Learning Disorders: Is Medication Available?

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For nearly six decades, many children with attention disorders have benefited from being treated with medication. Three drugs, Ritalin (methylphenidate), Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), and Cylert (pemoline), have been used successfully. Although these drugs are stimulants in the same category as “speed” and “diet pills,” they seldom make children “high” or more jittery. Rather, they temporarily improve children’s attention and ability to focus. They also help children control their impulsiveness and other hyperactive behaviors.

The effects of medication are most dramatic in children with ADHD. Shortly after taking the medication, they become more able to focus their attention. They become more ready to learn. Studies by NIMH scientists and other researchers have shown that at least 90 percent of hyperactive children can be helped by either Ritalin or Dexedrine. If one medication does not help a hyperactive child to calm down and pay attention in school, the other medication might.

The drugs are effective for 3 to 4 hours and move out of the body within 12 hours. The child’s doctor or a psychiatrist works closely with the family and child to carefully adjust the dosage and medication schedule for the best effect. Typically, the child takes the medication so that the drug is active during peak school hours, such as when reading and math are taught.

In the past few years, researchers have tested these drugs on adults who have attention disorders. Just as in children, the results show that low doses of these medications can help reduce distractibility and impulsivity in adults. Use of these medications has made it possible for many severely disordered adults to organize their lives, hold jobs, and care for themselves.

In trying to do everything possible to help their children, many parents have been quick to try new treatments. Most of these treatments sound scientific and reasonable, but a few are pure quackery. Many are developed by reputable doctors or specialists – but when tested scientifically, cannot be proven to help. Following are types of therapy that have not proven effective in treating the majority of children with learning disabilities or attention disorders:

  • Megavitamins
  • Colored lenses
  • Special diets
  • Sugar-free diets
  • Body stimulation or manipulation

Although scientists hope that brain research will lead to new medical interventions and drugs, at present there are no medicines for speech, language, or academic disabilities.

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