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What is ADHD?

wandering with a kaleidoscope of ideas, energy, and distractions.

It’s hard to focus on just one thing for very long; it can seem like time collapses and everything happens all at once. You’re impulsively “spilling over”: fidgeting, tapping, whistling, doodling, blurting things out, and running from one thing to the next. These are some of the ways people with ADHD describe it.

ADHD is a common medical condition that makes it hard for someone to sit still, pay attention, and focus. Someone with ADHD may be distracted, impatient, fidgety, and disorganized. ADHD is a brain disorder that affects the way people process and organize information and manage their impulses.

Who experiences ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) begins in childhood, though it may not be diagnosed until later in life. Symptoms may persist through the teen years and into adulthood. Some individuals seem to improve when they reach adolescence or adulthood as regions of their brains mature. For others, ADHD lasts a lifetime. It affects as many as 1 in 20 children, both boys and girls, though it occurs in boys more frequently.

Living with ADHD

People with ADHD can function very well in life; most have average or above-average intelligence, and in some areas, they may be overachievers. It is very likely that you know someone with ADHD, even if you don’t realize it. But because people with ADHD process information differently and struggle with managing their impulses, ADHD increases the risk of difficulty in school, at work, and in relationships. People with ADHD are more likely to have car accidents and to struggle with substance abuse and addiction. For these reasons, it is important to get help adapting to living with ADHD.

Causes of ADHD

When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, parents naturally ask why and how this could have happened. Scientists are still learning about the causes of ADHD. It does seem to have a strong genetic component and run in families, although not everyone with ADHD has a family history with the disorder. There also may be environmental factors, especially in pregnancy. Smoking, alcohol, and other drug use during pregnancy have been linked to a higher risk of ADHD in the child. ADHD is a disorder of the brain. Researchers have been able to identify differences in people with and without ADHD using brain scans. They are working to learn more about the development of nerve and brain cells in order to better understand the causes, and therefore potential treatments, for ADHD. What is clear is that it is not caused by poor parenting, or poor schools and teachers. Parenting skills and choices may make managing ADHD better or worse, but parents’ behavior does not cause ADHD.

Adults and ADHD

The signs of ADHD appear in childhood. In some cases, the symptoms resolve over a period of years as the child grows and develops and learns to compensate for his ADHD symptoms. For most children diagnosed with ADHD, however, the challenges of ADHD persist through the teen years and beyond into adulthood.

Some people are not diagnosed with ADHD until their teen or adult years. ADHD begins prior to adolescence or adulthood, but a diagnosis of ADHD in childhood may have been missed. These children may have been seen as a “handful,” or a “daydreamer,” and thought to have discipline and learning problems, without recognizing the underlying medical cause for their inattention and hyperactivity.

Adults with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD are more likely to have a history of school, work, and relationship challenges that affects their self-esteem and their opportunities. They may find it hard to stick to a job, remember appointments, keep a schedule, plan for the future, or sustain an intimate relationship. They may have more traffic tickets and accidents than most, and they are more likely to struggle with substance abuse.

ADHD can be diagnosed in adulthood, and treatment options include medication, education, counseling, and coaching. Getting help from your doctor and starting a treatment plan can be a huge relief and help open new doors.

Common misconceptions

ADHD is caused by poor parenting.
There is no evidence that ADHD is caused by poor parenting. Research into the causes of ADHD shows that there is a strong genetic component and other biological risk factors to ADHD. Yet inconsistent or overly harsh parenting can make the symptoms worse: as with many other conditions, it can be aggravated by poor, neglectful, or abusive parenting. On the other hand, parents who educate themselves about ADHD and practice good parenting skills can help their children manage and succeed with ADHD.

Quiet kids can’t have ADHD.

Although most people associate ADHD with hyperactivity and loud, outgoing, and even aggressive behavior, one of the types of ADHD is called the “inattentive type.” Children with primarily inattentive ADHD can be quiet “daydreamers,” too often lost in their own world. Girls with ADHD are also more likely than boys to be primarily inattentive.

ADHD is not a real disease; it’s just an excuse for kids’ bad behavior.

ADHD has been studied for more than 100 years. Recent advances in research techniques have allowed scientists to learn more about the differences in the brains of people with ADHD. ADHD is a brain disorder that affects how people process and organize information and manage their impulses. Like other disorders, ADHD can lend itself to overdiagnosis; however, the criteria used to diagnose ADHD are clear and diagnosis should be made by a qualified professional.

ADHD is caused by too much sugar or not enough playtime and exercise.

There is no evidence that sugar, nutrition, or level of physical activity causes ADHD. As with most children, a healthy diet and adequate sleep can help children with ADHD do their best. And getting plenty of exercise can help children with ADHD manage their energy level. Some people with ADHD feel they can concentrate and focus better if they stay active.

The only way to treat ADHD is to get on medication right away.

Medications are an important part of treatment for most people with ADHD. However, most doctors recommend a “multimodal” approach to treatment—a plan that includes education and behavioral therapies as well as medication. Medication can give children and parents “breathing room,” providing relief from symptoms and helping with concentration; behavioral strategies can then work more effectively. In many cases, a multimodal approach is more effective than medication alone.

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