symptoms of ADHD *ARE* harder to manage. It's harder to focus because I'm trying to stay awake.
Walter G. Kloepfer August 30, 2012 at 07:40 PM
Apparently Bill Rogers didn't get enough sleep before he watched the program. There was a box below the two "doctors" that said: "Poor sleeping habits may lead to ADHD, obesity, learning disorders and behavioral problems." If that isn't actually saying a child who doesn't sleep properly end up with one of those issues, you explain what they meant. It was quite clear that the "quack" who believes that she knows all about ADHD doesn't. Yes, I am ADHD and spent 3 years doing an intensive study on it for a masters' thesis. So, I resent when a national program shows up like this and gives misinformation!
Susan Schaefer August 30, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Bill, Bill, Bill.....I'M overreacting? My column is a lighthearted opinion column covering hot topics in education. That said, I beg to differ. If you were paying as much attention as you say, you would have seen the text at the bottom of the screen that read "Poor sleeping habits may lead to ADHD...." It did not say that poor sleeping habits may cause temporary symtoms of ADHD or worsen the symptoms of people diagnosed with ADHD, both of which are absolutely correct. So Bill, it seem you are the one that missed some important information. I suggest you get more sleep.
Jim G. August 30, 2012 at 08:20 PM
I think the real problem here is getting medical information from morning TV shows.
Ed Putman September 02, 2012 at 12:50 AM
I did mean sleep specialists, Dr. Preen. I need more sleep, or some speech therapy. Thanks for replying and for the links, especially the Alan Greene read. Certainly it would not be prudent to let common symptoms dictate treatment. I think I know how they treat snoring (although my wife treats mine with a separate bedroom) and I think they treat ADHD with cafeine like drugs. Both the show and Susan's review were doubtless useful to those affected by either malady. And neither Susan nor the Today show could be expected to footnote every claim.
CAdamsVA September 02, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Sue, I loved your comments and feedback on this issue and believe you are "spot on" about the generalized statements made by media/"news" sound bites that lead to myths and misunderstandings on ADHD. Reg the Today Show, I lost faith in the show after they let Anne Curry go! I now watch George and gang instead.
Linda Robinson September 24, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Susan, As a parent I am grateful for your open letter because my son has ADD and I started to wonder if it was really true.Thank you so much for assuaging my fears.
Linda Robinson September 24, 2012 at 03:47 AM
One more thing, The Today's show doesn't have a good track record when it comes to medical news.


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