Dear Alice,

I think I might have attention deficit disorder. Does it make sense to get an evaluation? Could I do it on campus?


Dear distracted,

Attention deficit disorder, now known as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was viewed as a childhood disorder that disappeared during adolescence. Now, it's known that ADHD can last through adolescence and into adulthood. Generally, students with ADHD have average to above average intelligence and possess special talents and abilities, like boundless energy and creative problem solving. On the other hand, 25 to 35 percent of students with ADHD fail to graduate from high school, and young adults with ADHD have a six-fold risk for substance abuse as compared with their peers who are otherwise similar to them. Based on general prevalence rates for the U.S. population, college students with ADHD may represent from 1 to 3 percent of the college population.

If you're curious about ADHD because you've noticed some social and/or academic problems, it might be a good idea to learn a bit more about the symptoms of ADHD and the process of evaluation (a.k.a. assessment).

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), ADHD is mainly characterized by inattention with or without impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Inattention may include:

  • very low attention to details
  • careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities
  • trouble listening when spoken to directly
  • difficulty completing tasks related to schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • trouble organizing activities
  • avoidance, dislike, or lack of desire to do things that take lots of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework)
  • losing things needed for tasks and activities (e.g., assignments, books, or tools)
  • being easily distracted
  • forgetfulness in daily activities

Hyperactivity may include:

  • fidgeting with hands or feet or squirming  
  • standing up when expected to remain seated
  • running or climbing when and where it's not appropriate
  • restlessness
  • trouble playing or enjoying leisure activities quietly
  • feeling "on the go" or acting as if "driven by a motor"
  • excessive talking

Impulsivity may include:

  • blurting out answers before questions have been finished
  • trouble waiting
  • interrupting or intruding on others' conversations or activities

Assessments usually include multiple types of tests and measures of attention, memory, general intelligence, performance, and social functioning. The assessor (usually a trained psychologist) takes in all of the information and decides if the diagnosis is right. Care is taken to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, like brain injury, depression, learning disabilities, anxiety, and other mental illnesses and/or situations.

If you're still wondering if you meet criteria for ADHD, you can look into assessment options. College and university counseling centers are usually very familiar with this type of testing. In fact, they'll either do the testing themselves or refer you off-campus to an appropriate source familiar with ADHD. If you're at Columbia, you can call Counseling and Psychological Services at x4-2878 to set up an appointment.

Let's say, after an assessment, you do get a diagnosis of ADHD. The good news is that there are lots of treatment options with pretty good success rates. Many students benefit from behavioral skills training (e.g., learning new organizational and planning skills), medication management, and/or classroom accommodations (e.g., extra time on tests, private testing conditions, note-takers, etc.). These things tend to make a world of difference in the lives of students living with ADHD.


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