Many college students truly have ADHD and deserve to be treated but some attempt to fake ADHD symptoms with the goal of getting stimulant medications for non-medical uses such as studying and getting high. Some students who fake ADHD also seek to gain accommodations that would give them additional time to complete exams. To address this issue, two psychologists examined data from 514 university students being assessed for ADHD to evaluate the ability of assessment tools to detect students who fake ADHD symptoms.

All participants had asked to be assessed to determine whether they could qualify for disability services. This was therefore by no means a random sample of university students, and could be expected to include some non-ADHD individuals seeking the benefits of an ADHD diagnosis. But this offered a good opportunity to explore which combination of tools would yield the best accuracy, and be best at excluding malingerers.

That was achieved by using both multiple informants and multiple assessment tools, and comparing results. Self-assessment was supplemented by assessment by other informants (e.g. parent, partner, friend, or other relative). These were supplemented with symptom validity tests to check for telltale highly inconsistent symptom reporting, or symptom exaggeration, which could signal false positives.

On the other hand, some individuals with ADHD have executive functioning problems that may make it difficult for them to reliably appraise their own symptoms on self-assessment tests, which can lead to false negatives. Performance validity tests were therefore also administered, in order to detect poor effort during evaluation, which could lead to false negatives.

Observer reporting was found to be more reliable than self-reporting, with significantly lower inconsistency scores (p < .001), and significantly higher exaggeration scores (p < .001). More than twice as many self-reports showed evidence of symptom exaggeration as did observer reports. This probably understates the problem when one considers that the observer reports were performed not by clinicians but by parents and partners who may themselves have had reasons to game the tests in favor of an ADHD diagnosis.

Even so, the authors noted, “External incentives such as procurement of a desired controlled substance or eligibility for a desired disability accommodation are likely to be of more perceived value to those who directly obtain them.” They suggested compensating for this by making ADHD diagnoses only on the basis of positive observer tests in addition to self-reports: “Applying an ‘and’ rule—one where both self- and observer reports were required to meet the diagnostic threshold— generally cut the proportions meeting various thresholds at least in half and washed out the differences between the adequate and inadequate symptom validity groups.”

They also recommended including formal tests of response validity, using both symptom validity tests and performance validity tests. Overall, they found that just over half the subsample of 410 students administered performance validity tests demonstrated either inadequate symptom or performance validity.

Finally, they recommended “that clinicians give considerable weight to direct, objective evidence of functional impairment when making decisions about the presence of ADHD in adults. The degree to which symptoms cause significant difficulty functioning in day-to-day life is a core element of the ADHD diagnostic criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), and it cannot be assumed that significant symptoms cause such difficulty, as symptoms are only moderately associated with functional impairment. … we urge clinicians to procure objective records (e.g., grade transcripts, work performance evaluations, disciplinary and legal records) to aid in determining functional impairment in adults assessed for ADHD.”

Jason M. Nelson and Benjamin J. Lovett, “Assessing ADHD in College Students: Integrating Multiple Evidence Sources With Symptom and Performance Validity Data,” Psychological Assessment, published online January 31, 2019

Journal of Attention Disorders 1 –7 DOI: 10.1177/1087054718763736

Benjamin J. Lovett and Alexander H. Jordan

Lenard Adler MD - ADHD in Adults FacultyRates of ADHD in college students have been increasing somewhat in recent years, as has use of screening tools to help identify individuals at risk for disorders such as ADHD. These investigators designed a trial to examine whether screening for adult ADHD, in essence creating some positive expectation bias of having the disorder in leading to increased reporting of ADHD symptoms and altered performance on cognitive tests. One group was screened for ADHD using the ASRS v.1.1 Screener and received feedback if they screened positive for the disorder and then completed a self ADHD symptom checklist (CAARS: S Long version) and a batter of psychological tests (three subtests on the Woodcock– Johnson IV Tests of Cognitive Abilities (WJ-IV) (processing speed), a mathematical test and Letter-Pattern Matching (LPM)/Number-Pattern Matching (NPM), and Pair Cancelation (PC) for general cognitive efficiency. The control group received the same interventions except were not screened for ADHD. There were no significant differences in the two groups in terms of ADHD symptoms or neuropsychological measures. The authors note that while there was concern that screening positive for ADHD might result in increased expectation of having more ADHD symptoms, these effects were limited and did not significantly affect reporting ADHD symptoms. Several limitations of the trial include the constraint of the sample to only college students which limits the generalizability of the results, the absence of a comparison intervention (ie. Mock screening) in the control group and the use of DSM-IV version of the adult ADHD screener, instead of the most recently validated DSM-5 version. The important take-home point for clinicians seeing college students is the lack of increased reporting of ADHD symptoms and absence of effects on neuropsychological tests introduced by the process of screening for ADHD.

