What is ADHD and how to treat it?

ADHD is a term that we hear batted about regularly, but there’s a lot of confusion over what it actually means to have ADHD and how to treat it. In the following article, we’re going to examine what ADHD is as well as the possible treatment options through the following topics:

  • What is ADHD?
  • How is ADHD diagnosed, and who do you turn to for a diagnosis?
  • How to treat ADHD
  • ADHD in children
  • ADHD in adulthood
  • ADHD as a superpower

What is ADHD?

The ability to pay attention is such an important skill, but it’s also one that we take for granted because most of us are able to automatically do so. It facilitates learning, building and maintaining social bonds, and keeping ourselves out of harm’s way. However, for many children (and adults), paying attention is one of the hardest things that they can be asked to do. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that affects 5-10% of the world’s population and it influences many areas of an individual’s life, such as their ability to pay attention, to self-control, to focus, and control their impulses. Its origins are in childhood, and like many developmental disorders, more males than females are likely to be affected. There is also a high rate of comorbidity with other developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Specific Language Impairment. 

The exact cause of ADHD has been debated for many years, as many developmental disorders are believed to be influenced by both genetics and environment, however, the consensus from research is that ADHD is a neurobiological disorder. Although ADHD is primarily recognised as a childhood specific problem, it has been shown that these children don’t just “grow out” of their issues – the influence of ADHD also tendrils into adult life unless suitable interventions are made.

How is ADHD diagnosed, and who do you turn to for a diagnosis?

ADHD is a heterogeneous disorder, meaning that it presents differently in everybody who has it. Therefore, diagnosing ADHD has to be a dynamic process that can be adapted to the specific individual. A combination of multiple professional inputs as well as standardised tests is usually involved. ADHD is often flagged in the classroom by a teacher, as it is here that a child is required to pay attention for long periods of time. At this stage, a parent may decide to seek a referral for a professional diagnosis (typically from a psychologist) through their child’s school or through a GP.

When measuring ADHD, there are strengths and weaknesses to many of the available assessment options. Behaviour rating scales are commonly used to assess whether a child has ADHD and are filled out by the child’s caregiver. However, self-report forms can be prone to bias as sometimes parents can over or under exaggerate their child’s symptoms. For this reason, a combination approach to assessment is often seen as necessary. A trained professional such as a psychologist may observe a child’s behaviour in formal and informal settings as it provides a valuable insight into the child’s ability to concentrate. In conjunction with a self-report measure, the observation helps to give a holistic view of the child’s ability. 

Teacher-ratings are also invaluable when assessing ADHD, as it raises awareness of how the child performs in an environment where their caregivers have no access. 

How to treat ADHD

ADHD is a neurological disorder, therefore, it’s important to recognise that there is no such thing as a “cure.” There are, however, many available options for helping a child to manage their symptoms and improve their outcome. However, try to be mindful that as ADHD manifests slightly differently in everyone that has it, there is no such thing as a one-cure-fits-all approach. 

Medication:

Whether or not to treat your child’s symptoms with medication can be a scary choice to make, especially considering the number of available medications. However, medication is often a necessary factor in the treatment of ADHD. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly discuss your child’s symptoms as well as your concerns with your GP in order to get an understanding of each medication and its function. The American Psychological Association (APA) supports the use of medication for the treatment of ADHD as there have been many large-scale studies which examined their efficacy. 

Therapeutic approaches:

Therapy is an essential element in the treatment of ADHD. In fact, not only does the child usually report benefits from therapy, but their families often do too due to a marked improvement in the child’s symptoms. A combination approach to the treatment of ADHD which includes both medication and therapy can even result in lower doses of medication required to see beneficial results. 

Children that report a mood disorder along with their ADHD might find a multi-modal approach to their treatment to be particularly beneficial, as psychotherapy can help to target the negative thoughts which may be contributing to their maladaptive behaviour. 

What’s more, parent-training may be useful in helping caregivers understand how to manage their child’s symptoms and also facilitate a positive bonding experience with them. 

Social skills training may help a child with ADHD increase their social awareness and ability, their problem-solving skills, and their ability to focus and succeed in school. School-based interventions that employ behavioural therapy strategies such as rewards, consequences, timetables, seating arrangements, turn-taking tasks, and daily report cards can help a teacher to manage a child’s behaviour, and they also aid the child in managing their own symptoms. These strategies may help the child to replace their maladaptive behaviours with more constructive, positive ones. 

