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What Is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

What Is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

What are the effects of ADHD?
How do I know if I have ADHD?
Why does it happen?

Does your mind wander when you're sitting in class? Do you have trouble getting started on your homework? Do you forget where you put things? Do you interrupt other people, even when you try not to? Most people have these experiences every once in a while. But if they happen to you almost all the time, then you may have what's known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

People with ADHD have different symptoms. Some teens with ADHD are restless and fidgety. They are always moving around and often have trouble waiting their turn. They may be the ones who always blurt out their answers in class. These teens may also be impulsive, meaning that they do things—even dangerous things—without thinking about the consequences of their actions. This is the hyperactive type of ADHD.

Other teens with ADHD may have different kinds of problems. They may lose things, forget their homework, and daydream. They may be impulsive, too, but they're not quite as restless as their hyperactive peers. Sometimes, these people are mistakenly called unmotivated or lazy, or "space cadets." This is the inattentive type of ADHD—without the "H." In fact, sometimes it's simply called ADD. Most people who suffer from ADHD have a combination of hyperactive and inattentive behavior. back to top

What are the effects of ADHD?
If not treated, ADHD can really mess up your life. ADHD can hurt your performance in school and lower your self-esteem. You may have trouble maintaining friendships and getting along with your family. You may also be more irritable and have a quick temper. People with ADHD are at greater risk for abusing drugs and alcohol. The disorder can also make you more prone to taking risks that can hurt you and others—such as driving under the influence of alcohol or getting into trouble with the police. If you've had ADHD for a while, but have not gone for treatment, your problems could lead you to become depressed. This may make you feel like giving up. And here is a startling fact: teens with ADHD drop out of high school 12 times more often than their peers do. So the earlier you get treatment, the better off you will be—now and in the future. back to top

How do I know if I have ADHD?
ADHD can be hard to diagnose because the physical and emotional changes of adolescence can make most people feel like they're bouncing off the walls at times. But here's the difference. While most teens can buckle down and get to work when they need to, teens with ADHD just can't—no matter how hard they try.

ADHD affects as many as two million young people in the United States. Most of the time, people have been diagnosed with ADHD long before they reach adolescence—usually when they start kindergarten or first grade, or maybe even earlier. Because of that, many teens have received treatment already and their symptoms are under control. Also, research suggests that by adolescence, some young people diagnosed with ADHD no longer have the symptoms.

But many others will continue to struggle with ADHD in adolescence. In fact, studies have shown that at least one or two teens in every classroom need help for the disorder. Some kids with ADHD do OK in elementary school, where there is more structure and less distraction, but have problems later on. Also, intelligent kids may not show they have a problem until they get into higher grades and their schoolwork becomes more challenging. Two to three times more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD. Lately, though, more girls are being identified with the disorder. This is partly because scientists are learning that the symptoms for ADHD can sometimes be different for girls.

For instance, a recent study showed that girls with ADHD were more likely to have conduct, mood, and anxiety disorders than other girls. They were also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Because of this, many girls with ADHD may be misdiagnosed with these problems rather than with ADHD. Also, some girls with ADHD are not as rebellious as boys with the disorder. Instead, these girls may seem shy, or a little slow, or maybe just a bit spacey. Mood problems, anxiety disorders, and psychosis might also affect attention or make people seem hyperactive.

Other girls with ADHD, instead of being hyperactive, might be hypertalkative. You may know someone who constantly chatters in class and interrupts other people. And sometimes, smart girls with ADHD can keep their grades up for a long time.

The mental health professional will probably begin by asking you a few questions: Are you having academic and social problems? Do you have the same kinds of problems at school, home, and work? Have your difficulties lasted for more than six months? There are also several psychological tests that identify teens with ADHD. Your school counselor, a psychologist, or a pediatrician usually gives these tests. They will also listen to observations from your parents, teachers, and other adults you see regularly. And they will take a careful look at your grades and test scores.

Chances are good that you will also be given several achievement, attention, and intelligence tests. There are no "grades" on these tests, so you don't have to study for them! The point is for the testers to learn as much information as possible about how your mind works and to find out if there are any other problems. Some doctors also give what are known as neuropsychological tests and neurological examinations—where they take a close look at the inside of your brain. In the end, a team of professionals will determine if you have ADHD. back to top

Why does it happen?
ADHD is not your fault, and it is not your parents' fault. People used to think that ADHD was caused by a lack of discipline at home. Now we know that children are born with the tendency to get this disorder. Some studies have shown that ADHD is genetic; many parents of children diagnosed with ADHD had symptoms of the disorder when they were young. ADHD has also been found more often in the brothers and sisters of people with ADHD.

Most scientists agree that ADHD is caused by problems with a person's brain chemistry. Very sophisticated photographs of the inside of the brain have shown that the brains of young people with ADHD are different from the brains of people without the disorder. The part of the brain that has high levels of a chemical called dopamine doesn't work well. Not surprisingly then, the best medications for ADHD give that area of the brain a big boost.

In the past, some people thought that certain foods, especially sugar, caused ADHD. But studies have concluded that this is not true. Although there are many good reasons to avoid eating too much candy and cake, eating foods that are high in sugar does not cause ADHD.

Other studies have explored whether chronic exposure to lead causes ADHD. Scientists can't seem to agree on whether this is true. But it's probably a good idea to find out how much lead is in your environment. (Lead is found in house paint and other household products.)

On the other hand, scientists do seem to agree that a woman who drinks alcohol or uses drugs while she's pregnant could put her child at risk for developing ADHD. Someone with a serious head injury might also develop the disorder. back to top

Last Modified Date: 2/9/2001
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