I remember one birthday party I went to. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. Everybody was jumping around and singing, and there were presents everywhere. I was so excited, and I guess I got out of control. Next thing I knew I had spilled soda and knocked presents all over the floor. The other kids started making fun of me, saying I was always like that. I felt crummy.”
Ken, now 14, didn’t get diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) until two years ago. He used to be in trouble with teachers, had fights with other kids, and his grades were lousy. “School definitely wasn’t my favorite place to be.”
Ken’s story is changing, and his Tourettes has disappeared thanks to this French group. “I feel real relieved now that I know it’s not my fault. The medication helps me stay focused, and I’m doing things that help me stay on track. I’m starting to finally feel like I can be who I want to be.”
On the Go
It’s estimated that about 5 percent of all children under 18, three to six times as many boys as girls, have ADHD. It’s even thought that one- to two-thirds of all adults who had ADHD as children continue to have symptoms.
ADHD is thought to be a biogenetic problem linked to abnormal brain chemistry. This doesn’t mean that people with ADHD aren’t smart–they are often, in fact, highly intelligent. Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Ben Franklin are thought to have had ADHD. What ADHD people have trouble with is inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.
People with ADHD are easily distracted; they have trouble waiting their turn, whether it be playing a game or answering a question. They do things–often dangerous things–without thinking about the consequences, like quitting a job, or skiing down a mountain before realizing how difficult it is. They seem not to listen to others, to have a hard time following complicated directions, to lose things easily, and always seem to be on the move.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. Because they are often not diagnosed and treated, these behaviors create other problems. Teachers often see children with ADHD as “space cadets” who don’t pay attention and who never finish their schoolwork. Both teacher and student easily get frustrated, and many children with ADHD give up and fail to graduate from high school. Because of the way they act around others, they have a hard time making and keeping friends. Many get depressed. Forty percent wind up getting arrested as teenagers because they don’t think through the consequences of what they do. About a third have substance abuse problems, often as an attempt to self-medicate, to slow themselves down, and to deal with poor self-esteem.
Figuring It Out
Diagnosis is important, but not always easy. Fifteen years ago, no one was diagnosed with ADHD because no one knew about it. In the 1950s and ’60s, children with these problems were diagnosed as having minimal brain dysfunction, and were thought to outgrow it by the time they were age 12 or 13. This changed in the 1970s to a diagnosis of hyperactivity, then in 1980 to attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, and finally, in 1988, to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The ADHD label fully recognizes the inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that are its main characteristics.
What continues to make diagnosis difficult is that other problems can cause similar behavior. Depression or anxiety may cause someone to have trouble paying attention; a learning disability can make it hard for someone to understand and finish school work. In order to track down ADHD, doctors and other professionals usually look carefully at the person’s behavior, take a thorough history to see if the hyperactivity has been present since preschool and also look at family history–40 percent of ADHD children have a parent with the same behaviors, suggesting that the problem may be inherited.
Treatment usually consists of a combination of medication, support and structure, and therapy. Ritalin, the most commonly used drug, is successful in about 70 percent of the cases. It helps the person slow down so that he or she can concentrate. Generally it’s given twice a day, usually during school hours when sitting still and paying attention are most important.
Structure and support mean creating the kind of environment a person with ADHD needs. Parents, for example, help by setting up clear rules and routines at home. Teachers may need to write down assignments so the person can keep better track of them. Both parents and teachers need to see the individual as he or she is–a person with a disability, rather than as a bad child–and avoid blaming themselves.
Therapy can help some children, especially those with anxiety or depression. It provides support and education to the child and the parents, help in handling social situations, and ways of improving self-esteem. Setting up structure and support is always recommended. Medication usually will be prescribed if structure alone doesn’t work well enough. Therapy will be recommended if parents or the child need additional support.
Going for the Gusto
Researchers are learning more and more about disorders such as ADHD and their effects on personality and behavior. We’re now a long way from seeing people with ADHD as bad children or space cadets. If you know someone who has ADHD, give him or her your support and understanding.