What Is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (previously known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD) is a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by core symptoms of inattentiveness, distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

ADHD is thought to be the most common childhood mental health disorder, with estimates of its prevalence in children ranging from 5 to 11 percent. Some of these children find it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork or other tasks, and may frequently succumb to daydreaming. Others become disruptive, defiant and have trouble getting along with parents, peers, or teachers. Children who struggle with hyperactivity and impulsivity, in particular, frequently have behavioral challenges that can be difficult for adults to manage. It’s also possible for both sets of symptoms to exist together, in what is typically called combined type ADHD. Executive functioning (planning, emotional regulation, and decision-making) is invariably affected as well. 

Though it’s been in the DSM for decades, ADHD remains controversial. Is it a true disorder, or simply a collection of naturally occurring behaviors that aren't tolerated in today’s high-demand, results-driven world? Even among those who agree the disorder exists, there are competing theories about what, if anything, triggers ADHD symptoms in the brain.

Until recently, ADHD was considered to be a childhood disorder that was eventually grown out of. And while evidence suggests that up to 50 percent of children with ADHD do appear to outgrow the condition, others don’t—about 4 percent of adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with ADHD, and more are thought to be undiagnosed. And even among children who “outgrow” the condition, early developmental delays and academic setbacks may create enduring learning problems.

Experts disagree over whether treatment should be behavioral (therapy, training of attention, increased play, greater structure) or pharmacological (typically using stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, though non-stimulant options have become more common in recent years). Several large studies have concluded that a combination of both may work best.

Managing work, school, and household tasks can be very challenging for people with ADHD. Fortunately, those afflicted can learn coping skills to work around shortcomings and harness their talents—as many successful people with ADHD have already done.

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