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To the beat of a different drum

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At 33, Susan can’t sit still. She never could. Pegged by her teachers as the resident “problem child,” she spent most of her afternoons in detention for disrupting class and forgetting her homework assignments.

As an adult she still struggles to meet her work deadlines and has to fight the insatiable urge to dart out of meetings.

David Gilden

“Just the thought of sitting through a meeting or going to the movies makes me feel anxious,” says Susan, who asked to be identified by her first name only, in fear of being stigmatized by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “My mind is bouncing around like a ping-pong ball and I can’t focus on one thing for longer than a few minutes.”

Susan is among the estimated 5 percent of American adults who, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, are living with ADHD, a neurobiological condition marked by impulsive behavior and a lack of focus.

University of Texas at Austin psychologist David Gilden’s research findings suggest the underlying problem doctors have diagnosing ADHD may be in recognizing that it’s not an issue of attention, but rather a problem of timing. According to his research, people with ADHD have a much quicker sense of the here and now, such as the moment it takes to thread together two sentences in a classroom lecture. This timing glitch often causes them to fall out of sync with the rest of the world.

Once diagnosed, the symptoms of ADHD are often managed with stimulant medication, but according to Gilden, to effectively treat the disorder clinicians need to have a clear understanding of the underlying deficit.

“The first thing in any treatment is understanding what it is that’s being treated,” Gilden says. “At this time, that’s missing. People have been focusing on ADHD as if it’s an attention disorder, but I don’t think that’s what it is.”

Using drums, Legos, puzzles and Play-Doh, Gilden and his team of researchers are searching for the root cause of ADHD. By allowing their study participants to tinker with the toys in an unconstrained environment, the researchers are able to track timing differences in their natural behaviors.

“ADHD is not about inattention,” Gilden says. “It’s a disorder in the way people thread moment-to-moment experiences together. Children with ADHD are often disruptive because their world is moving at a much faster pace and there’s always going to be a mismatch between their world and ours.”

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For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404;
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of Dr. David Gilden and his research team: Marsha Miller