Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects up to 11 percent of American children, and Kentucky has the highest rate in the country — more than 18 percent — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite its prevalence, it is one of the most misunderstood chronic neurodevelopmental disorders.
ADHD is difficult to diagnose, primarily because there is no cut-and-dry medical test for the disorder. It is especially tricky to identify in children because almost all kids experience the major symptoms to some degree at some point, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
The symptoms of ADHD also mirror those of other psychological conditions, disruptive behavior disorders and learning disabilities, which complicates the general understanding of what ADHD truly is.
By debunking the myths and arming yourself with the correct information, you can better understand the condition as a whole and potentially help your child if he or she is experiencing the symptoms.
Myth No. 1: ADHD is not a real disorder.
ADHD is a valid disease listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and recognized by psychiatric associations.
The myth that it does not qualify as a real disorder comes from the idea that most children experience similar symptoms to a degree, and that the symptoms look like those of other diseases. Even though it is very typical for children to be restless, hyper or inattentive, it is not typical for children to experience these and other symptoms of ADHD to a more intensified degree.
ADHD also is confusing because so little is known about the cause and because no two cases of ADHD look the same. Scientists believe there is a strong genetic link to developing the condition, and they have ruled out previous ideas that it is linked to excessive sugar intake. They also have noted that the disorder manifests differently in each person, meaning that one child with ADHD, for example, may have high energy and tendencies to misbehave, while another may daydream often and be excessively forgetful. This is why ADHD has become an umbrella term that includes a wide range of symptoms, including the previously separate condition known as attention deficit disorder (ADD).
If you recognize any of the major symptoms — difficulty paying attention, restlessness, excessive moving or talking, inability to complete one task, forgetfulness, etc. — it might be time to speak with your child’s pediatrician, who can help you set up an appointment with a psychiatrist. It is important to provide a detailed history of your child’s experiences and behaviors so that the physician can provide an accurate diagnosis.
One thing is certain, though: ADHD is a valid disorder, and when left undiagnosed and untreated, it can have serious implications for your child’s school performance, social life and everyday experiences.
Myth No. 2: Children with ADHD are always hyperactive.
There are three types of ADHD, and only two types include hyperactivity as a symptom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the three types of ADHD are:
1. Predominantly Inattentive Presentation – Characterized by difficulty organizing or completing a task, paying attention to details or following instructions or conversations. The person is easily distracted or forgets details of daily routines.
2. Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation – Characterized by excessive fidgeting or talking. The person finds it difficult to sit still for long periods of time and often runs, jumps or climbs constantly. The impulsive person may interrupt others a lot, grab things from people, speak at inappropriate times or have more accidents and injuries than others. It is hard for the person to wait their turn or listen to directions.
3. Combined Presentation: Symptoms of the above two types are equally present in the person.
Myth No. 3: Children who can focus on activities do not have ADHD.
With “attention deficit” in the name, it would seem that all children with ADHD struggle to stay attentive while completing a task. However, because the symptoms fall on a spectrum, some children actually experience hyperfocus, or an intense focus on something particularly stimulating, at times.
A good way to think about ADHD is that it includes disordered attentiveness rather than just lack of attentiveness. A child with ADHD is unable to control his or her focus.
Myth No. 4: ADHD is a learning disability, and if my child has it he or she will not be able to do well in school.
Both ADHD and learning disabilities are neurological disorders that affect how the brain receives, processes and responds to information, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, but they are different conditions altogether.
Learning disabilities like dyslexia or dyscalculia have major impacts on a person’s ability to absorb and understand particular skills within the classroom, such as reading or math. ADHD, on the other hand, tends to affect relationship-forming, following directions and completing routine tasks. Having difficulty sitting still during class and completing assignments may make it challenging for your child to perform well in the classroom, but an ADHD diagnosis does not mean your child will be unable to grasp concepts, which is the case with learning disabilities.
When properly diagnosed and treated, most kids with ADHD can excel in school and in other areas of life. In fact, many famous people, such as Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy, had ADHD as children but were able to pursue careers requiring great charisma and creativity.
Myth No. 5: The only way to treat ADHD is with medication.
It is important to understand that ADHD cannot be cured, but there are several treatment options to help your child manage symptoms.
The first option is medication, which can include stimulants and nonstimulants. Both have been shown to have a positive effect on children with ADHD. Because every child responds differently to medication and has a unique set of symptoms, your child’s physician may try out different types until you find what works best for your child.
A second option is behavioral therapy, which can include helping your child create routines and avoid distractions.
Usually the best practice is to use a combination of medication, behavioral therapy and parent education in order to effectively manage symptoms. ADHD can continue into adulthood and pose challenges in different ways. Adults with untreated ADHD are more likely to abuse substances, and they often have co-existing mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
Remember, a diagnosis of ADHD is not a disability. Most children and adults who are properly treated for ADHD live normal, successful lives.