Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities
W. Ed Smith, Ph.D.
Counseling and Career Planning Center
Barbara Oldham M.S.
Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, university personnel have become more and more familiar with the terms "attention deficit" and "learning disabled". But familiarity with the terms and the requests made for special campus resources are a far cry from understanding what these terms actually mean.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Learning Disabilities (LD) are very real syndromes which may affect 5-10% of the college student population. Early on, diagnosticians believed that these were childhood syndromes which disappeared by the end of adolescence. Now we know that they often continue into adulthood.
Essentially there are two subtypes of ADD: Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity ADHD) and Attention Deficit without Hyperactivity. Attention Deficits can exist on a continuum from mild to severe. In severe cases, especially when combined with hyperactivity and presence in children, ADD is readily recognizable. As the person grows older symptoms can become virtually "invisible", can mask as other mental or emotional disorders, or can coexist with these disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety disorder, antisocial behavior, or intellectual deficiency).
The label "Attention Deficit Disorder" is actually a misnomer because the syndrome is not necessarily attention deficit but more often is marked by attention inconsistency. Most ADD students can focus-even hyper focus at times-but are distractible, easily bored or frustrated, and impulsive. They usually have to say and do whatever comes to mind and have a predilection to situations involving high stimulation. This is often manifested in "thrill-seeking" behavior, irritability, or over-involvement. Treatment may involve medication which is often very effective, especially when combined with counseling.
Like ADD, a learning disability (LD) may fall anywhere on the continuum from mild to very severe. LD can exist as a part of an attention deficit or independently. LD affects how an individual of average to above-average intelligence processes information (takes it in, integrates it, retains it, expresses it). The student with LD may have language-based and/or perceptual problems that show up as weaknesses in reading, spelling, written language and mathematics, as well as in organizational and time management skills and sometimes in interpersonal skills. Because no two people with LD are exactly alike, the problem is sometimes difficult to recognize and assess. For example, a student with an excellent vocabulary may have great difficulty getting his/her ideas down on paper. Another student may comprehend and retain lectures but cannot read at the level required to master college textbooks.
ADD and LD frequently occur in conjunction with other problems such as negative identity or low self-esteem. Imagine the many messages that ADD and LD children hear from exasperated teachers, parents, or peers about their learning difficulties and impulsive behavior.
ADD and LD can be diagnosed by a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a medical doctor who has expertise in this area. These disorders are true examples of the "invisible disabilities" with which colleges of the 21st Century must come to terms. Students or teachers who are interested in finding out more about ADD and LD can contact the Counseling and Career Planning Center or the Office of Student disabilities.