There ARE Tests for Attention Deficits

Today’s front-page New York Times article about the skyrocketing diagnoses of children and teens with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder confirmed what my colleagues and I have been seeing in private practice. Many students—and their parents—desperate for a solution to declining grades and intense family conflict about completing homework, turn to ADHD both to explain and to cure the problem. But as this piece addressed, while psychostimulants are often a readily available, hoped-for panacea, increasingly teens are abusing these drugs or selling them to classmates and friends who do so. Although not all kids develop addictions, anxiety, or psychotic symptoms, the use of medication for minor inattention, distractibility, or lack of motivation prevents normal young people from learning skills for self-control. Many effective strategies for improving self-regulation are overlooked in the quest for the quick fix of a pill.

The fact that the upcoming diagnostic and statistical manual will only make it easier for some mental health professionals to diagnose this disorder is alarming. Parents and educators should know, however, that contrary to this article’s assertion (“The disorder has no definitive test and is determined only by speaking extensively with patients, parents and teachers, and ruling out other possible causes — a subjective process that is often skipped under time constraints and pressure from parents.”), there are in fact neurospychological tests that determine specifically how well students can pay attention. In fact, my evaluations often include tests of selected attention, sustained attention, divided attention, set switching, and attentional control. There are tests for visual attention and auditory attention. Along with additional instruments that help eliminate other possibilities, these tests provide invaluable information about how well kids’ attentional systems actually function—which should be a critical component of any evaluation of an Attention Deficit Disorder.

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