The behaviour of children with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder is often described as highly variable, in addition to being hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive. One reason might be that they do not acquire complete and functional sequences of behaviour. The dynamic developmental theory of ADHD proposes that reinforcement and extinction processes are inefficient because of hypofunctioning dopamine systems, resulting in a narrower time window for associating antecedent stimuli and behaviour with its consequences. One effect of this may be that the learning of behavioural sequences is delayed, and that only short behavioural sequences are acquired in ADHD. The present study investigated acquisition of response sequences in the behaviour of children with ADHD.
Fifteen boys with ADHD and thirteen boys without, all aged between 6–9 yr, completed a computerized task presented as a game with two squares on the screen. One square was associated with reinforcement. The task required responses by the computer mouse under reinforcement contingencies of variable interval schedules. Reinforcers were cartoon pictures and small trinkets. Measures related to response location (spatial dimension) and to response timing (temporal dimension) were analyzed by autocorrelations of consecutive responses across five lags. Acquired response sequences were defined as predictable responding shown by high explained variance.
Children with ADHD acquired shorter response sequences than comparison children on the measures related to response location. None of the groups showed any predictability in response timing. Response sequencing on the measure related to the discriminative stimulus was highly related to parent scores on a rating scale for ADHD symptoms.
The findings suggest that children with ADHD have problems with learning long sequences of behaviour, particularly related to response location. Problems with learning long behavioural sequences may ultimately lead to deficient development of verbally governed behaviour and self control. The study represents a new approach to analyzing the moment-to-moment dynamics of behaviour, and provides support for the theory that reinforcement processes are altered in ADHD.