Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder that impacts more than 10 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Although ADHD is widespread and often in the news, many misconceptions about it persist. We asked experts to set the record straight and bust some myths about ADHD.
Myth: ADHD does not have any impact on overall health and wellbeing.
Childhood ADHD is linked to shortened lifespan, according to recent research by Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Virginia Treatment Center for Children and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.
That finding doesn’t surprise mental health professionals, who have spent decades working with ADHD patients. “Psychiatric disorders have a real impact on life expectancy and overall health,” says John T. Walkup, M.D., Chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Those with ADHD often have poor self-regulation and high impulsivity, neither of which are conducive to good health. ADHD is also associated with an increased risk in suicidal ideation and interpersonal conflict, which can lead to violence. “When you think of the consequences of untreated or poorly treated ADHD, things like substance abuse, car accidents, and relationship instability can all be problems,” Walkup says.
While Barkley’s findings are certainly concerning, his research may also spur positive changes.
Dale Davison, M.Sp.Ed., and ADHD coach in the Chicago suburbs, stresses that the study reveals the impact ADHD has when undiagnosed and/or untreated. The research clearly illustrates why seeking diagnosis and treatment is so critically important. Davison says that longitudinal studies like Barkley’s should help people see that ADHD “is an important public health issue.”
Walkup hopes that it will lead to greater acceptance of ADHD and end the stigma surrounding diagnosis and treatment. “We have a hard time in our society really appreciating what the impact of psychiatric disorders are until they impact you or a loved one,” he says.
Myth: Having ADHD is really bad and scary.
Studies like Barkley’s can be alarming, but while having ADHD can certainly be a challenge, Davison assures people that “it is not all bad news.” In her work with the nonprofit Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), and as the CHADD representative to the ADHD guidelines committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, she has seen that there can be upsides to ADHD. Those with ADHD are often wonderfully creative and they excel at thinking outside the box.
In addition, strides have been made in medication and treatment, making ADHD easier to manage. There are also more resources available for parents and those with ADHD. Davison recommends the National Resource Center on ADHD, which also offers the ADHD Helpline (1-800-233-4050) that is staffed by Health Information Specialists during weekday afternoons.
“There is reason to have hope,” she says.
Myth: ADHD always looks the same.
ADHD can be mild or severe, and symptoms vary.
“If you’ve met one child with ADHD, then you’ve met one child with ADHD,” says Gene Carroccia, a licensed clinical psychologist behind ADHDology.com and author of the new book “Treating ADHD/ADD in Children and Adolescents: Solutions for Parents and Clinicians.”
While there may be a tendency to lump those who have ADHD into one uniform category, that’s inaccurate. “It’s a complex condition. It looks different in different people,” says Carroccia. In fact, how it looks in a specific individual may also change as symptoms morph over time.
Carroccia also notes that other conditions have symptoms that can appear similar to ADHD, such as sensory-processing conditions, so he suggests vision and hearing screenings that go beyond the ones kids receive in school. Sleep deprivation can also seem similar to ADHD, so screening for sleep problems may also be advisable.
Myth: ADHD is a learning disability.
ADHD is often mischaracterized as a learning disability or “just a homework disorder,” says Carroccia, perhaps in part because often it becomes an issue when children start school. However, ADHD is a separate and distinct condition, and not a learning disability. Vinay Saranga, M.D., child psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex, North Carolina, stresses that there are “clear distinctions” between ADHD and learning disorders and lumping them together is “incorrect.”
Approximately “two-thirds of kids with ADHD do have some sort of diagnosable learning disorder or other mental health disorder,” explains Saranga.
Myth: ADHD is the same in boys and girls.
Boys are as much as three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, according to the NIMH. That does not mean that girls do not have ADHD.
The experts say girls are diagnosed less frequently for variety of reasons. One is that their symptoms tend to develop a little later in life than boys and those symptoms are typically less disruptive, because “girls tend to show less disruptiveness and more inattention,” says Saranga. Meanwhile, Davison notes that boys with ADHD tend to show more hyperactivity.
“In general, parents should be on the lookout if their children are unable to sit still beyond what would be considered normal behavior for kids, have hyperactivity, are extremely talkative, or are unable to concentrate or pay attention and have trouble with organizational skills,” Saranga says.
Myth: All kids outgrow ADHD.
While some people associate ADHD with hyperactive early elementary students, the recently released Health of America Report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association found that the diagnosis rate in 2017 was highest among middle schoolers, meaning kids between 11 and 13 years old.
Although some do see their ADHD symptoms lessen with age, Davison estimates that only 15-20 percent of people outgrow this condition.
ADHD symptoms do tend to evolve or change as people age. Saranga notes that while hyperactivity and impulsivity tend to improve as a child gets older, new challenges can appear in adulthood, including mood disorders and anxiety.
Myth: Parents are eager to medicate their kids with ADHD.
One particularly persistent myth is that parents of kids with ADHD are more than eager to dispense medication. That thinking discounts the challenges of raising a child who does not have a neurotypical brain, says Davidson.
Walkup says that the parents of his patients are often wary of drugs to treat ADHD. “It’s hard to get parents to give kids meds,” he says. “When they see the benefit, they become convinced of the value of the medicine.”
He notes that some kids do better on one medication than another so it may take time to find the best one. When medication fails, he says it is often because the child has been misdiagnosed. When an appropriately diagnosed child with ADHD does receive the right medication, the change can be significant. Conveying that benefit, though, can be a challenge.
“I think there are many families that aren’t well versed and/or don’t know that there are good treatments available,” Walkup says. “Meds for ADHD are highly stigmatized. We create a nearly impossible position for people to go get a diagnosis, get medicines, and participate in treatment,” he says. “It’s not an easy way out as often described and is often a heroic effort by families.”
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”