Many people who were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder in the early 2000’s have come to question the exclusivity of that diagnosis, especially when it comes to learning. Psychological research over the past 2 decades has shown that many of the symptoms exhibited by children, teens or adults might be something quite different altogether.
There is no doubt that skilled diagnosticians have determined that some individuals were misdiagnosed with ADHD when their symptoms were essential features of other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, behavioural disorders like oppositional defiant disorder, specific learning disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder or executive dysfunction. It is the latter, executive dysfunction, which is the focus of this post.
It goes without saying that a child could have one or more the aforementioned disorders concurrently. It’s quite possible to have a learning disorder and ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder at the same time. These diagnosis are not mutually exclusive by any means. But is this true of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and executive dysfunction? Absolutely. It is quite possible for a person to have ADHD or executive dysfunction or both of these diagnoses. While ADHD can certainly hamper a person’s ability to learn, executive dysfunction can be a diagnostic feature of a learning disability ~ a primary information processing deficit.
Symptoms of ADHD
Individuals with symptoms of ADHD demonstrate a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. They
- struggle to pay attention to details,
- lose/misplace things,
- can be forgetful,
- have difficulty remaining focused,
- find it difficult to follow through with instruction and
- limit their participation in tasks that require sustained attention and mental effort.
Some individuals struggle with hyperactivity and impulsivity. They
- find it difficult to remain seated,
- run and climb, often without much thought for their safety;
- frequently talk incessantly; and,
- interrupt others.
Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. While attention is an aspect of executive functioning, it’s not the whole story.
Executive functioning is a broader concept that takes into account
- an individual’s ability to initiate tasks;
- organize materials for a task;
- plan and organize a task,
- pay attention,
- do things based on their experience;
- manage and monitor their time until a task is completed properly.
Another important aspect of executive functioning is behavioural regulation. The ability to control or inhibit our impulses and/or to stop engaging in a behaviour is fundamental to good executive functioning.
Likewise, a person must be able to shift their focus, tolerate change and alternate attention. Importantly, we must be able to regulate our emotional responses appropriately.
Since there seems to be an overlap of symptomology, what are some of the essential differences?
Firstly, the symptoms of ADHD often improve with the right medication. The symptoms of a learning disability resulting from executive dysfunction do not. An individual with ADHD may do very well at school despite their inattentiveness and seeming lack of focus.
Deficits in executive functioning can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to demonstrate his/her cognitive potential. As a student progresses in school there is an increasing emphasis on independent, systematic and organized functioning. There is a significant demand for an organized, planned multistep performance and self-regulation in higher education.
Learning Accommodations in Ontario Schools
Notably, while informal learning accommodations might be provided for an Ontario student with ADHD, ADHD is not a category of exceptionality under the Education Act at present. Conversely, a child who is diagnosed with a learning disability caused by, among other things, executive dysfunction, will be identified as an exceptional learner and receive accommodations and more support in Ontario classrooms.