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Understanding Attention Deficit Disorder

Understanding Attention Deficit Disorder

By Dr. Kenneth Shore

Your caution about not assuming your son has attention deficit disorder (ADD) is a sensible approach. ADD is often overdiagnosed and a good case can be made that too many children are being medicated for this problem. At the same time attention deficit disorder is a real problem with real consequences for many children.

What is attention deficit disorder? It is a problem characterized by marked difficulties in attending to tasks. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a variation of this problem and refers to children who not only have problems focusing but also have an unusually high activity level. For the purposes of this article, these two disorders will be discussed as a single problem.

It is estimated that three to five percent of children have this disorder. The average elementary classroom will thus have on average one child with attention deficit disorder. ADD affects children beyond their ability to focus. Children with ADD often have organizational and learning difficulties that can make school challenging for them. In addition, they can be impulsive and easily frustrated, which can lead to social and behavioral difficulties.

While the hallmark of a child with ADD is a difficulty focusing, it is important to bear in mind that children can have difficulty concentrating for reasons other than an attention deficit. They may be anxious, distressed, ill or simply bored. It is thus important that physicians, parents and teachers try to determine whether the attentional problem is due to ADD or to another cause.

Because an attentional problem may be the result of a variety of causes, it is not always easy to diagnose. There is no one test or procedure that can definitively indicate the presence of ADD. Diagnosing this disorder requires information from various sources, which may include the observations of the teacher and parent, the completion of a behavior checklist by the teacher, psychological and educational testing, and a medical examination. The child with ADD will display some of the following characteristics:

  • has problems concentrating for long periods
  • is restless and fidgety
  • is easily distracted by sights and sounds
  • acts impulsively without thinking through the consequences
  • rushes through schoolwork, resulting in careless errors
  • has difficulty keeping track of his school materials
  • has trouble finishing assigned work
  • is easily frustrated
  • has difficulty understanding multi-step directions
  • has poor handwriting

Many children with attention deficits are treated with medication. While medication may allow some students to perform better in school, keep in mind that medication does not teach. It only makes students more available for learning because they are better able to focus. Moreover, while medication may lessen some of the behavioral problems, it will probably not eliminate them.

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