Facts About ADHD

By Walt Larimore
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Focus on the Family
Unlocking the potential in your ADHD child will require some work on your part, but it will be well worth it.

How Common Is ADHD?

Some studies estimate that 1.7 percent of children have ADHD; others claim the number is closer to 26 percent, depending upon where, when and how the studies were conducted.

The Journal of the American Medical Association states that ADHD “… is among the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children.” The British Medical Journal estimates that some 7 percent of school-aged children have ADHD — and that boys are affected three times as often as girls. A 1995 Virginia study showed that 8 to 10 percent of young schoolchildren were taking medication for ADHD.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2002, 7 percent of children in the U.S. ages 6 to 11 had ADHD. They also reported that half of children in whom a diagnosis of ADHD was made also have a learning disability. They calculated that at least one million children have a learning disability without ADHD. The total number of children with at least one of these disorders was 2.6 million.

Again, boys were three times as likely as girls to have a diagnosis of ADHD alone, and twice as likely to have ADHD with a learning disability. Rates of diagnosis of ADHD are twice as high in Caucasian children as in Latinos and African Americans. Interestingly, children with a diagnosis of a learning disability alone were more likely to live in a low-income or single-mother household. Children from families with health insurance were more likely to have a diagnosis of ADHD without a learning disability.

It may be that Caucasian children, especially boys, are overdiagnosed. Another example is found in a study of fifth graders. Eighteen to 20 percent of Caucasian boys were being treated for ADHD with medication. African American children with ADHD are less than half as likely to receive treatment.

Whether or not you believe ADHD is real, it is not at all uncommon. Those looking for help in dealing with ADHD are not alone. Many parents are trying to discover the attention deficit dividends of their child. There is hope. To unlock the potential in your child will require some work on your part, but it will be well worth it.

Undoubtedly, ADHD treatment is a controversial topic — but in my opinion it should not be. In fact, more and more the medical studies are confirming that treatments work and they help — and they should not be kept from children who need them.

I would be the first to admit that ADHD is occasionally overdiagnosed. Obviously, not everybody who is called ADHD really is. But overall, it appears that physicians and mental-health professionals are doing a fair job.

In fact, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concludes: “Although some children are being diagnosed as having ADHD with insufficient evaluation and in some cases stimulant medication is prescribed when treatment alternatives exist, there is little evidence of widespread overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of ADHD or of widespread over-prescription of methylphenidate (Ritalin and others) by physicians.”

What Are Some Traits Seen With ADHD?

Hallowell and Ratey, authors of Driven to Distraction, list 20 symptoms that are often evident in a person with ADHD:

  1. A sense of underachievement, of not meeting one’s goals (regardless of how much one has accomplished)
  2. Difficulty getting organized
  3. Chronic procrastination or trouble getting started
  4. Many projects going simultaneously; trouble with follow-through
  5. Tendency to say what comes to mind without necessarily considering the timing or appropriateness of the remark
  6. An ongoing search for high stimulation
  7. A tendency to be easily bored
  8. Easy distractibility, trouble focusing attention, tendency to tune out or drift away in the middle of a page or a conversation, often coupled with an ability to focus at times
  9. Often creative, intuitive, highly intelligent
  10. Trouble going through established channels, following proper procedure
  11. Impatient; low tolerance for frustration
  12. Impulsive, either verbally or in action, as in impulsive spending, changing plans, enacting new schemes or career plans
  13. Tendency to worry needlessly, endlessly; tendency to scan the horizon looking for something to worry about alternating with inattention to or disregard for actual dangers
  14. Sense of impending doom, insecurity, alternating with high risk-taking
  15. Depression, especially when disengaged from a project
  16. Restlessness
  17. Tendency toward active behavior
  18. Chronic problems with self-esteem
  19. Inaccurate self-observation
  20. Family history of manic-depressive illness, depression, substance abuse or other disorders of impulse control or mood

Are the Brains of People With ADHD Different?

Although the cause of ADHD is unknown, the theories abound. Some believe it is associated with subtle differences in brain structure. Brain scans reveal a number of subtle changes in the brains of those diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, one of the former names used for ADHD was “minimal brain disorder.”

Others say it’s related to neural pathways, neurotransmitters or brain chemistry — particularly abnormalities in the brain chemical dopamine. Still other researchers believe ADHD is related to the brain’s blood supply or electrical system. Recent research has raised the question of whether frequent exposure in early childhood to rapid electronic stimuli (such as television and computers) might contribute to this problem.

Richard Degrandpre, in his book Ritalin Nation: Rapid-Fire Culture and The Transformation of Human Consciousness, theorizes about what he calls a “sensory addiction phenomenon.” He feels that many of the behaviors seen in ADHD people stem from a sensory bombardment from TV programs, movies, computers and so on. He feels that early exposure to this sensory bombardment, especially at a time when the brain is just forming connections and synapses, may result in biological or neurological effects, including, but not limited to, ADHD.

Degrandpre believes that these effects can be exaggerated in the absence of parental structure. We live in a world that is incredibly stimulating; there are constant stimuli in the life of even a young child. I don’t know that we can get rid of all that, but I know that I can encourage parents to provide a loving, warm, structured environment so children can learn to deal with all the stimuli.

One piece of data that may support Degrandpre’s theory is the experience of the Amish, who are known to forego computers and television. This keeps their children from this type of stimulation; ADHD appears to be uncommon among the Amish. Researchers have reported that among 200 Amish children followed prospectively and compared with the non-Amish population, symptoms of ADHD were unusual.

Adapted from Why ADHD Doesn’t Mean Disaster by Dennis Swanberg, Diane Passno and Walter L. Larimore, M.D. A Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers.

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About the Author

Walt Larimore

A nationally-recognized family physician practicing for over 35 years, Dr. Walt Larimore spends much of his time seeing patients in Colorado Springs, Colo., and as a visiting professor at the In His Image Family Medicine Residency in Tulsa, Okla. He is an award-winning medical journalist and a best-selling author of numerous books. Formerly, Dr. Larimore served as Focus on the …

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