ADHD in children

Almost all children have trouble concentrating for long periods of time – especially at school. However, this difficulty is considerably more pronounced in children with ADHD. The most common symptom of ADHD is hyperactivity, but as far as where diagnosis is concerned, impulsivity is the more prevalent feature. Poor impulse control may cause a child to struggle with controlling their urges, even if they’re aware that they will experience negative consequences as a result of their actions. This may result in a child seeming disorganised and unable to follow the rules of a classroom. It may also cause the child to make more mistakes in their schoolwork than their peers because they don’t plan out their activities before they attempt them. Poor impulse control may also cause a child with ADHD to shout out answers in class, struggle with turn-taking, and become easily frustrated when their needs aren’t immediately met. All of these elements may lead them to behave disruptively in the classroom.  

These issues don’t just apply to the school environment – they also affect a child’s home life. As the day progresses and the child becomes more tired, their struggle to pay attention may actually worsen and they could have a hard time completing day to day activities such as finishing their dinner because they’re increasingly prone to distraction. These children may also struggle with socialising as they find long conversations difficult to maintain and eye contact may be uncomfortable for them. What’s more, they may show a preference for flitting between activities rather than concentrating on one specific task for a lengthy period of time. The exception to this inability to concentrate are children who exhibit the hyperconcentration symptoms of ADHD, as they may be able to focus for lengthy periods, but they often lose awareness of what’s happening around them which can be a safety concern. Sleep is often a problem for children with ADHD, and they may require less than their siblings and parents, which may put considerable strain on family dynamics. 

As is typical of most developmental disorders, more males than females are diagnosed with ADHD. However, this may be due to how boys with ADHD manifest their symptoms in comparison to girls and could potentially lead to higher rates of diagnosis. Please be mindful that difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and poor impulse control, although indicative of ADHD, are still not enough for a diagnosis. If you’re concerned that your child has ADHD, then please seek a referral to a professional through your child’s school or your GP. 

ADHD in adulthood

Many people falsely assume that children with ADHD outgrow their issues. However, ADHD is not just a disorder of childhood – the symptoms also persist into adulthood. In fact, having ADHD can affect an individual’s choice of job, interpersonal relationships, environment, and the activities that they choose to partake in. 

Although it’s called adult ADHD, the symptoms have likely always been present; the behaviours start in childhood and persist into their adult life, but in many cases, the disorder goes undiagnosed until they’re fully grown. The symptoms of adult ADHD are not as obvious as they are in children, but difficulties with paying attention and impulsive behaviour are still the main characterising behaviours. Although, hyperactivity may not be as much of an issue as it was when they were young. 

As with children, adults with ADHD are typically treated using medications and therapy, or a combination approach that includes both. Keep in mind, that as long as reasonable strategies are implemented, there should be no reason why a child with ADHD shouldn’t be able to grow up to become a fulfilled, productive and happy adult.

ADHD superpowers

You’ll be pleased to hear that having ADHD isn’t all bad – there are some positives associated with the disorder. However, let’s not assume that just because there are benefits to having ADHD that it’s not difficult to manage and minimising the problems won’t help to get rid of them. Although ADHD can hardly be considered “a gift”, it can be helpful for parents and children to embrace the more capable aspects of the disorder as it can be bolstering both their child’s mental health and their own. Plus, incorporating a child’s strengths into their treatment strategies may be an effective method of managing their difficulties. Bear in mind, harnessing the benefits of some of these “superpowers” may require discipline, practice, and sometimes professional guidance. 

The following are some of the common beneficial symptoms of ADHD: 

  • A preference for more practical tasks  – A child with ADHD may enjoy activities that involve pragmatic solutions. Their difficulties with focusing often leads them to unique “out of the box” solutions to problems that their typically developing peers wouldn’t think of. 
  • Creativity – similar to problem solving, someone with ADHD may have countless creative ideas floating around in their heads. The difficulty might be harnessing them.
  • They may be more charismatic and socially successful – plenty of energy and a tendency towards openness may mean that others respond positively to someone with ADHD.
  • Resilience – someone with ADHD isn’t used to having things come easily to them. As a result, they’re used to putting in more effort than their peers. This often results in a drive and determination to keep trying until they achieve success.
  • A keen sense of attention – contrary to popular understanding, many people with ADHD have a strong ability to pay attention (hyperconcentration). This means that they might notice things that others miss. What’s more, harnessing this ability to focus may mean that they’re able to do more in a shorter space of time than their peers. 
  • Bundles of energy – this one is an obvious one. People with ADHD often have endless energy for tasks, meaning that they may be less prone to fatigue than others.

Last updated at: 2021.05.04

Author: Jemma Strain