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ADHD Explained: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and Strengths

ADHD is a common disorder affecting many children and adults. It can bring challenges in different areas like school, work, and relationships due to symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

The good news is that ADHD is treatable. Through proper diagnosis and a mix of treatments like medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes, those with ADHD can learn to manage symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

This article delves into ADHD, covering symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and even the unique strengths associated with it. If you or someone you know might have ADHD, reading this can help you understand the disorder better and find effective ways to deal with it.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterized by an individual’s inability to focus or pay attention. People with ADHD may experience challenges with focus, impulsivity, and organization. Staying focused for long periods can be difficult for people with ADHD, even for tasks they enjoy.

ADHD is a disorder that usually develops during childhood, but is sometimes not even diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood. ADHD is often viewed as a learning disorder because it can interfere with the learning process dramatically. 

History of ADHD

ADHD was first loosely described by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman in 1845. In 1902, Sir George F. Still published a series of lectures in England describing a small group of children who exhibited significant behavioral problems caused by dysfunctional genetics as opposed to bad child-rearing.

Since that time, ADHD has gone through a significant period of being defined and redefined over and over again. It is important to note that until the late 80s and early 90s, ADHD was known as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) ADD and ADHD are essentially the same disorder, with the noteworthy distinction of ADHD including hyperactivity.

Since its initial description, ADHD has been a topic of ongoing debate and refinement.

ADHD Controversy

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the diagnosis of ADHD. Some individuals find the addition of “hyperactivity” to the diagnosis inaccurate, superfluous, inappropriate, and even offensive.

ADHD is typically first identified in childhood, leading some to question if it's over-diagnosed.  However, diagnosing ADHD accurately can be complex. Researchers are continually working to improve our understanding of the disorder and refine diagnostic criteria.

There is no proof of a brain abnormality with ADHD, and the cause of it is unknown. There are no laboratory tests or radiological tests that can prove that an individual has ADHD. Additionally, the criteria for ADHD change on a fairly consistent basis, so there is wide speculation among some that the disorder is “made up.”

There is no curative treatment, and so ADHD therapy is long-term and ongoing. Some of the drugs allocated for the disorder are considered to be highly addictive, and some of the side effects are dubious. Finally, the fact that treatments differ so drastically from country to country makes the diagnosis of ADHD less credible to some.

Is ADHD a Mental Illness or a Learning Disability

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. It ranks among the most common mental disorders in children and can persist into adulthood.

Traditionally, ADHD has not been classified as a mental illness. It is not attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain and is not linked to psychosis or other severe mental health issues. Nevertheless, ADHD can significantly impact a person's life, both emotionally and practically. Individuals with ADHD may face challenges in school, work, and their relationships. They may also be more susceptible to experiencing other mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Because ADHD can impact a child's ability to focus and follow instructions, some advocate for classifying it as a learning disability to ensure appropriate support in the classroom. Children with ADHD may find it hard to maintain focus, follow instructions, and complete tasks. They may also exhibit restlessness, fidgetiness, and difficulty sitting still.

Learning disabilities are specific conditions that impede a person's ability to learn and process information. For instance, someone with a learning disability may struggle with reading, writing, or math. In contrast, ADHD is a more generalized disorder that affects attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies ADHD as a mental disorder in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also classifies ADHD as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

However, the DSM-5 also includes ADHD in the section on neurodevelopmental disorders, which suggests that ADHD may be considered both a mental illness and a learning disability.

Ultimately, whether ADHD is classified as a mental illness or a learning disability depends on semantics. The classification of ADHD is still a matter of debate among experts. What truly matters is that ADHD is a genuine disorder with a substantial impact on a person's life.

If you or someone you know is dealing with ADHD, it is crucial to seek professional help. Various treatments are available to assist individuals in managing their ADHD symptoms and leading fulfilling lives.

ADHD Types

ADHD can manifest in three main ways:
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive: People with this type primarily experience symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. They may fidget constantly, have difficulty staying still, blurt out answers, and struggle with waiting their turn. Inattention may also be present but to a lesser degree (fewer than six symptoms).
  • Predominantly Inattentive: This type is characterized by inattentiveness as the leading symptom. Individuals may have difficulty focusing, completing tasks, or following instructions. They might daydream frequently and appear withdrawn or forgetful. Hyperactivity and impulsivity may be present, but they are not as prominent (less than six symptoms).
  • Combined Hyperactive-Impulsive and Inattentive: This is the most common type of ADHD, where individuals experience significant symptoms from both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity categories.
Understanding the Different Types

These categories are not rigid. People with ADHD can exhibit a combination of symptoms from different types, and the presentation can vary greatly between individuals. Some children with the predominantly inattentive type might go unnoticed because they don't cause disruptions, while others with ADHD may display a mix of symptoms that can be challenging to manage.

ADHD Symptoms

ADHD symptoms are varied, and they can manifest themselves in different ways in different people.

ADHD is typically marked by an inability to focus or pay attention to details. People with ADHD have difficulty completing tasks, employing diligence with follow-through, are easily distracted, lose track of appointments, make careless mistakes, have trouble with organizational principles, are impatient, are fidgety and restless, are excessively talkative, etc.

