Unraveling the myths about ADHD, part one

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, continues to remain a hot topic in the fields of education and mental health. This article is the first in a two-part series that will hopefully shed some light on this disorder. In this first article, I’ll talk about the symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD. Next month, I will follow up with strategies and interventions that may be helpful for children who have ADHD.

What does ADHD look like? ADHD is a behavioral condition. As the name implies, symptoms include difficulty attending and higher than normal activity (hyperactivity). People with this disorder have trouble focusing, as well as difficulty with organization and planning. It is difficult for people with ADHD to think before acting, and adapting to change may also be an issue. Other symptoms include: forgetting things, difficulty following directions or instructions, excessive daydreaming, fidgeting, nonstop talking, interrupting others and difficulty with patience or waiting.

How prevalent is ADHD? The Centers for Disease Control report that approximately 9.5 percent of children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Boys are much more likely than girls to be diagnosed, but it is believed that girls are often underdiagnosed because they exhibit different symptoms than boys. The ADHD symptoms of boys tend to be more noticeable and are also considered more disruptive, so teachers and parents tend to seek help to deal with those behaviors.

How does ADHD impact those who live with it? As you can imagine from the list of symptoms, it can be very difficult for children with ADHD in school settings. It’s important to remember that children with ADHD still have their unique strengths and weaknesses. One child may pick up academic skills more quickly, while others may need much more repetition and practice. Our tendency, often due to time and financial constraint, is to attempt to make the child fit into the academic setting rather than making changes in how they are taught. Sometimes people with ADHD find a more physical or active interest that utilizes their special strengths. For example, the Olympian Michael Phelps has said that swimming was a way of coping with his ADHD symptoms. The famous chef Jamie Oliver believes that eating well helps control his own ADHD symptoms, and he is a proponent of healthy eating for children.

How is ADHD diagnosed? First, it is imperative that other physical problems or illnesses be ruled out. Involving the family physician is key for both ruling out other illnesses and diagnosing ADHD. A diagnosis would optimally involve a team of people who are able to get to know and observe the child. Observations from teachers and parents are used to complete behavior checklists. School psychologists can observe the child in various settings to see how much their behavior differs from the other students.

What makes ADHD such a controversial subject? There are many reasons why ADHD has become a sensitive subject. First of all, the exact causes are uncertain. Genetics seem to play a role, but researchers are also looking into environmental influences that may have a part. Another cause of controversy is the debate about whether these behaviors really constitute a disorder. Are these kids just being kids? Or is there a real problem? The term “disorder” carries with it a negative connotation and implies that it needs to be fixed. A lot of the “problems” occur when we try to squeeze unique individuals into a one-size-fits-all setting, which tends to be how our educational system works. Similarly, diagnosis can be controversial. As I mentioned above, a thorough evaluation needs to be completed based on observations and reports from several people. This can take a lot of time and coordination, which can be hard work, but is much more preferable than a misdiagnosis.

The treatment of ADHD is also controversial. Many are opposed to medicating children and recommend that other interventions be used first, with medications only used in severe situations and as a last resort. Psychology Today reported that those with ADHD are 300-percent more likely to start their own business. There are many celebrities and successful business people who state they have ADHD, but were able to find ways to cope with or channel their unique traits. So it may be important for us as educators and parents to learn more about how we can provide appropriate opportunities for children to build on their interests and unique abilities. That said, it is important for children to learn academic skills. Therefore, the second half of this series will explore various strategies that people find helpful when working with students who have ADHD.

Sara Buhl, Ph.D., is a certified school psychologist and psychology instructor. Questions or comments can be sent to sarabuhl1@gmail.com.

Unraveling the myths about ADHD, part one.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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