ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, used to be known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD. In 1994, it was renamed ADHD. The term ADD is sometimes still used, though, to describe a type of ADHD that doesn't involve hyperactivity.
ADHD is a medical condition that affects how well someone can sit still, focus, and pay attention. People with ADHD have differences in the parts of their brains that control attention and activity. This means that they may have trouble focusing on certain tasks and subjects, or they may seem "wired," act impulsively, and get into trouble.
Symptoms and Signs of ADHD
Although ADHD begins in childhood, sometimes it's not diagnosed until a person is a teen — and occasionally not even until someone reaches adulthood.
Because ADHD is a broad category covering different things — attention, activity, and impulsivity — it can show up in different ways in different people. Some of the signs of ADHD are when someone:
- has difficulty paying attention or staying focused on a task or activity
- has problems finishing assignments at school or home and jumps from one activity to another
- has trouble focusing on instructions and difficulty following through
- loses or forgets things such as homework
- is easily distracted, even when doing something fun
- has problems paying close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
- has trouble organizing tasks and activities
- has difficulty waiting one's turn
- interrupts or intrudes on other people
- blurts out answers before questions have been completed
- fidgets with hands or feet or squirms about when seated
- feels restless
- talks excessively and has trouble engaging in activities quietly
Of course, it's normal for everyone to zone out in a boring class, jump into a conversation, or leave their homework on the kitchen table once in a while. But people with ADHD have so much trouble staying focused and controlling their behavior that it affects their emotions and how well they do in school or other areas of their lives. In fact, ADHD is often viewed as a learning disorder because it can interfere so much with a person's ability to study and learn.
Sometimes the symptoms of ADHD become less severe as a person grows older. Hyperactivity tends to get less as people grow up, although the problems with organization and attention often remain. More than half of kids who have ADHD will continue to have symptoms as young adults.
What Causes ADHD?
Doctors and researchers still aren't exactly sure why some people have ADHD. Research shows that ADHD is probably genetic and that it may be inherited in some cases. Scientists are also exploring other things that may be associated with ADHD: For example, ADHD may be more prevalent in kids who are born prematurely. It is also more commonly diagnosed in guys than it is in girls.
Doctors do know that ADHD is caused by changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (pronounced: nur-oh-trans-mih-terz). These chemicals help send messages between nerve cells in the brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine (pronounced: doe-puh-meen), for example, stimulates the brain's attention centers. So a person with low amounts of this chemical may show symptoms of ADHD.
How Is ADHD Treated?
Because there's no cure for ADHD, doctors treat people by helping them to manage the symptoms most effectively. Because some people have more trouble with the attention side of the disorder and others have more problems with the activity side, doctors tailor their treatment to the person's symptoms. So different people with ADHD may have different treatments.
Doctors usually follow what's called a multimodal (pronounced: mul-tee-moe-dul) approach to ADHD treatment. This means that they use several different treatment methods for one patient, such as medication, family and individual counseling, and changes at school to address particular learning styles.
Certain medicines can help people with ADHD by improving their focus and attention and reducing the impulsiveness and hyperactivity associated with ADHD. People with ADHD used to have to take medicine several times a day, but now there are some that can be taken at home once a day in the morning. Scientists are constantly working to develop new medications to treat ADHD.
You can discuss treatment options with your doctor, but always follow the doctor's instructions about medication dosages. If you have been taking medicine for ADHD since you were a kid, your doctor will probably adjust your medication for changes in your symptoms as you get older.
Counseling and Other Therapies
Family counseling helps treat ADHD because it keeps parents informed and also shows them ways they can work with their kids to help. It also helps to improve communication within the family and to solve problems that come up between teens and their parents at home. Individual counseling helps teens with ADHD to better understand their behavior and to learn coping skills. Sometimes lots of teens with ADHD work together in group therapy, which helps them work on coping skills and getting along better with others, if that's been a problem.
Schools are also involved in helping students with ADHD — most will develop a plan that's right for each teen and make changes that allow learning in ways that work best for them.
People with ADHD may also have other problems, such as depression, anxiety, or learning disabilities like dyslexia, that require treatment. They also may be at greater risk for smoking and using drugs, especially if the ADHD is not appropriately treated. That's why proper diagnosis and treatment are critical.
If You or Someone You Know Has ADHD
Most teens with ADHD are diagnosed as kids, but some people aren't diagnosed until they're in their teens or even older. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, scared, or even angry if you've been diagnosed with ADHD. That's one thing counseling can help with. Talking about those feelings and dealing with them often makes the process much easier.
If you have ADHD, you may not be aware that you're behaving in a way that's different from others; you're just doing what comes naturally. This can sometimes cause problems with people who don't understand or know about your condition. For example, you might speak your mind to someone only to get the feeling that you've shocked or offended that person. You may not understand why people get mad at you.
Learning all you can about your condition can be a huge help. The more you understand, the more involved you can be in your own treatment.
Tips to Try
Here are some of the things you might try to help with school and relationships:
- Sit in the front of class to limit distractions.
- Turn off email, instant messaging, and your phone when doing homework or other tasks that require focused attention. This will help protect you against being distracted.
- Talk with your teacher about your ADHD and work together to be sure you're learning in a way that works for you. For example, some schools will allow people with ADHD more time for taking tests. Some teens may benefit from smaller class sizes and tutorial help.
- Use tools that help you stay organized. For example, keep track of assignments in a homework notebook, including a list of books and readings you'll need to bring home to do them. Write down classes and other appointments in a daily planner (or if you have a smartphone that reminds you electronically, enter them in that) so you don't forget.
- Get plenty of exercise. Studies are starting to show that exercise can help people who have ADHD. If you feel hyper during school, talk to a teacher about taking activity breaks so you can stay focused and concentrate better when in class. Take frequent activity breaks while studying or doing homework.
- Practice relaxation and meditation techniques to relax and focus.
- Let friends know what's going on. Sometimes with our friends, we blurt things out and regret it later or we do silly, impulsive things. If this happens to you, let your friends know that sometimes you just say things without thinking all the way through, apologize if you have hurt someone's feelings, and try to be extra careful in new situations.
- Take pride in the things you do well. Having ADHD is just a different way of being, and people with ADHD have their own abilities and talents.
The Bright Side
If you have ADHD, it's natural to feel misunderstood and frustrated at times. It might seem like you're always losing your homework or having trouble following teachers' instructions, or you may have trouble making friends or getting along with your family members.
It helps to learn as much as you can about ADHD and to find the methods that will help you work to your full potential — both academically and socially.
The good news is that doctors, counselors, and teachers are learning more about ADHD all the time and have a greater understanding than ever of the challenges people living with it face.
Plus, the organization skills you develop now will serve you well in the future. Even people who don't have ADHD all find they need to develop these skills when they head off to the workplace — so you'll be ahead of the curve!
Reviewed by: Richard S. Kingsley, MD
Date reviewed: January 2011