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Who has ADHD?

September 10, 2009

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Kristin would like to know, “How do you actually ‘diagnose’ a nine year old boy with ADHD? Descriptions of ADHD are so vague. Most of what is described as ADHD symptoms seem like normal boy behavior to us. Can a child be a straight A student and still have ADHD?”

It’s a fair question. There is no objective test for any psychiatric or mental health disorder, including ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder; one subtype is ADHD, or Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), depression, anxiety disorders, autism—none of these can in any way be “tested for” or diagnosed with the kind of precision expected of ordinary medical diagnoses. I’m convinced that in 100 years, doctors will look back at my generation of physicians and chuckle knowingly, saying things like “¡ssǝ1ǝn1ɔ ʍoɥ ‘suɐıɹɐqɹɐq ǝsoɥʇ”. (Apparently, in the future, people speak upside down.)

In an effort to codify and standardize the language and diagnoses of psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association first published the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” in 1952. The current version, last revised in 2000, is called the DSM-4-TR. It’s been criticized as “cookbooky”, relying on lists of symptoms to establish mental health diagnoses using checklists reminiscent of ordering a family meal at a Chinese Restaurant. Choose at least one from Column A (eg “inability to sit still”) and one from column B (“starting not older than seven years”), plus some qualifiers, and you’ve either got Mongolian Beef or Major Depression, maybe even both.

Though there are legitimate criticisms of the DSM, in fairness to psychiatry there are important caveats that are often overlooked. The book states explicitly that the diagnostic labels are mainly useful as “convenient shorthand for professionals,”  and that only well-trained professionals should interpret the standards and apply diagnostic criteria. So consider the DSM as a starting point for mental health diagnoses, not a straightjacket (sorry, poor time for a straightjacket joke).

DSM-IV Criteria for ADHD

I. Either A or B

A. Six or more of the following symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months to a point that is disruptive and inappropriate for developmental level.

Inattention

  • Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
  • Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities.
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  • Often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
  • Often has trouble organizing activities.
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn’t want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  • Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
  • Is often easily distracted.
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.

B. Six or more of the following symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for developmental level.

Hyperactivity

  • Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat.
  • Often gets up from seat when remaining in seat is expected.
  • Often runs about or climbs when and where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may feel very restless).
  • Often has trouble playing or enjoying leisure activities quietly.
  • Is often “on the go” or often acts as if “driven by a motor.”
  • Often talks excessively.

Impulsivity

  • Often blurts out answers before questions have been finished.
  • Often has trouble waiting one’s turn.
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games).

II. Some symptoms that cause impairment were present before age 7 years.

III. Some impairment from the symptoms is present in two or more settings (e.g. at school/work and at home).

IV. There must be clear evidence of significant impairment in social, school, or work functioning.

V. The symptoms do not happen only during the course of a pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia, or other psychotic disorder. The symptoms are not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g. mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder).

In summary: children with ADD have either inattention or impulsivity & hyperactivity, have these to a greater extent than expected for the developmental age, have these starting in early childhood, and have these as a more-or-less permanent part of their behavioral makeup. The symptoms must occur in multiple settings, and must occur to such an extent that they interfere with social, school, or occupational functioning. Part V is especially helpful—it says, essentially, that it’s ADD unless it is something else. Clearly, attorneys were involved in the preparation of this document.

To help “standardize” the diagnosis and hopefully make the assessment more objective, many clinicians rely on standardized testing instruments. Parents and teachers are asked a number of questions, like “How often does he fidget,” and answer something like always, sometimes, or never. The answers are decoded in a manner similar to the quizzes in Glamour Magazine (“What kind of guy is perfect for you?”), and the total score can be compared with thousands of other children who took the test. The “outliers”—the ones with the highest scores, above some set statistical set point—are said to have ADD.

Though these tests are helpful, it’s easy to see how parent or teacher preconceptions could color their answers. There are strong feelings about ADD and medication for ADD, and I’m not sure that making adults bubble in answers recalling a child’s behavior is likely to cut through their own feelings in a way that can reliably reveal what’s going on with a child. ADD “testing” has a role—in my mind, chiefly to rule out learning disorders and other problems that often go together with or appear very much like ADD—but a more reliable diagnosis I believe requires a thorough medical history and evaluation, as well as multiple observations over time by a skilled examiner. It’s not easy, and not quick, to do it right.

In answer to the final question, “Can a straight A student have ADHD?”—according to the DSM criteria, ADD characteristics like hyperactivity and inattention must occur to a degree to cause problems in school, home, or work. If your child is getting along well at home and with friends, and is getting straight As at school, he would not meet DSM criteria for ADD and should not be diagnosed as having ADD. Nonetheless, he may  benefit from behavioral interventions to encourage better sustained attention—but that’s a subject for a future post!