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ADHD & Storytelling

by Sarah Ligon

It's Saturday afternoon and Matt, a Lexington fourth-grader, is curled up in an armchair in the living room. He's watching a family sitcom. Toys and storybooks lie scattered on the table beside him.

Sound typical? Maybe so, but look again. A corner video camera is quietly recording Matt's reactions to the television. The sitcom is taped from a show that no longer airs, the toys have been strategically placed around him, and he's in a house owned by the University of Kentucky.

Matt and many other children who spend afternoons in this living room have what some researchers call the most widespread child behavior disorder today: ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The monitored television-viewing is part of ongoing research by UK psychology professors Richard Milich and Elizabeth Lorch into how kids with ADHD understand the world around them.

Children with ADHD typically have difficulty staying focused on tasks. "They engage in impulsive, sometimes inappropriate behavior, like yelling in class," says Milich. This behavior creates major academic problems for most of the children, he adds. "They're held back more often, they fail subjects more often, and they're less likely to go to college than kids with similar intellectual abilities or kids from similar backgrounds."

Milich, a clinical psychologist interested in children with ADHD, and Lorch, a developmental psychologist interested in using story comprehension to track typical child development, recognized common research interests when Milich joined the UK psychology department in 1985. In 1986, the two began using television programs to study story comprehension in kids with ADHD, and have continued their collaboration ever since.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Lorch and Milich recruit children with ADHD as well as children without the disorder, and study them individually at the UK house off-campus. Sometimes the kids watch situational comedies such as "Growing Pains" or "Rugrats," and answer questions about what happened in the story and why. At other times, they are given wordless picture books and asked to tell their own stories to connect each picture. Both of these methods bypass the reading difficulties often associated with ADHD.

Milich and Lorch soon found out that although children with ADHD had little problem remembering specific events in the television stories, they had difficulty linking up the causes and effects in the story. They knew what had happened, but not why.

"This may get in the way of some social situations children experience," says Lorch. "If they don't understand the motivations of another child, they're more likely to get in a fight, for example."

Milich and Lorch hope that their research may help teachers and clinicians develop academic programs better tailored to the children's needs. "Even if these kids come to class and sit quietly, they may still be missing basic connections," says Lorch.