ADHD and Children Who Are Gifted
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC ED DIGEST #522 1993
James T. Webb and Diane Latimer
Howard's teachers say he just isn't working up to his ability. He doesn't finish his assignments, or just
puts down answers without showing his work; his handwriting and spelling are poor. He sits and fidgets in class, talks to
others, and often disrupts class by interrupting others. He used to shout out the answers to the teachers' questions (they
were usually right), but now he day-dreams a lot and seems distracted. Does Howard have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD), is he gifted, or both?
Frequently, bright children have been referred to psychologists or pediatricians because they exhibited
certain behaviors (e.g., restlessness, inattention, impulsivity, high activity level, day-dreaming) commonly associated with
a diagnosis of ADHD.
Almost all of these behaviors, however, might be found in bright, talented, creative, gifted children.
Until now, little attention has been given to the similarities and differences between the two groups, thus raising the potential
for misidentification in both areas - giftedness and ADHD.
Sometimes, professionals have diagnosed ADHD by simply listening to parent or teacher descriptions of the
child's behaviors along with a brief observation of the child. Other times, brief screening questionnaires are used, although
these questionnaires only quantify the parents' or teachers' descriptions of the behaviors (Parker, 1992). Children who are
fortunate enough to have a thorough physical evaluation (which includes screening for allergies and other metabolic disorders)
and extensive psychological evaluations, which include assessment of intelligence, achievement, and emotional status, have
a better chance of being accurately identified. A child may be gifted and have ADHD. Without a thorough professional evaluation,
it is difficult to tell.
How Can Parents or Teachers Distinguish Between ADHD and Giftedness?
Seeing the difference between behaviors that are sometimes associated with giftedness but also characteristic
of ADHD is not easy, as the following parallel lists show.
BEHAVIORS ASSOCIATED WITH ADHD
Poorly sustained attention in almost all situations
- Diminished persistence on tasks not having immediate consequences
- Impulsivity, poor delay of gratification
- Impaired adherence to commands to regulate or inhibit behavior in social contexts
- More active, restless than normal children
- Difficulty adhering to rules and regulations
BEHAVIORS ASSOCIATED WITH GIFTEDNESS
- Poor attention, boredom, daydreaming in specific situations
- Low tolerance for persistence on tasks that seem irrelevant
- Judgment lags behind development of intellect
- Intensity may lead to power struggles with authorities
- High activity level; may need less sleep
- Questions rules, customs and traditions
*Consider the Situation and Setting
It is important to examine the situations in which a child's behaviors are problematic. Gifted children
typically do not exhibit problems in all situations. For example, they may be seen as ADHD-like by one classroom teacher,
but not by another; or they may be seen as ADHD at school, but not by the scout leader or music teacher. Close examination
of the troublesome situation generally reveals other factors which are prompting the problem behaviors. By contrast, children
with ADHD typically exhibit the problem behaviors in virtually all settings - including at home and at school - though the
extent of their problem behaviors may fluctuate significantly from setting to setting (Barkley, 1990), depending largely on
the structure of that situation. That is, the behaviors exist in all settings, but are more of a problem in some settings
than in others.
In the classroom, a gifted child's perceived inability to stay on task is likely to be related to boredom,
curriculum, mismatched learning style, or other environmental factors. Gifted children may spend from one-fourth to one-half
of their regular classroom time waiting for others to catch up - even more if they are in a heterogeneously grouped class.
Their specific level of academic achievement is often two to four grade levels above their actual grade placement. Such children
often respond to non-challenging or slow-moving classroom situations by "off-task" behavior, disruptions, or other attempts
at self-amusement. This use of extra time is often the cause of the referral for an ADHD evaluation.
Hyperactive is a word often used to describe gifted children as well as children with ADHD. As with attention
span, children with ADHD have a high activity level, but this activity level is often found across situations (Barkley, 1990).
A large proportion of gifted children are highly active too. As many as one-fourth may require less sleep; however, their
activity is generally focused and directed (Clark, 1992; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982), in contrast to the behavior
of children with ADHD. The intensity of gifted children's concentration often permits them to spend long periods of time and
much energy focusing on whatever truly interests them. Their specific interests may not coincide, however, with the desires
and expectations of teachers or parents.
While the child who is hyperactive has a very brief attention span in virtually every situation (*usually except for television or computer games), children who are gifted can concentrate
comfortably for long periods on tasks that interest them, and do not require immediate completion of those tasks or immediate
consequences. The activities of children with ADHD tend to be both continual and random; the gifted child's activity usually
is episodic and directed to specific goals.
While difficulties and adherence to rules and regulations has only begun to be accepted as a sign of ADHD
(Barkley, 1990), gifted children may actively question rules, customs and traditions, sometimes creating complex rules which
they expect others to respect or obey. Some engage in power struggles. These behaviors can cause discomfort for parents, teachers,
One characteristic of ADHD that does not have a counterpart in children who are gifted is variability of
task performance. In almost every setting, children with ADHD tend to be highly inconsistent in the quality of their performance
(i.e., grades, chores) and the amount of time used to accomplish tasks (Barkley, 1990). Children who are gifted routinely
maintain consistent efforts and high grades in classes when they like the teacher and are intellectually challenged, although
they may resist some aspects of the work, particularly repetition of tasks perceived as dull. Some gifted children may become
intensely focused and determined (an aspect of their intensity) to produce a product that meets their self-imposed standards.
What Teachers and Parents Can Do
Determining whether a child has ADHD can be particularly difficult when that child is also gifted. The
use of many instruments, including intelligence tests administered by qualified professionals, achievement and personality
tests, as well as parent and teacher rating scales, can help the professional determine the subtle differences between ADHD
and giftedness. Individual evaluation allows the professional to establish maximum rapport with the child to get the best
effort on the tests. Since the test situation is constant, it is possible to make better comparisons among children. Portions
of the intellectual and achievement tests will reveal attention problems or learning disabilities, whereas personality tests
are designed to show whether emotional problems (e.g., depression or anxiety) could be causing the problem behaviors. Evaluation
should be followed by appropriate curricular and instructional modifications that account for advanced knowledge, diverse
learning styles, and various types of intelligence.
Careful consideration and appropriate professional evaluation are necessary before concluding that bright,
creative, intense youngsters like Howard have ADHD. Consider the characteristics of the gifted/talented child and the child's
situation. Do not hesitate to raise the possibility of giftedness with any professional who is evaluating the child for ADHD;
however, do not be surprised if the professional has had little training in recognizing the characteristics of gifted/talented
children (Webb, 1993). It is important to make the correct diagnosis, and parents and teachers may need to provide information
to others since giftedness is often neglected in professional development programs.