Understanding Attention Deficit Disorder / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
By Dr. Lynda Thompson and John Stevenson
Parents and schools are increasingly recognizing Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.) as a major difficulty which produces academic underachievement. With at least 5% of school-age children affected, you can expect almost every class to have someone with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Their problems may include short attention span, distractibility, and difficulties organizing and completing their assignments. Many also have an impulsive style; they start work without checking directions, blurt out answers, and have trouble waiting their turn.
ADD is not an illness and it is not a disorder in the usual sense. It is a constellation of temperamental traits and a style of thinking. The task of the individual who has these traits is to harness them and use them to advantage. Harnessing requires learning how to learn efficiently and effectively.
The brain of the child with ADD can be likened to a “flickering light”. Everyone’s brain produces electricity and the different frequencies of the brain waves are associated with different mental states. People with A.D.D. produce an abundance of slow waves and show less fast wave activity. A sudden burst of slow wave activity – Alpha or Theta – in the middle of a complex task is equivalent to the individual being tuned out, for that moment in time. People with ADD can attest to the frustration of continually finding that, despite the best of intentions and even despite major interest in a topic, they miss key points and sections of a lecture only minutes after it has begun. Although most people occasionally experience getting to the end of a page of reading only to realize that their mind has been somewhere else, persons with ADD who have not developed specific counterstrategies do this most of the time. With ADD one may be thinking very intently and creatively internally while ignoring what is being said by a teacher. In addition, even when the individual has not been thinking about something else internally, their mind has not, so to speak, go into gear and become actively involved in the passage. Being actively involved requires a state associated with faster brain waves – Beta activity.
What may be very confusing to parents is that often the individual with ADD may exhibit superb concentration and focus in specific situations. This may even, at times, be superior to their peers! Children with ADD may, for example, become totally absorbed in games of Nintendo, certain T.V. programs, building with materials such as Lego or Playmobile and so on. Only some of these activities are exceptionally fast-changing, therefore, this is certainly not the only factor which might account for their intense concentration. In the 1970’s, while doing data collection for her thesis on the effects of Ritalin in hyperactive children, Lynda Thompson (now Director of the ADD Centre in Mississauga) noted that a disproportionate number of the ADHD boys who were hockey players `played goalie. This is a position which makes the most of the inborn characteristics of many ADHD children. The goalie receives individual instructions and does not therefore have to pay attention during strategy sessions in the dressing room. When on the ice, their attention can wander when the puck is at the other end of the arena without adversely affecting their performance. However, when the puck is in play close to them, they appear to become mentally “locked on” to it and virtually nothing distracts them, including screaming fans.
The mental state of hyper-focus which ADD people are capable of is very adaptive in a goal-tending situation. It can, on the other hand, irritate a parent whose repeated calls are ignored because the child is in hyper-focus in front of the T.V. or Nintendo! Many scholars and senior business persons who have ADD note that they can “lock in” to focus on documents that they are creating, or plans they are developing and virtually nothing can distract them when they are in this type of activity. In our experience, most of these individuals attribute their success to the development of metacognitive strategies to deal with their difficulties in concentrating. This, in turn, may have made them better students than persons who had never had to work at learning how to learn! One example of such a person is a brilliant physicist who became an expert in test-taking strategies and has published 18 books on that subject. Yet he still has trouble sitting through a lecture without impulsively calling out a question or comment!
The life history of many creative geniuses, from Mozart to Edison and Einstein, suggest that they were A.D.D. individuals. What makes the difference in whether a person with attentional problems is a success or not? It depends on whether they learn to harness their abilities and use them to advantage. Fortunately, there is a new approach to helping both children and adults learn to self-regulate their brain waves to improve their concentration. This educational approach is called Neurofeedback or computerized EEG feedback. Within 40 to 60 sessions people can acquire the skill of producing brain wave patterns which are associated with focusing and concentrating.
Unlike stimulants, Neurofeedback training appears to have a direct long-term effect on increasing the child’s ability to remain focused (decreased slow wave activity) and spend extended periods of time concentrating in a problem-solving manner (increased fast wave activity). There is a significant decrease in the phenomenon of tuning out (associated with Alpha and/or Theta activity) when the child is expected to be carrying out an assignment or listening intently in class.
In addition, Neurofeedback appears to have a similar effect to stimulants in that it increases the child’s “natural guards” to inhibit or avoid impulsive actions. Children already taking medication can continue while training, however, most find that they can gradually reduce the dosage as self-regulation is mastered.
This training first became available in Canada at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1991. It has been available in Ontario at the ADD Centre in Mississauga since January 1993. Zone Performance Psychology has utilized this type of therapy since 2011.
Neurofeedback training is the opposite of therapy or treatment by means of medication. In Neurofeedback training children quickly recognize that no one is doing “it” to them. They are totally in control, responsible, empowered and working it out for themselves. The feedback is nothing more or less than a useful tool which allows them to learn self-regulation.
See Also: THE A.D.D. BOOK: New Understandings, New Approaches to Parenting Your Child
William Sears, M.D. & Lynda Thompson, Ph.D.