Commons things you should look for:

Inattentive:
  • Lacks attention to detail and often makes careless mistakes in school or other activities
  • Has a hard time keeping his or her attention on tasks or play activities
  • Doesn't listen when spoken to
  • Often avoids tasks that require a sustained mental effort
Hyperactivity:
  • Frequently fidgets or squirms
  • Has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
  • Never has "down time"
  • Talks excessively
Impulsive:
  • Difficulty waiting for his or her turn
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others
  • Answers questions before they have been completed

Strengths of ADHD

While ADHD can present challenges, it's important to remember that it also comes with some unique strengths. People with ADHD often possess these strengths:
  • Creativity:  People with ADHD often think outside the box and have a natural ability to come up with creative solutions to problems. Their boundless energy and enthusiasm can fuel their creative thinking.
  • Energy and Enthusiasm: Individuals with ADHD tend to have a high level of energy and enthusiasm. This can be a great asset in many areas of life, from work and hobbies to social interactions.
  • Hyperfocus:  While focus can be a challenge for people with ADHD, they can also experience hyperfocus. This is a state of intense concentration where they become completely absorbed in a task or activity. When hyperfocused, they can achieve remarkable things.
  • Resilience:  Facing challenges throughout their lives can make people with ADHD develop resilience. They learn to adapt and overcome obstacles, which can be a valuable asset in any situation.
  • People Skills:  Some people with ADHD are naturally outgoing and have strong social skills. Their enthusiasm and ability to connect with others can make them excellent communicators and team players.
  • Intuition and Curiosity:  People with ADHD may have a strong sense of intuition and a natural curiosity about the world around them. This can lead to a deeper understanding of complex issues and a willingness to explore new ideas.
Note: These strengths will vary from person to person.  However, by recognizing and nurturing these strengths, people with ADHD can achieve great things.

ADHD Myths and Facts 

Many people think that if you have not been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, you cannot have it as an adult. This is incorrect. Many people struggle with ADHD their whole lives and are never diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or diagnosed very late in life. They usually attribute their symptoms to other problems and don't get the necessary help.

Additionally, someone with ADHD is six times more likely to suffer from other psychiatric disorders or learning disorders, contrary to popular belief. ADHD almost always accompanies some other major ailment.

ADHD affects people of all intelligence levels, and it's not a disease that is easily overcome. Everyone could be said to exhibit mild symptoms of ADHD from time to time, but when symptoms completely impair abilities, an actual diagnosis is warranted.

Common Myths About ADHD

Myth #1: All kids with ADHD are hyperactive.

Myth #2: Kids with ADHD can never pay attention.

Myth #3: Kids with ADHD choose to be difficult. They could behave better if they wanted to.

Myth #4: Kids will eventually grow out of ADHD.

Myth #5: Medication is the best treatment option for ADHD

What You Should Know About ADHD

ADHD may accompany other disorders as well, such as anxiety disorder and depression. When coupled with other disorders, ADHD becomes harder to diagnose and treat in any meaningful way.

Depression especially seems to be prevalent with ADHD. As children get older, depression magnifies, and seems to be more common in females than in males. The hyperactivity that is abundant during childhood tends to fade and disappear in adulthood, though behavior might still be marked by inattentiveness.

ADHD Causes

There is no exact cause for ADHD. Researchers have identified several different factors that may contribute to the disorder, but no root cause has ever been established.

Genes and ADHD

There's strong evidence that ADHD runs in families. Studies suggest genetics play a role in up to 75% of cases. ADHD likely involves a combination of genes, rather than a single gene. Instead, researchers believe a combination of genes, possibly those affecting brain chemicals like dopamine, might be involved.

While each individual gene's contribution is unclear, the overall influence of genetics on ADHD is significant.

Environmental Factors

Studies have shown that anywhere from 9%-20% of ADHD cases can be attributed to environmental factors. Alcohol and cigarettes have been marked as primary environmental factors, and consumption of them during pregnancy could result in ADHD symptoms. Exposure to nicotine can lead to hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen to the fetus while it is still in the womb, and this could contribute to ADHD.

It’s also possible that the mother herself has ADHD and is prone to smoke, so the combination of her genetics and the smoking could result in her offspring having ADHD. If there are any issues during either the pregnancy or the actual birth, it could contribute to ADHD.

Diet

Studies have shown that proper diet can help some people with ADHD, but there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that diet has a dramatic effect. Many parents choose to minimize or eliminate additives from their children’s diet. This can help with symptoms in some ADHD children. Their hyperactivity may be reduced with a proper diet. Other parents attempt to remove sugar from the diet, but again, there are no scientific studies that prove that this helps.

Social Factors

While the exact cause of ADHD remains unknown, some researchers believe social factors may influence its development.  Specifically, they point to the importance of strong caregiver relationships in a child's ability to manage emotions and self-regulate. This theory is supported by studies showing a higher prevalence of ADHD symptoms in children who have experienced foster care or emotional abuse.

ADHD in Children

ADHD is a disorder that is a common childhood illness that can be treated. The trick with ADHD is identifying it in the first place. It is a health condition that occurs as a direct result of biologically active substances in the brain. ADHD may affect problem-solving, understanding of others' actions, planning, and impulse control.

