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College Kids, ADD and ADHD

Academic Issues and Undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder


Male student studying paper in examination room, close-up
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Back when your child was in second or third grade, you may have thought attention deficit disorders were the diagnosis du jour. There's a certain amount of restlessness and impulsivity at that age anyway. Back when we were kids, seat-squirming was sometimes referred to with a shrug as mere "ants in the pants." So when you hit that point when seemingly every fifth second grader was bringing home an ADD diagnosis, you may have rolled your eyes and thought it was just overmedicating run amok.

Meanwhile, your otherwise brilliant, impulsive child routinely forgot assignments. Or he did his homework and neglected to turn it in. At the end of each quarter, you'd find the missing work crumpled in the bottom of his backpack, evidence of some kind of bizarre self-sabotage. Progress reports popped up with horrifying regularity and teachers called to say that if only your child would apply himself...

Somehow, he or she scraped by on charm and fast thinking. He sweet-talked teachers into accepting late work or extra credit assignments, and managed to eke out a respectable GPA, thanks to your help. Really, it was thanks to your incessant reminders, the notes you jotted on his hand with a Sharpie pen, and your midday texts that said, "Did you turn in your 'Scarlet Letter' essay???"

Does any of this sound familiar? If it does and your now-college kid is suddenly suffering academic disaster - failing grades, academic probation or, worse, dismissal - it might be time to re-think your views on attention deficit disorder.

Certainly, it may be the case that your son or daughter is not cut out for the demands of college life. This particular school might not be a good fit. His or her study-to-party ratio may be wildly skewed, of course, or there may be something else going on that is driving that freshman or sophomore to sabotage himself right out of school. But if the symptoms above struck a chord of any kind, this may be an attention deficit issue that has gone undiagnosed for a decade.

It's certainly worth taking the time to do a little reading. About.com's guide to ADD/ADHD has an excellent and very helpful list of adult ADD/ADHD symptoms and "what's next" options, including doctor evaluation.

Also well worth your time: ADD/ADHD expert Edward Hallowell has written a terrific book, "Delivered from Distraction", which delves into the issues facing teens, college kids and adults and offers practical, helpful and incredibly reassuring advice. You may have heard Hallowell's name before. His best-selling "Driven to Distraction" is the landmark book on childhood attention disorders. Here, he tackles the decades that come next, from late teens into adulthood, including college, getting and keeping a job, and marriage. Hallowell discusses medication, as you might expect, but the bulk of the book is devoted to non-pharmaceutical courses of action - exercise, diet, sleep, organization and other aspects, all of which parents can help develop - and to the upside of attention deficit.

The syndrome is misnamed, Hallowell says. It's not a deficit so much as a surplus of attention, an irrepressible curiosity that sends one's focus scattering in every direction at once. It's the driving force, he says, behind so many wildly creative artists and successful entrepreneurs, from Mark Twain to Jet Blue Airways founder David Neeleman. Those entrepreneurs have executive secretaries, who keep track of the paperwork, issue the meeting reminders and maintain the to-do lists - who do all the things you did when your child still lived at home.

Hallowell's book is particularly helpful if your spouse, for example, is resistant to the diagnosis. It's compulsively readable, comforting, reassuring and practical - and the pages-long quiz at the beginning offers tangible proof that there is a wide spectrum of attention issues. We've all got a little attention deficit going.

Another book you may find helpful is a memoir written by a UC Berkeley student, Blake Taylor, while he was in school. "ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table" offers a fascinating, inside look at the challenges - and strengths - from a student perspective.

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