What you need to know about ADHD . . . Part 2: Diagnosis

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ADHD is a behavioral syndrome, which makes accurate diagnosis problematic.  ADHD has multiple causes which all effect the function of the front lobes of the brain, but with different manifestations.  I am frequently asked to assist parents, teachers, pediatricians, and occasionally adult patients to assist in determining if someone truly has ADHD or some other behavioral problem.  The challenge of diagnosis is made more difficult because there is no medical test for ADHD.  There are some psychological tests that can be helpful, but no specific “test” for ADHD. Rather, these tests assess the cognitive functioning or simply describe the behavioral traits via a check list completed by a teacher or parent. So how do you diagnose ADHD? Diagnosis is accomplished through careful observation, description of behavior, and by ruling out situational influences that may produce ADHD behavior but resolve once they are eliminated (poor sleep for example). 

If the person in question is a child I will often encourage his or her parents to become familiar with common ADHD symptoms so they can be in a better position to report back on the behaviors they observe – training them to see the whole pattern of behavior, not just one or two behaviors that may be bothersome. The parent's observations, combined with those of a trained and experienced psychologist produces the most accurate diagnosis. Usually this process works well not only because ADHD behavior is fairly predictable, but because the reactions and behavior patterns of the parents of ADHD children are also predictable: they are frustrated, fatigued, and feel at their wit's end! If needed, IQ and achievement testing can be included to provide a more complete diagnosis process and to assess for learning problems that often accompany ADHD.   

Let's take a closer look at the three main symptom categories of ADHD 

Hyperactivity. It is usually very clear when a person is hyperactive. Hyperactive children (and adults) have great difficulty sitting still – they are only able to do so with great effort.  When in my office they move constantly, are up out of their seat, roam around the room, unplug equipment, explore things without asking (open desk drawers etc.), and show no respect for normal interpersonal boundaries. Sometimes the parent of the child is embarrassed by this behavior and sometimes they’ve long since given up trying to manage it.  If the person is able to stay seated, they are constantly fidgeting – tapping on things, chewing on their clothing, and touching anything within their reach.  If you ask them to stop, they might be able to stop for a very short time but then they go right back to touching, tapping, moving, fidgeting, and wandering.  This hyperactivity is not generally willful behavior – the frontal lobes of their brains are not able to send “cease and desist” commands to the motor centers of their brains to enable stillness.  At school they are often in trouble for being out of their seat or wandering out of the classroom without permission.  ADHD people aren’t hyperactive all the time, just most of the time. They love playing action video games because it’s one of few places where their hyperactive behavior is rewarded. 

Impulsivity.  When a person exhibits impulsivity, they act before they think.  If an idea goes flying through their mind they act on it before the frontal lobe has a chance to stop the action or assess its appropriateness. Remember that the frontal lobes are not supplying any control to the other parts of the brain, so the impulsive person just . . . acts.  They do not censure their words, they do not stop themselves from offensive actions, and they tend to blurt out whatever random thing floats up. We all have these thoughts and impulses, but most of us know better than to say them or to act on them because our frontal lobes stop us. The impulsive person is disinhibited.  Poor impulse control causes the most problems in social settings, since many of these impulsive behaviors are socially inappropriate:  aggression, rude or mean comments, sexually suggestive behavior, grabbing things without asking (often interpreted as stealing – which it may or may not be), pushing, shoving, and getting angry at the mildest provocation. When parents see these impulsive behaviors they almost universally ask their child, "Why?" “Why did you just hit your brother!?”  They almost get the answer back, “I didn’t!” or “I don’t know.” And, believe it or not, the child may be being honest; they really don’t know why they do the things they do.  Impulsive behaviors are not usually conscious choices – not in the way most of us experience acts of will.  It is frontal lobe action that give us the feeling of “I” or of choice. The frontal lobe is just not intervening when the behavior is impulsive, so asking why is usually not helpful.    

