Getting to the truth on ADHD diagnosis

We just came across two studies related to the diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that could flat-out baffle a parent struggling to get to the root of their child’s struggles:

  • The first, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicates that as many 10% of American children may have ADHD. Additionally, this represents a 22% increase in the occurrence of ADHD between 2003 and 2007 (the last year for which data are available). Researchers site increased awareness and better screening as possible causes for the increase.
  • The second study, by Michigan State Economist Todd Elder, (to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Health Economics), indicates that as many as 1 million students in the United States are mis-diagnosed with ADHD. According to Elder, many of the students who exhibit poor behavior and inattention are simply younger than their classmates. The inattentive behavior, says Elder, may simply “be because he’s 5 and the other kids are 6. There’s a big difference between a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old, and teachers and medical practitioners need to take that into account when evaluating whether children have ADHD.”

ADHD diagnosis is challenging, because it is generally based on a clinical evaluation of reported behavior. We’ve previously posted on recent efforts to develop a clinical test for attention challenges, and there is research as well that indicates that ADHD may be a genetic disorder.

It’s important to accurately diagnose attention or other learning challenges that may be holding a student back from reaching his potential. However, many attention and other learning challenges, whether or not they reach the level of a diagnosed disorder, can be addressed by developing the foundational cognitive skills that support attentive behavior and learning. For example, working memory and processing speed are critical cognitive skills that may be less than fully developed in students with attention challenges (even if those challenges don’t rise to the level of a formal ADHD diagnosis). Scientifically-validated programs exist to improve these critical skills in all learners, whether typically developing or struggling with a diagnosed learning difficulty.

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