Attentional Disorders

Attentional Disorders

By Anne Reith, Ph.D.

What is meant by "attention" or "concentration"?

These are mental processes that involve the ability to direct your thoughts to one subject or issue at a time.

What is Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD)?

ADD is a neurological condition which affects behavior and learning. There are three basic types of ADD:

(a) Hyperactive / Impulsive Type -- stereotypically these are people who have trouble sitting still -- which is usually evident in childhood and diagnosed early;

(b) Inattentive Type -- stereotypically these are people who daydream a lot -- which is often diagnosed later in life or is not diagnosed at all; and

(c) Combined Type A stereotypically these are people with a combination of hyperactive/impulsive and attentional symptoms. Prevalence rates for ADD vary from 3-20% of the population.

What are typical symptoms of ADD?

In the past it was believed that hyperactive children "outgrew" ADD. That is no longer considered to be true; symptoms just "go underground" (i.e., are harder to detect). Symptoms vary from person to person. Those with ADD often have problems paying attention and concentrating, but they may also struggle with impulsivity, hyperactivity, low frustration tolerance, and/or have trouble falling asleep at night. Other symptoms may include learning disabilities, mood swings, procrastination, being disorganized or forgetful, and problems in social relationships.

What causes ADD?

Although research is still being done, here as a basic description of what researchers now believe is the problem: Chemicals within the brain (i.e., neurotransmitters) are not produced in adequate supply to allow the person to concentrate or focus on the task at hand. Most of the time ADD is genetically-based (i.e., someone above them in their family tree was "generous with their genes"), but in a smaller number of cases, ADD can be caused by problems while the brain of a fetus is being developed (e.g., substance abuse by the mother) or during the birth process (e.g., premature or difficult birth).

What can be done to treat ADD?

Many times the best "treatment" is simply to learn more about the symptoms of ADD and some strategies to help cope with these symptoms; several good books are available (see references at the end of this article). Alternative therapies have also been researched; the most effective of these appear to be biofeedback and cognitive therapy. However, if the symptoms are moderate to severe, then medication may prove helpful, particularly while in college when the ability to concentrate and pay attention is very important. While in college, we also provide students with "academic accommodations." These are services, teaching approaches, or strategies which help students cope with their attentional problems (e.g., taking exams in a reduced-distraction environment).

What type of medications are used?

There are basically two different "classes" of drugs used to treat ADD:

(a) Stimulants which include drugs such as Cylert and Ritalin and

(b) antidepressants such as Imipramine, Elavil, and Prozac. If a drug isn a­t effective, often another drug in the same class of drugs will be tried, or the physician may try the other class of drugs. Body chemistry varies from one person to another, so what works for one person may not work for another person.

What if I think I might have ADD or someone I know might?

Contact the Disabled Student Services office in Student Services Building Room 134 or call us at 667-3159. If you have already been tested elsewhere, then bring in copies of your test results. If you have not yet been tested, we can provide you with information regarding testing options in the community.

Recommended Readings:

Hallowell, E. M., & Ratey, J. J. (1994). Driven to distraction: ADD in children and adults. Westminster, MD: Pantheon. Kelly, K., & Ramundo, P. (1993).

Hallowell, E. M., & Ratey, J. J. (1994). Answers to distraction. Westminster, MD: Pantheon.

You mean Ia­m not lazy, stupid or crazy?!: A self-help book for adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. Cincinnati, OH: Tyrell & Jerem Press.