Learning Disorders

A learning disorder is a selective impairment of performance. A person with a learning disorder may do perfectly well in all areas of school except one. In that one area (or a set of related areas) the student cannot seem to learn despite hard work and ample opportunities. Typically a learning disorder involves some distinct type of information processing such as memorization, mathematics, motor skills, foreign language learning, or reading. An exception is the most commonly diagnosed learning disorder, ADD (attention deficit disorder) and the common variation called ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder).


Hyperactivity has gone by a variety of names over the years: Strauss syndrome, hyperactive child syndrome, hyperkinetic syndrome, and attention deficit disorder are all labels which have been put on this syndrome. DSM-IV refers to the familiar syndrome as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. When the symptoms occur without excessive, restless activity the disorder is called attention deficit disorder or ADD.

What is the syndrome DSM-IV calls ADHD?

Attention-deficit disorder with hyperactivity is the single most common problem which brings children to the attention of psychologists.

Here is a typical case history of a child diagnosed as having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Stanley was referred to a clinical child psychologist at the request of his teacher who, in her own words, "had enough." At 7 years of age, Stan required almost constant supervision to keep him from disturbing the other children in his class. The teacher says that Stan is unable to concentrate on schoolwork for more than a few minutes at a time and seems always to be moving. Even when in his seat, he fidgets around enough to disturb his neighbors.

Stan's mother reports that he is very active at home as well. He never seems to stick to any task for any length of time. Stan's mother also indicates that his judgment is very poor. He often wanders off without saying where he is going, frequently fails to return home at the proper time, and cannot be relied upon to complete his chores (or any other task). Stan has an older and younger brother but is unable to play with them because he will not stick to the rules of a game or concentrate for very long periods. Stan intrudes into conversations and games and seems unable to inhibit his impulses. He also has temper tantrums that come and go rapidly.

During the psychological assessment, Stan was able to maintain his seat but not his attention. He gave up on the IQ test task easily and frequently changed whatever conversational subject the examiner introduced. Although he admitted that he was not doing well in school, he did not feel that his behavior was responsible. (Schwartz & Johnson, 1985, p. 164)

What are typical symptoms of ADHD?

A child with ADHD typically shows these symptoms: inattention ("often fails to finish things he or she starts, often doesn't seem to listen, easily distracted, has difficulty concentrating on schoolwork or other tasks"); impulsivity ("often acts before thinking, shifts excessively from one task to another, has difficulty awaiting turn in games or group situations"); and hyperactivity (fidgets excessively, has difficulty staying seated, moves about excessively during sleep, is always "on the go" or acts as if "driven by a motor").

What was the paradoxical effect of amphetamines on hyperactive children?

In the 1960s, researchers discovered that amphetamines, stimulant drugs, had an unexpected or paradoxical effect upon such children: it slowed them down, made them able to concentrate, and sometimes dramatically alleviated their behavioral problems. However, amphetamines are addictive, and people need larger and larger doses to get the same effect. Amphetamines also produce some bad side-effects, especially as dosages increase. For these reasons, doctors turned to a chemical relative of the amphetamines, Ritalin, which has fewer side-effects.

How does Ritalin sometimes work wonders? What problems surfaced?

Ritalin occasionally works wonders with hyperactive children. Parents immediately notice the difference. Suddenly the child takes an interest in schoolwork, follows rules, gets along with others. No wonder Ritalin therapy for hyperactive children became more frequent. Eventually stories of "Ritalin abuse" began to surface. Some students began giving the tablets to friends, and the drug started to be used recreationally by teenagers. Numbers of Ritalin prescriptions dropped somewhat after negative publicity and after a new drug, Adderol, became commonly prescribed for ADHD. Still, Ritalin remained one of the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medications for children and teenagerse, and sometimes it helped a lot.

For example, this essay was turned in by a college student:

How did Ritalin affect a college student newly diagnosed with ADD?

Recently I was diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder). All through high school I struggled with my grades. I just didn't seem to have any "book sense," although I had more common sense than you might imagine. Then I came to college where I found it very difficult to make my grades. I was put on academic probation for 3 quarters, and I struggled to bring my GPA up. My mother finally suggested that I had Attention Deficit Disorder because I would study all the time but I didn't seem to comprehend anything...my brain seemed to wander off and think of more enjoyable things, instead of my studies.

Finally I was diagnosed as ADD and saw a doctor about it. The doctor prescribed a small dose of a drug called Ritalin, which stimulates some part of the brain that helps you concentrate. During the first week I took this medicine, not knowing what to expect, I found my ability to study seemed to be improving. I went to the library, sat down at 6:30 p.m. and found myself still in the library 4 or 5 hours later, hardly noticing that time had passed. I was astonished that I could study so long at one sitting. The medicine seemed to help me get into what I was reading and better comprehend the material. [Author's files]

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey