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Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a brain-based biological disorder that affects almost 10% of American children 1 and more than 6% of adults. (2) The condition impacts an individual's neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that carry messages from neurons to nerve cells in other parts of the body and brain. It’s believed that the areas of the brain that control attention, social judgment, and movement also work differently in people with ADHD.
Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with childhood ADHD than girls. However, this may not be because the condition is more prevalent in boys. Girls often have the inattentive form of ADHD. As this is less disruptive, it’s less likely to be noticed and therefore may be underdiagnosed.
While people with ADHD understand the challenges of the condition, they also recognize the strengths it gives them, such as creativity, spontaneity, and the ability to solve problems. Early diagnosis can help people learn to overcome challenges and harness their strengths to build a successful life.
What Causes ADHD?
The exact causes of ADHD aren’t known, but there seems to be a strong genetic factor. Studies have found a 75%-91% chance of someone with ADHD having a child with the condition. (3) Other factors that increase a person’s chance of ADHD include being born prematurely, having a low birth weight, and alcohol and drug use during pregnancy.
Although the causes of ADHD aren’t completely understood, it’s clear that it isn’t caused by bad parenting, a high-sugar diet, or too many video games. Nor is it just children being badly behaved. Physiological differences exist between the brains of people with ADHD and those without, and it’s these differences that cause a person’s symptoms. This is important for the person with ADHD and their family members to understand.
What Are the Symptoms of ADHD? Signs to Know.
There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactivity, and combined.
The symptoms of inattentive ADHD include: (4)
Short attention span
Easily losing things
Inability to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming
Inability to listen to or carry out instructions
Constant changing of activity or task
Hyperactivity ADHD symptoms include:
Inability to sit still
Inability to concentrate on tasks
Excessive physical movement
Inability to wait their turn
Acting without thinking
Little or no sense of danger
Those with combined ADHD display symptoms of inattentiveness and hyperactivity.
Children and adults have the same symptoms of ADHD, although they may present differently depending on the age group. For example, a child acting without thinking may try a dangerous skateboard trick and break their leg. In adults, the same symptom could result in impulsive spending.
The increased responsibilities of adulthood, such as paying bills and attending college classes, may also accentuate certain symptoms. Symptoms of ADHD in adults can include:
Starting new tasks without finishing old ones
Exhibiting poor organizational skills
Inability to focus
Forgetting important dates
Inability to deal with stress
Do I Have ADHD? How Is ADHD diagnosed?
To be formally diagnosed with ADHD, a child must exhibit at least six symptoms in multiple settings, such as at school and at home. (5) These symptoms must have been noticeable for at least six months and must be interfering with functioning and development.
Adults must meet the same criteria but only need to exhibit five symptoms. At least some of the symptoms must have been present since childhood. An adult diagnosis can be difficult as the symptoms can look like many other conditions, including depression.
Specialists are in charge of formal ADHD assessments, which are usually conducted after tests have ruled out other conditions. The process includes taking a detailed history of the person’s behavior, often with input from parents, teachers, and other caretakers. The specialist also observes the patient's behavior in person before making a diagnosis.
What Is the Best Treatment for ADHD?
As everyone experiences ADHD differently, there’s no single best treatment. ADHD treatment options include medications, therapy, and behavioral interventions. For most people, a combination of those options will lead to the best results.
Stimulant ADHD medications increase certain brain chemicals. Despite being labeled as stimulants, these prescriptions have a calming effect on people with ADHD, decreasing hyperactivity and improving focus. Nonstimulant medications are also available that help with attention and memory. (6)
Therapy generally focuses on thought and behavioral patterns to help people make better decisions. It can also help them manage their feelings about having ADHD and learn how to build and maintain relationships.
For children with ADHD, social skills training can be useful to help them make friends and avoid isolation. Some providers also offer parenting skills training, giving parents strategies to manage their child’s behaviors and understand the condition.
How to Cope With an ADHD Diagnosis
An ADHD diagnosis is rarely a complete surprise, as people don’t seek an assessment without seeing symptoms. However, that doesn’t mean it's easy to cope with the diagnosis. Parents may worry about providing the best support for their recently diagnosed child. Newly diagnosed adults might feel angry that symptoms weren’t picked up sooner.
Finding support can be the best way to cope with a diagnosis. Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or CHADD, maintains a list of local affiliates that run support groups across the country. (7)
It can also be helpful to learn from the experiences of others. Many people with ADHD and parents of ADHD children talk about their journeys in online forums. Searching social media sites can help people find others in a similar situation willing to share tips, tricks, and emotional support.
How to Help Someone With ADHD
Parents, family, and partners of people with ADHD may struggle to help those diagnosed with the condition. It's important to be honest about frustrations and to gain a better understanding of ADHD before making big changes. A little patience with yourself or your loved ones can go a long way.
The first step to providing support is often learning about the condition. It’s been found that ADHD symptoms increase in children whose parents lack understanding of the condition. (8) Proper research allows family members and care givers to understand when behaviors are being driven by ADHD. It may also help them feel less judgmental when the person with ADHD is showing symptoms or having difficulty with tasks due to their condition.
Other tips include:
Developing a routine
Providing positive feedback to counteract low self-esteem