Lenard Adler, MD ADHD in AdultsUstun et al. (2017) recently published an updated version of the adult ADHD screener which is validated for DSM-5: the ASRS v1.1 Screener: DSM-5. The prior DSM-IV version of the screener was established using two populations: a community-based sample from the National Co-Morbidity Survey (NCS-R) and a sample of individuals from a health care plan.

The first step was to recalibrate the new screener using these same two samples, but applying updated DSM-5 criteria; symptoms included not only core symptoms of inattention (IA) and hyperactivity-impulsivity (HI) as defined in DSM, but additional co-traveling symptoms of executive dysfunction (eg: deficits in organization, planning, working memory) or emotional dysregulation (eg: over emotionality, changeable mood).

The symptoms of executive dysfunction have been shown to carry a high symptom burden and in many ways drive the symptom presentation when present in a recent factor analysis (Adler et al. 2017). The selection and weighting of the symptoms was selected by SLIM artificial intelligence – six items were selected: four were from DSM classic symptoms of IA and HI, but two were symptoms of executive dysfunction beyond those defined in the DSM. The process was again repeated and validated in a new sample of referred individuals for ADHD evaluations and controls from primary care practices from the NYU School of Medicine as second validation. The screener is again self-report and rated on a frequency basis of 0-4 (never to very often), with a cut-off score of > = 14 indicating a positive screen. The weighting of items in the screener is not evenly distributed and the scoring algorithm will shortly be available through an educational program on this website.

The ASRS v1.1 Sceener: DSM-5 has a high degree of sensitivity and specificity (first sample: 91.4%; 96.0%, respectively; second NYU sample: 91.9%, 74.0%, respectively). Given the high sensitivity and specificity, the new screener can be a highly effective tool for clinicians to identify individuals at risk for adult ADHD who merit further evaluation and a full diagnostic evaluation.

Adler LA, Faraone SV, Spencer TJ, Berglund P, Alperin S, Kessler RC. The structure of adult ADHD. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res. 2017 Mar;26(1). doi: 10.1002/mpr.1555. Epub 2017 Feb 17.

Ustun B, Adler LA, Rudin C, Faraone SV, Spencer TJ, Berglund P, Gruber MJ, Kessler RC. The World Health Organization Adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Self-Report Screening Scale for DSM-5. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017 May 1;74(5):520-526. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0298.

Stephen V. Faraone, PhDAn international group of twelve experts recently published a consensus report examining the state of the evidence and offering recommendations to guide screening, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals with ADHD-SUD comorbidity.1

In a clear sign that we are still in the early stages of understanding this relationship, five of the thirteen recommendations received the lowest recommendation grade (D), eight received the next-lowest (C), and none received the highest (A and B).

The lower grades reflected the absence of the highest level of evidence, obtained from meta-analyses or systematic reviews of relevant randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Nevertheless, with these limitations in mind, the experts agreed on the following points:

ADHD Diagnosis

  • The strongest recommendation, the only one based on a 2+ level of evidence (well-conducted case control or cohort studies with a low risk of confounding or bias and a moderate probability that the relationship is causal) is that the “Short Version of the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS-SV) screener is currently the most widely used and investigated screening tool in individuals with ADHD and comorbid SUD, with good sensitivity and specificity across studies.”
  • Two other recommendations were graded C: The diagnostic process should include current and past substance abuse and seek to involve partners and relatives in evaluating symptoms and functional impairments.
  • Four recommendations got the lowest grade, D. The experts suggested starting the diagnostic process as soon as possible and focusing on drug- and alcohol-free periods in the patient’s life during history taking. They also recommended that physicians and clinical psychologists should only make diagnoses if they have extensive training in diagnosing ADHD, as well as experience with adults with ADHD and with addiction care, and that they should consider treating adults with sufficiently severe ADHD symptoms.

ADHD Treatment

  • In general, evidence was stronger in this area, and only one of the six recommendations was graded D. The other five recommendations were graded C, with the highest level of evidence being 2 (cohort or case and control studies with undetermined risk of bias), although in three cases it was level 3 (non-analytical studies, such as case reports and case series).
  • The grade D recommendation was to always consider a combination of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.
  • The grade C recommendations included considering adequate medical treatment of both ADHD and SUD; integrating ADHD treatment with SUD treatment as soon as possible; considering psychotherapy targeting both; use of long-acting methylphenidate, extended-release amphetamines, and atomoxetine because of their low potential for abuse; and careful clinical management to avoid abuse and diversion of prescribed stimulants.

Note: Andrew Reding is a co-author on this post.

1Cleo L. Crunelle at al., “International Consensus Statement on Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment of Substance Use Disorder Patients with Comorbid Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” European Addiction Research, published online March 6, 2018, DOI: 10.1159/000487767.