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ADHD or Gifted?
Q: My eight-year-old son has been diagnosed with ADHD. Or at least they say it is. He was working with an IBM PC when he was a two-and-a-half-year-old. At the age of six, he was able to explain how a tornado forms and what weather conditions aid in their formation. He has been taking his toys apart and trying to fix them -- sometimes successfully -- for years. We've had him tested in previous years and his test results have been higher than normal for his age -- up to two years ahead. He finds school very boring.
The school principal and my son's teacher want not only to hold him back, but also to put him back into the second grade just because his writing is bad. He also distracts some of the other students and speaks out of turn. They insisted that we take him in for a medical evaluation for ADHD and put him on Ritalin. This has helped him calm down in the classroom, but by the end of the week he sits around like a zombie and is not the child that he should be. They don't seem to give one iota about his abilities or interests, but only want him to conform to their standards! How can I tell if these are signs of giftedness or ADHD?
A: A good evaluation for ADHD must include taking a very complete patient history. You should fill out a checklist about your child's behavior at home and his teacher should complete another one to describe behavior in school. The best practitioners in this field do an on-site observation in school to evaluate the child's behavior in different settings (and not just in a medical office). After all this information is gathered, a diagnosis is made, and medication is prescribed, there should be regular follow-up checklists by both you and his teachers to see if the medication is having the appropriate effects.
Unfortunately, this evaluation process is more an art than a science. There's no perfect test to determine if your child has an attention deficit disorder. In any case, it sounds like the dosage of the Ritalin your son is taking is not being monitored carefully. He should never seem like a "zombie" to you. Call the toll-free number for CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders) at 1-800-233-4050 to get some guidance about good practitioners in your area.
Despite your child's real gifts, he's also exhibiting some academic delays in writing. I would ask for a complete evaluation by your local committee on special education. (You're entitled to receive this for free.) Many factors can contribute to the appearance of ADHD. You need to get the whole picture of what is going on with your child -- and that includes measures of his potential versus an evaluation of his performance across academic areas. Armed with information, you can make a much more informed decision about what kind of help he needs. Good luck!
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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.