Diagnosing Learning Disabilities:

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Is Your Child Exhibiting ADHD Characteristics?

By Tess Thompson



Diagnosing a learning disability or a medical condition like ADHD can be complicated and inexact. In the case of ADHD, many of the telltale symptoms are also often symptoms of regular childhood behavior -- restlessness, rowdiness, and a tendency to be easily distracted. ADHD is treated differently from learning disabilities because it is thought to be different in nature. While most learning disabilities can be diagnosed through specific testing, ADHD requires a more subtle diagnosis through comprehensive evaluation.

A learning disability is generally caused by a neurological difference in the brain structure of a child that makes it difficult for him or her to process information in the same way as others. Learning disabilities rarely have anything to do with intelligence level and are generally not treated with medication, as medication can do nothing to change a brain's "wiring," or structure. Children with learning disabilities have to be trained to compensate for them, and after they are diagnosed, schools can help them by providing extra time on tests or other taking other special measures.

ADHD is not considered to be a learning disability as it is thought to be caused by an absence of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in parts of the brain, and not necessarily by the brain's "wiring." Medication can sometimes be used as a successful child ADHD treatment because certain kinds increase the production of neurotransmitters (such as Ritalin), but these medications can also cause disturbing side effects in some children.

In order for your child to be diagnosed with ADHD, he or she must have consistently exhibited ADHD characteristics for an extended period of time and in different environments (school, home, play..etc). Because many of the symptoms of ADHD are also common symptoms of depression or anxiety, the doctor or psychologist evaluating your child will want to make sure that your child is not simply reacting to specific situations. According to the Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is often used in ADHD research studies, common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Often losing things necessary for tasks or activities
  • Often easily distracted by outside stimuli
  • Not listening when spoken to directly
  • Difficulty awaiting turn
  • Difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly

There is no single specific test that will diagnose ADHD and each child will exhibit symptoms in a slightly different way. As there are also no genetic indicators of ADHD, diagnosis requires extensive and thorough evaluation. The U.S. Department of Education does not require a clinical diagnosis, which means that for school purposes, if a school allows it, a school psychologist can diagnose ADHD in your child. If after careful consultation you determine that your child does have ADHD, be sure to evaluate multiple behavioral and medical or herbal options for treatment for ADHD before deciding on the one you feel is best for your child.

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