Children with ADHD, by definition, are easily distracted and more prone to injuries. But a new study shows the condition could even be life-threatening since affected kids are more likely to be hit by a car when crossing the street.
Researchers at at the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at 78 children with ADHD between the ages of 7 and 10 and 39 kids without the attention disorder and found that kids with ADHD appear to follow all the requisite rules — you know, “look both ways before you cross” — but don’t wind up processing the information in a way that enables them to make it to the other side of the street as safely as non-ADHD kids.
The study, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, observed that children with ADHD took more chances, electing to cross during smaller gaps between cars, ultimately leaving them with less time before the next car approached the crosswalk.
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If you’re worried that real, live kids were put at risk, don’t be. Researchers relied upon a virtual pedestrian environment in which children watched traffic flowing on three computers while they stood on a virtual curb. They were told to step off the curb when they thought it was safe to cross. Once they stepped off, a gender-matched avatar crossed the street in their place, and the kids could watch to see whether their doppelganger made it across the street safely.
“We came in knowing that ADHD kids are more impulsive so we expected maybe they wouldn’t look left and right, but they did look, just like non-ADHD kids,” says Despina Stavrinos, an assistant professor in the Injury Control Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “They were displaying the appropriate curbside behavior just like we’ve ingrained in them for years as parents, but when they made it across to the other side — if they made it across to the other side — they had significantly less time to spare before the next car came across the sidewalk.”
Next, researchers tried to determine which ADHD traits might be increasing the kids’ risk of injury. Was it inattention? Oppositional behavior? Or might executive function — a person’s timing ability, which stems from the brain’s control center and coordinates higher-order processing — be to blame?
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It turned out the latter was the culprit. It was hard for kids with ADHD to figure out how long it would take to get to the other side and how long until an oncoming car entered the crosswalk. “It’s not the fact that they’re distracted, but they’re not processing and using that executive function to plan a safe crossing.”
So street safety lessons are getting through to kids with ADHD, it’s just that they may need more time or practice to execute them. Parents of kids with ADHD should act out crossing scenarios with their children, helping them identify what to watch for. “We’ve told parents to make sure their kids look left and right,” says Stavrinos, “but that might not be enough for kids with ADHD.”