Distractibility. The third major symptom is distractibility or poor attention span.  Almost everyone has seen Dug the talking dog in Pixar’s film Up! Dug's classic "squirrel!" outburst is a perfect example (and now a universal joke) about distractibility.  People with ADHD have a very difficult time staying focused on tasks that require effort at attention.  Sometimes their attention span lasts only a second or less. This puts them at a huge disadvantage for academic tasks and in obtaining instructions.  In the classroom they may well be 30 to 60 seconds behind what the teacher is saying because their thoughts keep ping-ponging around.  If the teacher gives verbal instructions they are very likely to miss some or all of it.  When parents ask their child, "Do you have any homework?" they may say “no” either because they are exhausted from trying to track such details, or because they truly never heard the assignment. Distractibility makes reading pure drudgery. It takes someone with ADHD five times longer to read a paragraph, and maybe longer still to retain it. They rush through homework, skimming over the top and getting things wrong even when they know it. Then they forget to put the homework in their bag even if they do complete it and so have nothing to turn in the next day. ADHD children usually get poor grades – not because they cannot learn, but because they simply need more help in managing the receiving and turning in of assignments and help in staying focused long enough to complete them.   

One additional complication of poor attention is that ADHD sufferers have notoriously bad organizational skills. In the first article I hinted at executive functioning as being a core issue in ADHD. Executive functioning includes all the skills we use in navigating daily life and in ADHD executive functioning is often broken.This deficit is closely linked to distractibility and impulsivity.  But it’s so important that I’ll dedicate my entire next article to the subject.  Stay tuned . . . 

What you need to know about ADHD . . . Part 1

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ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a behavioral syndrome that affects three primary areas of functioning:  hyperactivity, impulse control, and attention.  ADHD involves the frontal lobe of the brain – the area that affects behaviors in these three domains.  It is a syndromewhich means these symptoms tend to happen together with no single specific cause.  The brain and ADHD are each complex, so that it is almost impossible to isolate a single cause of ADHD in any individual.  However some of most often suspected causes include: mild closed brain injury (falls, concussions, etc.), chemical injury to the brain such as exposure to drugs or environmental toxins during critical stages of brain development, brief lapses of oxygen (anoxia) that injures the brain, and inheritance or DNA vulnerabilities.  The injuries that cause ADHD are subtle and rarely observed at the time they occur.  The three behavioral symptoms only show up later and so we rarely associate them to the causes.  Since some of those causes are unobservable, there is no clear or definitive answer to “What caused this.” 

The brain is astoundingly complex, and this is particularly true of the frontal lobe – the area implicated in ADHD.  This part of the brain is the “master conductor” that tells the other parts of the brain what to do, when to do them, when not to do them, what to attend to, when to quiet down, and when to remain silent. It is the part of the brain we most closely associate with our will or with that sense of “I” when we initiate actions.  ADHD may be due to an injury to the frontal lobe directly, or it may be damage to some of the millions of nerve fibers going in and out of the frontal lobe which communicate with the rest of the brain.  Or it may be that the brain chemistry affecting the frontal lobes is not quite right.  Whatever the specific cause, most research points to frontal lobe problems as the “place” where ADHD happens. 

Because of this frontal lobe complexity, there are many individual differences in the behavior of people diagnosed with ADHD.  Some show extreme hyperactivity, and some exhibit none at all. Some have varying degrees of ability to focus. while some cannot sustain attention for more than a second or two.  Some can hyper-focus when very interested in something, but cannot break off from this hyper-focus when their attention is needed elsewhere.  Some have very poor short-term memory, while others are less forgetful. Some have very poor self-management and organizational skills (what psychologists call executive functioning) and some are less plagued with this problem. And any or all of these symptoms may come and go, influenced by fatigue or poor sleep.  Because of this variability, some erroneously conclude, “there’s no such thing” as ADHD. Or they’ll say, “I don’t believe in ADHD” as though it is a matter of faith. But the ADHD syndrome is very real and very disruptive to the lives of those who have it and to their loved ones working to raise or support them.

Check back for the next article on how ADHD is diagnosed, and helpful information on the behaviors and symptoms associated with ADHD. 

-Dr. Mark Dobbs