The AACAP (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry) requires that the following behaviors be present before an ADHD diagnosis is given: the child must exhibit the behaviors before the age of 7, the behaviors must continue for a period of longer than six months, and the behaviors must significantly cripple the child in the classroom, the community, at home, on the playground, or in social settings.

ADHD is very difficult to diagnose, and many other triggers, such as divorce, death in the family, ear infections, undetected seizures, and anxiety or depression can lead to activity that can be mistaken as ADHD.

ADHD continues into adulthood in roughly 30%-50% of diagnosed cases. Those living with ADHD develop coping mechanisms of some kind to manage the disorder.

Children diagnosed with ADHD tend to have an extraordinarily hard time with adolescence. Many, despite receiving special care and attention, will not even obtain a high school diploma. Detention, expulsion, and drop-out rates are high among those with ADHD. Very few will ever go on to pursue a college degree.

Because their attention span is so short, those with ADHD tend to thrive in less structured environments where there are fewer rules.

    Read alsoHow to Help a Child with ADHD Learn To Read

Adult ADHD

What is adult ADHD? We all know that children can be diagnosed with ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but can adults also have ADHD? Many adults don't even know they have ADHD, but it's something that if undiagnosed can cause problems dealing or relating with other people, concentration problems, and a lack of self-confidence.

ADHD can develop at any point in life and can sometimes be missed in childhood diagnoses. In some cases, the ADHD won't show up until adulthood. People who struggle with ADHD have a chemical imbalance and it is something that they cannot help.

Adult ADHD Symptoms

  • Trouble with concentration to an extreme degree
  • Keeping things organized at home and work might be an enormous challenge
  • Finding yourself easily bored, irritated and experience mood swings
  • You might have a pattern of making sudden decisions “on a whim” or have trouble listening to others
  • You might have trouble following a conversation, interrupting others, answering before a question has been asked, or blurting out things you regret later

ADHD Treatment

Medication

While medication is a common treatment approach for ADHD, it's not the only option, and the decision to use it should be made with a doctor. Stimulant medications, like Ritalin, Dexedrine, Desoxyn, and Adderall, are frequently prescribed to help manage ADHD symptoms. Some doctors may also prescribe non-stimulant medications in certain cases.

The exact long-term effects of these medications are still being studied, and their impact on academic performance and social behaviors can vary.

Stimulants are not generally recommended for very young children.

These medications work by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which are chemicals involved in focus and attention. They are considered safe when taken under medical supervision, but there have been concerns about potential long-term effects. Additionally, children should be screened for heart problems before starting stimulant medication.

Therapy

Therapy is often combined with medication for a more comprehensive treatment plan. Many different types of therapy can be beneficial for people with ADHD, including:
  • Behavioral therapy: This helps individuals develop strategies for managing their behavior.
  • Psychoeducational therapy: This educates individuals and their families about ADHD and how to manage it.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy: This therapy focuses on improving communication and relationship skills.
  • Family therapy: This therapy helps families work together to support a loved one with ADHD.
Additional Treatment Options

In addition to medication and therapy, there are other approaches that may be helpful for managing ADHD symptoms. These include:
  • Diet: While there's no one-size-fits-all diet for ADHD, some people find that dietary changes can improve their symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for certain individuals.
  • Sleep: Maintaining a regular sleep schedule can significantly improve focus and overall well-being for people with ADHD.
  • EEG biofeedback: This is a form of therapy that uses brainwave monitoring to help individuals learn to regulate their brain activity.
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can improve focus and reduce impulsivity in some people with ADHD.
  • Support groups: Connecting with others who understand ADHD can be a valuable source of support and information.
  • Movement: Allowing children with ADHD to fidget can sometimes help them focus on a task.
Note: ADHD treatment is individualized.  The most effective approach will vary depending on the specific needs and preferences of the person with ADHD.

    Read also15 Ways to Disarm (and Understand) Explosive ADHD Emotions

Developing an ADHD treatment plan

Once the treatment team is in place, the next step is putting together a personalized treatment plan that addresses your or your child’s specific needs. Family involvement in treatment improves the chances of success, which is why it’s so important to work closely with the treatment team.

The most effective treatment for ADD / ADHD tackles the problem on multiple fronts. This comprehensive treatment strategy is known as the multi-modal approach. Elements of the multi-modal approach include:
  • Education about ADHD (for both the person with ADHD and the parents, spouse, or other family members)
  • Behavioral intervention strategies
  • Parent training
  • A specialized educational program
  • Medication, when necessary

Conclusion

ADHD is a complex disorder that can affect you throughout life. With a proper diagnosis and personalized plan, you can manage symptoms effectively and reach your full potential.

Your journey with ADHD is unique. Challenges will come, but so will your strength and resilience. By embracing your unique traits and finding the right support, you can thrive in every area of your life.

Remember, ADHD isn’t a flaw; it’s just a different way of thinking and engaging with the world. Many accomplished individuals have ADHD. With understanding, self-acceptance, and the right resources, you can lead a fulfilling life.

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