The ADHD Student Scam? *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects 2-3% of college students. These students may also have other disorders, like reading or math difficulties, or dyslexia (writing problems). They struggle to concentrate and apply themselves to their studies at school. Although they may demonstrate adequate intellectual and academic abilities, ADHD students still cannot finish homework assignments, papers and tests. They have trouble organizing their work, taking notes in class, and remembering due dates. They are easily distracted by unrelated stimuli during lectures and tests.

However, while juggling many social and academic obligations, similar problems occur with students who don’t have ADHD. Some students – who think they have ADHD – only need help in managing their time and developing efficient study methods.

This has Bob Waters (director of disabled student services at Montana State University) worried. Over the last two years, he has seen more students using ADHD to excuse their academic failings. More and more students are demanding special academic privileges. However, there is only sketchy data from clinicians to indicate that they are actually ADHD. Some of the students are self-diagnosed. These students seek extra time for exams and more time to do assignments. Some ask for notes from the classes they have skipped. Others want to be excused from courses they find uninteresting. According to Waters and other mental health providers, they use the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to avoid responsibility for their poor study habits or their lack of commitment to academic goals.

Psychologist Michael Gordon (director of the ADHD program at the State University of New York Health Sciences Center at Syracuse) seems to agree.

"[The ADA] was not intended as a guarantee that everyone pass every exam or graduate from college. It was designed to level the playing field for people with bona fide disabilities who are otherwise qualified or capable of meeting their occupational or educational responsibilities."

Gordon is worried that those who misuse the diagnosis of ADHD will undermine the credibility of those who have ADHD. Faculty members are likely to become skeptical of that diagnosis. However, most people who seek to be categorized as ADHD actually do have the disorder.

The confusion is fueled by the lack of documentation about ADHD from those who diagnose the condition. Health professionals believe that colleges need to be furnished with more personal data. It is similar to the information required for workman’s compensation or to get a handicapped-parking sticker. The students need to be examined by licensed professionals – psychiatrists, neurologists, clinical or educational psychologists. Gordon and others have recommended guidelines to be used by these professionals.

• Rule out other problems or disorders. Other disorders may have symptoms similar to ADHD. There are no specific tests for ADHD. However, there are measures of depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, or various neurological or mental disorders. If a student – who lacks academic ability – becomes overwhelmed and inattentive in class, this can be mislabeled as ADHD.

• Find a past history of the disorder. Legitimate cases of ADHD tend to start at an earlier age, rather than erupting in college. In the United States, about 5-7% of children and up to 5% of teenagers are diagnosed as having ADHD. Typically there will be a "paper trail" of reports of unruly and inattentive behavior. Erratic performance on standardized tests is another indicator. Some who misuse this diagnosis whiz through undergraduate school. However, they ask to have ADHD privileges when they get into graduate school.

• Check for significant, debilitating ADHD symptoms. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition), 14 symptoms are listed for ADHD. Students should exhibit at least five of these symptoms. The symptoms include such things as forgetfulness, failure to complete or do well on class assignments, fidgeting and high levels of distractibility. These symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with their school, work or social functioning.

• Once ADHD has been verified, make recommendations to fulfill the student’s academic needs. "Reasonable" accommodations can include extra tutoring, placement in smaller classes, oral tests or extra time for exams.

"Colleges try to strike that careful balance
between meeting students’ needs
and not having their academic programs exploited.

When schools believe the changes to be either unreasonable or unsubstantiated, they do not oblige the students. Then legal problems can occur. An example is at Boston University (BU). Several students with ADHD and learning disabilities have sued university administrators for their policy. BU requires current documentation of disabilities. The university refuses to waive degree requirements, such as math and foreign languages.

Administrators indicate that the ADA is a civil rights act, not a special privilege. BU states that it has a moral and legal obligation to "help people over the bar, not to lower it." The case will reach the courts this spring.

Mental health professionals may disagree about whether these students have a legitimate case. However, they do agree on another point. The questions about ADHD and academic accommodations require much more research.

* Adapted from Bridget Murray’s "It is it a rise in ADHD, or in students’ false claims?" and "Testing accommodations warrant further investigation," The APA Monitor, May, 1997, page 47.

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