What is ADHD?

The current clinical view of ADHD (commonly called ADD) perceives it as a neurodevelopmental disorder, with symptoms first becoming apparent in childhood. The symptoms or characteristics of ADHD are related to a cognitive process called executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to the ability to absorb and interpret information and to make decisions based on this information. This ability is related to attention, impulsivity, mental flexibility, self-monitoring, planning/organization, and working memory. To view a short video on executive functioning, click here.

Inattention – problems getting focused on tedious tasks, being easily distracted by unimportant things, being easily bored, shifting from one uncompleted activity to another, failure to complete assignments, inconsistent or highly variable school or work performance.

Impulsivity – not stopping to think before acting, not inhibiting ones actions or responses, not being able to wait, not thinking of the consequences of ones actions, not being able to work for longer-term rewards, problems following rules.

Mental flexibility – being able to shift focus from one task to another one, dividing attention between two tasks, seeing things from more than one point of view.

Self-monitoring – problems regulating or monitoring ones own behavior, not being aware of hyperactive, excessive activity such as being fidgety and restless, responding inappropriately to other people, interrupting and disrupting group activities, problems controlling ones emotional reactions..

Planning/organization – problems determining and carrying out the steps to carry out a long term task, such as writing a paper, feeling overwhelmed by large amounts of work, having a messy locker or desk.

Working memory – not remembering to do what one knows needs to be done, walking into a room and forgetting why one came in there, forgetting important things like car keys or homework.


Is ADHD really a disorder?

Everybody has problems with attention, planning, and working memory from time to time, especially when they are tired or hungry or bored. Many children are active and fidgety when adults want them to be quiet. It is only a disorder when it is beyond what is normal for the situation and the person’s developmental level and, as a result, interferes with the person’s ability to function in the world and to accomplish one’s own goals. Intermittent problems with attention and impulsivity are not a disorder. If attention or impulsivity interfere with a person’s ability to form relationships, to succeed in school or work, to obey the law, to drive safely, to parent effectively, and/or be a self-supporting adult, it is then a disorder.


How prevalent is ADHD?

Current research indicates that ADHD occurs in approximately 3-7% of the population. Current research also indicates that ADHD occurs worldwide. It has been found in every country where it has been studied. ADHD occurs about three times as often in males as in females.


What causes ADHD?

There is overwhelming evidence to indicate that ADHD has a genetic basis. If a parent has ADHD, it is likely that 40-54% of his/her children will also have ADHD. This link is as strong as the link between a child’s height and his/her parent’s height. Biologically, ADHD affects chemicals in the brain that play a role in learning, motivation, goals, drives, and alertness.


How is one evaluated for ADHD?

There is no single test or checklist that adequately evaluates a person for ADHD. A comprehensive assessment can be provided by a licensed health care professional with experience and training in evaluating ADHD. A comprehensive assessment would include interviews that obtain developmental information, medical history, and school/work history. Information from rating scales would be obtained from multiple sources, such as teachers, parents, or partners. Selected neuropsychological assessment tools can provide objective data about attention, impulsivity, and working memory. A comprehensive assessment would obtain enough information to determine that the behaviors are significant enough to be considered ADHD, but are not better explained by another diagnosis.


What are some treatments for ADHD that have been proven to be effective?

Educating and counseling parents – It is important for parents to learn about what ADHD is and how to develop effective strategies to manage their children’s behavior. Effective strategies typically involve increasing external structure, support, and consistency in all areas of the child or teen’s life. Working with a therapist who has specialized training in ADHD is a way to receive this treatment. Participating in support groups can be an added resource for parents. Research shows that 65-75% of children improve when their parents receive this information and guidance.

Educating and counseling/coaching adults – In a similar way, adults need to learn about ADHD and how it affects their work life, their parenting, and their relationships. Coaching that helps adults develop practical strategies for coping with ADHD and increasing structure and consistency is most likely to be helpful.

Medication – Up to 70-80% of children with diagnosed ADHD benefit from medication. Teens and adults also benefit from medication. Medications do not cure ADHD and have mixed results for some people, but can be a helpful intervention when used with other counseling and academic interventions.

Educating and training teachers – Teachers need to know about ADHD so that they can implement appropriate classroom accommodations and work with parents to develop successful academic strategies that are the core of 504 Accommodation Plans and Individualized Educational Plans.

Regular aerobic exercise – Recent studies have shown that ADHD symptoms decrease in children who participate in an aerobic exercise program five times a week.

Cogmed Working Memory Training – A growing body of published research indicates that people of all ages who have completed Cogmed Working Memory Training demonstrate an improved ability to concentrate and use complex reasoning skills.


Where can I get further information about ADHD?