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Aim  The attention and inhibition problems found in children with attention-deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also common in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Attempts to distinguish ADHD from FASDs in terms of these deficits are rare and were pursued in this study.

Method  A total of 116 children (47 with ADHD, 31 males, 16 females; 30 with FASDs, 17 males, 13 females; and 39 comparison children, 20 males, 19 females) participated. The mean age was 9 years 4 months (SD 1y 8mo) in the ADHD groups, 8 years 10 months (SD 1y 2mo) in the FASD group, and 9 years 1 month (SD 1y 1mo) in the comparison group. Sustained attention was tested with a slow event rate continuous performance task (CPT). Inhibitory control was tested with both a slow and fast event rate Go/No-Go task.

Results  On the CPT task, children with ADHD, combined type (ADHD-C), ADHD, primarily inattentive type (ADHD-PI), and FASDs showed greater declines in task performance as a function of time than comparison children, suggesting sustained attention problems in all clinical groups. Children’s Go/No-Go performance was event-rate dependent, with the ADHD-C group being affected in the slow condition and the ADHD-PI and FASD groups having problems with the fast condition.

Interpretation  Children with ADHD-C are typically impaired in handling understimulation, while children with FASDs may have problems with overstimulation. The dissociation in responsivity to event rate between groups may have significant differential diagnostic value.