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Fast forward: Those with Attention-Deficit Disorders Zoom in on Developing Strengths

By: Nancy Johnson

In May, Abigail Zureich finished up a double major in psychology and humanities with a minor in dance at Saint Mary's College. She earned good grades. She's interviewing for a human resources job in Chicago. She plans to attend law school in a year. What's more, she has attention-deficit disorder.

Abigail Zureich works in the
admissions office of Saint Mary's College

Abigail Zureich works in the admissions office of Saint Mary's College as Joyce Lantz, associate director of admissions, looks on. Diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, Zureich struggled with academics her whole life, but she was pleasantly surprised to find her internship job so much fun and so rewarding.

Even as early as kindergarten, school was a struggle for the Dallas native. In grade and middle school, she'd put in hours and hours of work and get C's at best. Then, when she was a freshman in high school, she read an article in Seventeen magazine about ADD. "I said, 'This is what I have,' " she recalled. A specialist diagnosed her with ADD, and she began taking Ritalin, a stimulant drug. For the first time, Zureich was able to focus, and her grades went from C's and D's to A's and B's.

"It was like a light was turned on," she said.

Ritalin acts as a filter, she said. "People with ADD are overloaded with stimuli. You don't know what to focus on." If she doesn't take her medication, "every little thing distracts me," she said. "If I didn't take it before I went to class, I couldn't really tell you what we talked about."

Although the Ritalin helped, she still had to work extra hard for the grades she wanted.

Over the years, Zureich, who also was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers), has devised ways to work around her problems. She schedules her time strictly, and when she studies for a test, she rewrites all her notes while reading them out loud. She can't compose term papers at the word processor, so she writes them out on paper before typing them.

Zureich is not alone in dealing with an attention-deficit disorder. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and ADD are conditions that affect adults as well as children.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of children with ADHD appear to outgrow their need for medication in the teen years, said Dr. Philip Creps, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Madison Center and Hospital in South Bend.

Still, if a person has an organic defect, the defect is not outgrown, said John C. Courtney, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Child Development and Psychological Health Center in South Bend. Rather, the person and the environment together develop coping mechanisms, he said. For example, the person may find work in an office where others help him or her in organizing tasks.

Some adults with attention-deficit problems, like Zureich, figure out how to work around their condition. They may become extra organized, learn how to focus on their strengths or find ways to delegate difficult tasks to others.

Coping skills

Michael is one such adult who found ways to deal with his condition. Michael isn't his real name. The 46-year-old South Bend resident agreed to talk about it under the condition that his name not be published.

He did well in school until college, when he noticed he was having difficulty concentrating. "It was hard to study or write a paper for more than 10 minutes at a time," he said. That difficulty carried into his work life in the computer industry, where he compensated by taking projects that he could complete in a quick burst of concentration.

Two years ago, his doctor diagnosed ADD and prescribed the stimulant Adderall, which helps him focus. Now, he says, he can complete big projects that would have been nearly impossible before.

Coping skills such as Zureich's and Michael's are common in adults with ADHD. But life doesn't turn out so rosy for them all.

One in five people with ADHD who don't receive treatment develop strategies to get by, said William Kronenberger, co-chief of the ADHD clinic at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. However, the other four in five who don't receive treatment are at greater risk for impulsive behavior that affects relationships and school performance, and they have an increased risk in the long term of depression and anxiety, he added.

Dr. Russell Barkley, author of "Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents," cites grim statistics: Ninety percent of children with ADD are academic underachievers, 36 percent don't finish high school (compared with 9 percent of the general population), 18 percent to 25 percent will abuse illegal substances, and one in four will be involved in a teen pregnancy. What's more, 72 percent of boys and 68 percent of girls in juvenile detention facilities suffer from ADD. Sufferers also have the highest rate of auto accidents and speeding tickets among any group studied to date, he added.

On the other hand, Kronenberger said, research indicates that children who have ADHD who receive treatment go on to have a better quality of life compared to those who don't.

Recognizing strengths

People with ADD and ADHD have their challenges, but they also have their strengths, said Catherine Pittman, chairwoman of the psychology department at Saint Mary's College. They are creative, they can deal with complexity, their entrepreneurial skills are excellent, they have energy you can't exhaust, and they can juggle many tasks, she said.

Pittman, who facilitates a resource group for Saint Mary's students with learning disabilities, said young people who struggled in the classroom often feel confident and competent once they are out in the real world where the demands are different.

For example, when Zureich took an internship in the admissions office at Saint Mary's, she learned that there's a wonderful world beyond exams and term papers.

"I really love interacting with students and families," she said. "I have a lot of independence, which is great." Designing a Web-based recruitment program, for example, was a pleasure.

Pittman tells students who struggle with academics that their whole life won't be like this. When they leave school and enter a new environment, they may find themselves doing much better, she said. "You can have a very fulfilling life."

That's what Zureich envisions for herself.

She knows that in law school she'll have to work harder than her classmates--but that's OK, she says.

People with attention-deficit disorders shouldn't give up, Zureich said. "It isn't something that will defeat you. It is a roadblock you can walk around."

Johnson, Nancy. "ADHD: From Keyed Up to Keyed". South Bend Tribune July 17, 2002. ©2002 South Bend Tribune Corporation