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, 80s 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 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


Monique Cardinet Dossa August 30, 2012 at 07:04 AM
Incredible...I'm on your side
Monique Cardinet Dossa August 30, 2012 at 07:07 AM
I have ADHD..and was diagnosed with PLMD..and RLS..had no clue..but wasn't till my thyroid was addressed that my sleep issues improved...dog chasing tail..
Bill Rogers August 30, 2012 at 10:26 AM
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.
Marvin Scheister August 31, 2012 at 10:59 AM
What the hell is "ADHD" anyway? A little definition, Susie?
Susan Schaefer September 05, 2012 at 02:05 AM
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, sometimes referred to as ADD. If you don't know what it is Marvin, you probably don't have it. Also, Susie? Really? Do I get to call you Marvie?


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