Where is the line between Aspergers attention problems and others, such as ADHD? While some cases are obvious even to a layperson's eye, other cases may be hard to tell them apart. The root cause is quite different, and the treatment may differ substantially, but for a parent the most pressing concern may be understanding the issue and helping the child regain focus in school.
Aspergers Attention Problems vs. ADHD
In the past, children with Aspergers would sometimes get an ADHD diagnosis or any of the other letter combinations when they just couldn't focus on the teacher droning on by the blackboard. Today, we know a lot more about the differences between these types of ailments. Still, there are many similarities that can be difficult even for professionals to straighten out.
Theoretically, the distinction is easy enough. Aspergers is a part of the Autistic spectrum (aka. PDD) with emotional, social and possible verbal/motor impairments. ADHD and others may also have social components, but they're executive function disorders that usually go away as the child grows up. They also don't have the autistic traits (emotional, social etc.) often found in Aspergers kids.
To continue the comparison with ADHD, Aspergers is different in that they often have an almost uncanny ability to apply laser-like focus on a topic of interest to the exclusion of everything else, such as a teacher. ADHD, meanwhile, may not be able to focus on the teacher either, but that's because the attention is bouncing around all over the place.
Thus, Asperger attention problems are more about striking balance between interests, and especially the ability to prioritize what is necessary rather than merely what the child happens to find interesting.
Helping the Child Focus
Some people like to joke that they haven't quite received a bill until they open the envelope, so they don't have to worry about it just yet. A child with Aspergers can disregard requests to focus on uninteresting things in a similar way, simply blocking it out. Or, it could be the inability to maintain focus despite good efforts, kind of like how it's impossible to stay clear-headed at 2 AM when your whole body is crying out for sleep. No more can you will yourself to snap into an alert and rested state than an Aspergers child may be able to snap into focus on a dull subject instead of an interesting one.
Either way, this is not something the child can help, nor does scowling and lectures help; you're more likely to drive the child away and do everybody involved a disservice. Instead, talk to your child and try to pinpoint the problem. Every case is unique, so you have to look for tricks that help you and your child get around those particular problems. Are the first 10 minutes of reading Ok, but then Teflon-brain sets in? No problem, schedule many short study blocks with frequent breaks. Does it turn out your child has a burning interest in Dinosaurs, and his eyes are constantly drawn to the big T-Rex poster on the wall instead of the blackboard? Talk to the teacher about putting up another poster. Again, talk it over -- there's a chance there are some ridiculously simple steps you can take that makes a world of difference for your child.
When There's Too Much Focus
Then there's the flip side of the problem with Aspergers attention problems. If the child mentioned above loves dinosaurs, he may dive into the topic with both feet and read until he falls asleep at the desk in the wee hours unless interrupted. For young children, this can be remedied easily enough by simply continuing the normal bedtime/study time/school time etc. discipline you're probably already doing. The key here is to follow up and give reminders without losing your temper. You can't just say: "Remember to feed the dog at 5:30 PM" and then get angry when it doesn't happen on its own.
For older kids, it is hard to maintain this level of parental involvement. Besides, if the child is supposed to continue in higher education and eventually hold down a job, it is vital that the he or she figures out how to manage their time. The answer can be something as simple as a Blackberry or function-rich cell phone, where you can program tasks and alarms to go off at set times. Thus, if he gets stuck in a book, there's always a reminder in his pocket to give him a nudge when it's time to go to class or pick up a sibling from soccer practice.
There are many other tricks that may be equally or even more helpful. Again, discuss the nature of the challenges with your child with the goal of figuring out workable solutions together. Finally, never lose sight of the fact that even the most perfect plan is bound to have slip-ups; this is not the fault of your child, and he or she is probably just as frustrated as you are even if they lack the tools to express it properly. Good luck!