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About Attention Deficit

My son had inconsistent performance in school and someone mentioned that we should have him tested for attention deficit. When attention deficit was described, it sounded awfully familiar. Since then, both my son and I have been diagnosed with attention deficit.

The medication that my son was on is Aderal, time released (a small-sample study finds it more effective than the popular alternative methylphenidate, here; the effects of the use and abuse of its family of adrenaline-like molecules is discussed nicely here). It changed him dramatically. I volunteered at his school and observed him in class before and after. Before, he was interested but easily distracted and, once distracted and missed some key parts, easily would check out. After he was on the material like a hawk. The difference at home is much smaller.

ADHD ("attention deficit hyperactivity disorder" according to the current convention) which we have without the hyperactivity trait (I just go to sleep if I am not interested in what is going on, rather than jump around, which is the more common reaction), is a state of one of the brain's traits or dimensions along which the brain can be described or scored. The opposite extreme is focused, single minded, driven, or manic. Attention deficit goes with distractibility and impulsivity. Like every other feature of our physiology, people differ and, if scored, would occupy a bell curve. The problem with "diagnosing" ADHD is that there is no natural cutting-off point in the bell curve. Moreover, people compensate by using their other abilities. It is hard to diagnose intelligent ADHD students because they might be checked out half the time, but what little they do catch in class is enough for them to get by. We were very lucky in my son's case that someone suggested it. Still, how do we agree on who should be diagnosed as "too tall", "too short", "too focused" or "too distractible"?

One of the authors on the subject calls it a deficit of the brain's "executive" function, the one that tells the brain "OK, all we neurons get together and do THIS!" along with the ability to get the brain to do the chosen activity despite that a car may honk on the street, some TV may show a replay of a great scene, and despite that on your way to brush your teeth you remember that you should check the pet's food, etc.

I think that my attention deficit/distractibility influences vastly the impression that people have of me. It has also been a big impediment in personal relations.

Although I  appreciate my abilities, many people and teachers of mine have disagreed, perhaps because I could not spell (where would ADHD people be without spellcheckers?), perhaps because I did not seem engaged, perhaps because I was not "together." All those allegations are true. Spelling (and, generally, communicating my thoughts; doubters should read my insider trading article) does not excite my brain and it checks out on it, I get distracted and neither learn it nor do it successfully. Solving puzzles is something exciting, but too many in a row (a bridge tournament or a long exam) or one that takes too long is also doomed.

Eye contact, small talk, and staying on the topic of the conversation are three big social hurdles for the distractible/ADHD mind that hamper personal relations. They are all used as signals of personal interest, so that the ADHD appears as aloof and uninterested. Since the social convention seems to be not to trust verbal representations of personal interest, the distractible is doomed in this regard. Even persons that interest and excite the distractible will get the impression that the distractible is distant and not interested in a closer friendship. It is very hard to persuade people that you really do care about them if you check email or play computer games while talking on the phone to them or if while they tell you about their problems you get all excited about a thought of yours and switch tracks.

Despite those handicaps that ADHD has placed on my way, I have done fairly well because some people see past the failures in sustained tasks and the impulsiveness (I try to think before I talk, but I rarely remember to) and have valued the vastly different way that I use in approaching and solving problems. I am grateful to every single one of them.