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Diagnosing hyperactive children is tricky


Some are merely inattentive

September 15, 1997
Web posted at: 8:49 p.m. EDT (0049 GMT)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- Children who had the symptoms were once considered "bad." Then scientists identified a behavior pattern they named Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and drug treatments were prescribed. Thousands of children benefited from therapies that relied on stimulants.

Now some researchers say ADHD can easily be misdiagnosed -- and that some children who don't do well in school may have other problems, and be unnecessarily taking drugs.

Such was the case with 9-year-old Eric Courington.

When Eric had problems concentrating, his parents were concerned. A teacher mentioned the possibility that he might have ADHD. When his parents told a pediatrician what the teacher said, Eric was prescribed amphetamines, or stimulants.

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Amphetamines are the most common drug used to treat hyperactive children, and Ritalin is among the most heavily prescribed. It is estimated that as many as 3 million U.S. children have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Parents sought a second opinion

Eric's parents said his grades were generally good -- mostly A's and B's -- so they sought a second opinion.

"ADHD is a relatively rare disorder," explained child psychologist Bart Hodgens of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There are many children experiencing school problems and behavior problems, and there are multiple reasons why that is happening."

Social problems, learning difficulties and medical conditions also can affect the way a child performs in school.

Hodgens and pediatrician Dr. Ditza Zachor examined Eric, after his mother described the boy's problems and why he was given Ritalin.

"There are children who are not carefully evaluated, probably misdiagnosed and taking stimulant medications," Hodgens said.

Conclusion: Original diagnosis wrong

After Eric underwent a series of tests -- neurological, educational and behavioral -- the doctors concluded he had been wrongly diagnosed.

His problem, they said, was simply inattention. And that was "related to his learning style and his ability to process and use language," Hodgens said.

It is not uncommon, he said, for children with Eric's symptoms to be misdiagnosed with ADHD and given drugs. And he and Zachor offered a different prescription: a little extra help from his teachers.

CNN's Rhonda Rowland contributed to this report.

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