ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 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 some tasks and subjects. They may seem “wired.” They might get into trouble because they are impulsive — in other words, they do things without thinking them through first.
ADHD used to be called attention deficit disorder, or ADD for short. In 1994, it was renamed ADHD. People might still use the term ADD to describe a type of ADHD that doesn’t involve hyperactivity.
Symptoms and Signs of ADHD
Because ADHD covers lots of different things — attention, activity, and impulsivity — it can show up in different ways in different people. Some of the signs of ADHD are:
- difficulty paying attention or staying focused on a task or activity
- problems finishing assignments at school or home; jumping from one activity to another
- trouble focusing on instructions and difficulty following through
- losing or forgetting things like homework
- being easily distracted, even when doing something fun
- problems paying close attention to details
- making careless mistakes
- trouble organizing tasks and activities
- difficulty waiting one’s turn
- interrupting or intruding on other people
- blurting out answers before questions have been completed
- fidgeting with hands or feet or having trouble sitting still
- feeling restless
- talking a lot and having trouble doing things 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.
ADHD can interfere so much with a person’s ability to study and learn that teachers and doctors might consider it a learning disorder.
People with ADHD may have problems with depression, anxiety, or learning disabilities. They may also be more likely to smoke and use drugs. Getting proper treatment can help with all of these problems. That’s why it’s key for people who show signs of ADHD to see a doctor.
Sometimes the problems that go with ADHD become less severe as a person grows older. Hyperactivity tends to ease as people grow up. But problems with organization and attention often remain. More than half of kids who have ADHD will continue to notice problems as young adults.
What Causes ADHD?
Doctors don’t know the exact cause of ADHD. Research shows that ADHD is genetic and that it may be inherited in most cases. Scientists are looking for genes that might cause ADHD. They’re also studying other things that might be associated with ADHD — for example, ADHD may be more common in kids who are born prematurely.
Doctors do know that certain parts of the brain are involved in ADHD. They know that brain chemicals called neurotransmitters play an important role in ADHD. A person with low amounts of these brain chemicals may show signs of ADHD.
What Do Doctors Do?
See your doctor if you or your parents think you have ADHD.
There’s no way to tell if someone has ADHD from blood tests, X-rays, or other medical tests. Doctors diagnose ADHD based on history, interviews, and special evaluations. Doctors also may do vision, hearing, and learning tests. Your doctor might do these evaluations, or might send you to someone who specializes in ADHD, like another doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
After doctors know more about someone’s ADHD, they design a treatment plan based on that person’s needs.
There’s no cure for ADHD, but there are ways to manage it. Some people have more trouble with the attention side of ADHD. Others have problems with the activity side. So different people with ADHD might 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. These treatments may include medicine, therapy, and making changes at school to meet specific learning needs.
For most people with ADHD, a combination of medicine and therapy works best.
Some medicines can help people with ADHD by improving their focus and attention and reducing impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Most of these medicines work by increasing neurotransmitters in the brain. Scientists are constantly working to develop new medicines to treat ADHD.
Talk about your treatment with your doctor so your doctor knows your goals and preferences. If you take medicine, always follow the doctor’s instructions on how much to take and when. If you have been taking medicine for ADHD since you were a kid, your doctor will probably adjust your dose to match your needs as you get older.
Counseling and Other Therapies
Family counseling is when teens and their parents (and maybe siblings) meet with a counselor together. Family counseling helps treat ADHD because it keeps parents informed and also shows them ways they can help their kids with ADHD. Counseling also helps to improve communication within a family and to solve problems that come up at home.
Individual counseling is when people with ADHD meet one on one with a counselor without family members or other people in the room. It’s a good way for people with ADHD to understand their actions and learn coping skills. Sometimes groups of people who have ADHD work together in group therapy. Group therapy can help people with ADHD work on coping skills, learn from others, and get along better with other people if that has been a problem.
Schools can also play a part in helping students with ADHD. Most schools will develop a plan that’s right for each person and make changes to allow people with ADHD to learn in ways that work best for them.
If You or Someone You Know Has ADHD
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, scared, or even angry if you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. Counseling can help. Talking about feelings and learning ways to deal with them often makes things 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 to you. 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.
Learn all you can about ADHD and what you can do to make things better for yourself. The more you understand, the more involved you can be in your own treatment. Doctors, counselors, and teachers are learning more about ADHD all the time, so treatment options are constantly getting better.
If you have ADHD, the organization skills you develop now will serve you well in the future. Even people who don’t have ADHD find they need to develop these skills when they head off to college or start a job. When the time comes for you to do this, you may notice your practice and planning has put you ahead of other people.
Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014