ADHD Diagnosis: Finally A Foolproof, Accurate Measure

ADHD Diagnosis: Finally an Foolproof Measure

The diagnosis – and misdiagnosis – of ADHD has risen steeply over the last decade. Australia saw a 72.9% rise in the prescription of ADHD medication between 2000 and 2011. Most of these were for mild to moderate ADHD.

In Britain, the rate of medication prescriptions has seen a twofold increase for children and a fourfold increase for adolescents and children.

The sharp increase has in part been attributed to the diagnostic criteria for and ADHD diagnosis being expanded, a response to the concern that the disorder was being underdiagnosed.

‘The kids who don’t get diagnosed or don’t get treatment are at heightened risk for substance abuse, at higher risk for school dropout, for having more car accidents, and having a higher risk of having an interaction with the juvenile justice system,’ explained Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, president of the Child Mind Institute in New York City.

The problem with a broader definition, however, is that it ‘devalues the diagnosis in those with serious problems’, said Dr Rae Thomas, a senior researcher at Australia’s Bond University who published an analysis of the problem in the British Medical Journal.

Like many things, the response to the pendulum swinging too far one way, has sent it swinging too far in the other direction.

Accurate diagnosis of any disorder is necessary to shepherd effective and appropriate treatment, however ADHD has been particularly vulnerable to misdiagnosis because there has been no reliable physiological markers to diagnose disorder.

ADHD diagnosis is based on observed or self-reported behavior in at least two different settings (usually school or home) by different people (generally parents and teachers). Symptoms exist on a spectrum from normal to abnormal and include difficulty sustaining attention, disorganisation, restlessness, distractibility, and a tendency to persistently interrupt.

Whether or not the symptoms are at sufficiently abnormal levels as to warrant a diagnosis is subjective and open to interpretation, or misinterpretation.

With less restrictive criteria and a spike in diagnosis, particularly on the mild to moderate end, the diagnosis of ADHD risks being met with skepticism. This will ultimately compromise those with more severe symptoms who require targeted treatment.

A diagnosis can come loaded with stigma, nudged along by stereotypes, the ill-informed and the judgemental. For example, some teachers have lower academic expectations of children with ADHD. Expectations have a way of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Children will live up to them – and down to them.

Overdiagnosis of any disorder comes with a financial costs. Medication costs of the misdiagnosis of ADHD have been estimated to be between $320-$500 million in the US.

The medication for ADHD is not without potential side effects, further highlighting the importance of an accurate diagnosis.

In severe cases of ADHD the symptoms are obvious and potential for misdiagnosis is greatly diminished. However, in mind and moderate ADHD, which make up the bulk of all ADHD diagnoses, the measure of symptoms and subsequent diagnosis is subjective and fraught with the potential for misdiagnosis.

Problems with the lack of an accurate diagnostic tool for ADHD have plagued the field, but a recent study may change this.


 

The Research: What They Did

In a study published in Vision Research, researchers from Tel Aviv University reported that they may have found an objective and physiological way to accurately diagnose ADHD – the presence of involuntary eye movements.

Researchers used an eye-tracking system to monitor the involuntary eye movements of two groups of 22 adults as they completed an ADHD diagnostic computer test.

Each participant did the test twice.

Participants in the first group had all been previously diagnosed with ADHD and were unmedicated when they first took the test. They then repeated the test after they had taken methylphenidate, an ADHD medication.

The second group did not have ADHD.

What They Found

‘We had two objectives going into this research,’ explained researcher Dr. Moshe Fried, who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. ‘The first was to provide a new diagnostic tool for ADHD, and the second was to test whether ADHD medication really works – and we found that it does. There was a significant difference between the two groups, and between the two sets of tests taken by ADHD participants un-medicated and later medicated.’

The researchers found that those participants with ADHD were unable to suppress eye movement in the anticipation of visual stimuli when unmedicated.

When these participants took methylphenidate, their involuntary eye movements were suppressed to the same as that of the non-ADHD group, demonstrating the effectiveness of ADHD medication.


 ‘This test is affordable and accessible, rendering it a practical and foolproof tool for medical professionals,’ said Dr. Fried. ‘With other tests, you can slip up, make ‘mistakes’ – intentionally or not. But our test cannot be fooled. Eye movements tracked in this test are involuntary, so they constitute a sound physiological marker of ADHD. Our study also reflected that methylphenidate does work. It is certainly not a placebo, as some have suggested.’

Further trials on larger groups are necessary, but initial results look promising.

11 Comments

Lars Lidén

There is an objective and non-invasive method that can diagnose and differentiate between child/adult ADHD, schizophrenia, Asperger, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) and dementia: Brainstem audiometry.

Measuring equipment and diagnosis is provided by the company “SensoDetect”:
http://www.sensodetect.com/

For scientific publications, see the SensoDetect website under “Research”.

As far as I know the method is, at present, not available outside Scandinavia.

Reply
Mavis

If eye movements are related to this conditioning, why not use a therapy such as Integral EyeMovement Therapy. I’ve found as a tutor-therapist that if I use this process with children who find it difficult to concentrate and focus, their concentration improves. I haven’t done a controlled study on this though.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing your experience. According to this study, involuntary eye movements can indicate ADHD, but it doesn’t mean they are a cause. In the same way that a fever can indicate the presence of a virus, but it doesn’t mean that if you treat the fever the virus can go away. It’s all food for thought though.

Reply
Jordan

Hi Karen,

Loved the article. Very interesting to learn about how diagnoses are developing in this area as it is present in my family.

Do you have any more articles on this subject?

Reply
Melody

I’m wondering if they specifically looked at anxiety-related symptoms, and whether this may also produce a similar pattern of involuntary eye movements. I’ve seen a number of cases in which children with anxiety or trauma-related disorders have been mistaken for having ADHD, and I wonder whether this test would distinguish between them.

Reply
heysigmund

That’s a good question. By all reports, the promise of this study is that the involuntary eye movements are something specific to ADHD and that’s why they can differentiate it from other disorders. The researchers are conducting more trials on bigger groups of people so it will be interesting to see where it ends up.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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