The most conservative studies indicate between 3 percent and 5 percent of all school-age children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). "It's a very real disorder," says Dr. David Krohn of Northern Michigan Psychiatric Services in Traverse City, Mich. "We know as much about the chemistry, biology and genetics of ADHD as we do other medical illnesses."
The ABCs of ADHD
ADHD – the current way of describing the disorder, although it also is commonly referred to as simply ADD, or attention deficit disorder – covers the spectrum of what is most commonly seen: a person with inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, Dr. Krohn says.
But not all those with the disorder experience these three characteristics. In some cases, inattentiveness is the main issue while others struggle with a combination of hyperactivity and impulsivity. More boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD, but experts stress that just as many girls could be affected.
Still, for all that's known of the disorder, less than half of all cases are diagnosed, and of those that are, fewer than half actually get treatment, whether medication or therapy, Dr. Krohn says. "A lot of it is the stigma issue," he says. "It's very difficult to come in as a parent and look at this issue."
According to Dr. Krohn, how society views ADHD plays a big role in the misconceptions. "There's so much misinformation out there," he says, citing such incorrect views as the disorder not being real, or people believing parents exaggerate their child's behavior. "[ADHD] affects parenting, but it's not caused by parenting ... we don't go around blaming parents for diabetes – why do we do this with this illness?"
Does My Child Have ADHD?
How does a parent begin to determine if their child may have ADHD? A closer look at the symptoms may help. When someone struggles continuously with inattention, anything that requires sustained mental effort is difficult, Dr. Krohn says. For these children, school can be especially tough.
These students seem to learn best when information is split into parts. Providing a series of tasks rather than one huge assignment to follow helps. "They're sprinters, not distance learners," says Dr. Krohn.
Impulsivity, another ADHD characteristic, often lands children in trouble in school because they may interrupt their teacher and classmates. This child has difficulty waiting his or her turn.
Hyperactivity, which experts say is the characteristic those with ADHD are most likely to improve upon as they age, is fairly easy to spot. Symptoms include fidgeting, running or climbing when it is inappropriate, struggling to play or engage in leisure activity quietly and often talking excessively.
The Next Step: Treatment
Experts say parents who are concerned their child may have ADHD should seek a thorough evaluation. "It's not an easy diagnosis to make," says Dr. Sander Weckstein, also of Northern Michigan Psychiatric Services. This is because many things can lead to children struggling to pay attention, control their impulses and contain their activity. A thorough evaluation is key. "The flip side is we have really good treatments," says Dr. Weckstein. "Kids can reach their potential and be successful and feel good."
Medication can be scary for parents, but shouldn't be ruled out, experts say. Some 90 percent of those with ADHD who go on medication will have a positive response, Dr. Weckstein says.
"You have to weigh the risks of the illness against the risks of treatment," Dr. Krohn says. Studies have shown that those with ADHD left untreated are at a higher risk of depression and drug abuse.
In all ADHD cases, studies show that between 20 and 25 percent outgrow the disorder, one-quarter experience the same symptoms as adults and half get better.