ADHD & Intelligence

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, you will learn the relationship between ADHD and measures of intelligence. Are people with ADHD smarter than average or less so? Does the diagnosis even make a difference? Let's find out.

Recognizing ADHD

We hear a lot about ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) , which may or may not be accurate. How often have you heard someone describe their child as 'hyper'? Its use as a descriptive term, and as a diagnosis, often get confused.

Here are the facts: ADHD is a brain condition, generally diagnosed before age 12. It is more commonly diagnosed in boys. The causes are not clear, and everything from 'poor parenting' to eating sugary breakfast cereal has been blamed for it! Realistically, like many childhood conditions, a combination of genetics and environment likely cause it, though studies show the heritability (the influence of genes on a particular trait) of ADHD as high as 90%.

One Boy's Story

When Ricardo started school, his family had almost become accustomed to his energetic ways. His parents, Rafael and Tina, called him their little motormouth. He was always in motion, sometimes in inappropriate settings; the time at age five, when he jumped up from the pew during church and ran up into the choir where his aunts sat, was an especially memorable one. Frequently, play dates with neighbors or cousins ended badly, when Rico couldn't wait his turn, interrupted, or wandered off.

As he progressed in elementary school, though, teachers began calling Rico's home. He wasn't finishing assignments, even though in class he could answer every question--sometimes when other children were trying to answer. He lost his school supplies and worksheets or misplaced his backpack somewhere in the school building (and at least once a week, left it on the bus).

Rafael and Tina felt sure he was not stupid. They talked to him about the issue, but he just said he didn't know why he did what he did. They set up schedules, put homework charts on the refrigerator, and even grounded him when he didn't complete tasks. Nothing seemed to help. Finally, they asked Dr. Koenig, their pediatrician, for help.

Dr. Koenig gave Rico a complete checkup and found no physical problems. Then, he sat down with Rico and his parents (mostly with his parents, since Rico simply could not sit still) and went through a list of behaviors. When they answered yes to most, he diagnosed Rico with ADHD.

Teasing Out the Truth

''Well, at least you know he's smart,'' Rico's uncle Sonny said. ''All those hyperactive kids are. There's nothing wrong with him, he's just bored. I was the same! Find him a school that'll challenge him.'' His aunt Trudy saw it differently. ''You know, those children aren't very bright. It's sad, really.''

Now Rafael and Tina were really worried, especially after the school psychologist tried to test Rico's IQ but couldn't get a valid result. Again they turned to Dr. Koenig. He explained that some studies have shown that children with ADHD, in general, have slightly lower IQ scores than their typical peers, but others indicate the range of scores is roughly the same.

The hallmarks of ADHD are impulsive behavior, difficulty focusing, and trouble sitting still. ''When you think about taking an IQ test successfully,'' the doctor said, ''it calls for skills that are the exact opposite: thoughtfulness, concentration, and calm. So it makes sense that children with ADHD might not do well on such testing.''

Beyond the Testing Room

Everyday function relies on far more than a test score, and the real-world effects of ADHD pose obvious problems. Even for people with ADHD who score high on IQ tests, performance in areas of cognition like memory, executive function (the skills we all use to organize information and act on it) and problem-solving, are generally found to be less than their typical peers.

Once a diagnosis of ADHD is made, numerous treatment options are open. They range from medication to behavioral training, and even meditation. Dr. Koenig started Rico on a low dose of a stimulant, explaining to his baffled parents that for ADHD, it usually worked in reverse.

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