Who today has not heard the term “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” or ADHD? No other term in the diagnostic lexicon has more information and misinformation attached to it than ADHD. Everyone you ask — parents, doctors, teachers, psychologists, nurses, neighbors or relatives — will have an opinion on this disorder, and likely their opinions will all differ. Some will toss it off and say, “Boys will be boys.” Some will insist that a child be medicated right away. Others will be adamant that children should never be medicated. Others will claim that eliminating sugar from the diet will eliminate the problem. Still others will question whether there is anything to the diagnosis at all.
Since first identified as a diagnosis, ADHD has been given a great deal of attention by neurologists and psychologists. ADHD is now widely recognized as a legitimate mental health problem. Although its exact definition continues to be debated, ADHD is thought to be a neurological impairment, probably originating in the frontal lobes of the brain, affecting a child’s ability to control his or her impulses. Lacking the ability to control their impulses, these children do and say whatever occurs to them from minute to minute. They are quite literally out of control.
There has been a great deal of research to understand just why some children have ADHD. Among the identified causes are: heredity (a parent or other close relative with ADHD, although it may have gone unrecognized); problems at birth; and possibly some kind of early emotional trauma that had an effect on the processing mechanisms of the brain.
In some ways, children with ADHD are no different from their peers. One key diagnostic feature noted in children with ADHD is the intense, often frantic quality of their activity. These children are on the move most of the time: climbing the cupboards, tearing about the room, turning over every object that isn’t nailed down — an unending streak of activity and mischief. They quickly wear out their clothes and toys, and usually have more than their share of accidents.
Short Attention Spans
Children with ADHD also have extremely short attention spans. They seem to have difficulty sitting still or waiting their turn. This may be because they are so easily distracted. It often seems that they fail to remember instructions given by a parent or teacher in the time it takes to get from one end of the room to the other. They appear to live only in the present. They don’t seem to think about future consequences. They sometimes can’t remember what they did only moments earlier.
The behavior of a child with ADHD is qualitatively different from the occasional episodes of increased activity in children who do not have ADHD. Every child fidgets or misbehaves from time to time. Children with ADHD, however, are a constant challenge. Their behaviors cause frustration and anger for those around them. Without proper help, these children can become sad or even depressed due to their very accurate perception that the people around them disapprove of everything they do.
Ironically, these very same overactive children can become completely absorbed in a specific activity or task. They sometimes become so over-focused that being asked to shift their attention causes great upset and anger. It is as if the mechanism in the brain that controls their impulsiveness has now gone into overdrive. Once engaged, they can’t let go. Another theory is that these children have learned to compensate for their distractibility by focusing so completely on an activity that they cannot easily alter the track of their attention. They find change initiated by others to be threatening and difficult. This is very confusing for adults because it seems inconsistent with the general stereotypes about ADHD. Puzzled parents often ask things like: “How is it he can remember every arcane move in a video game but can’t remember to take out the garbage?” or “Why can she sit still to watch MTV for hours but can’t sit still through one classroom lesson?”