Mental Illness: Facts about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Facts about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, is a condition that becomes apparent in some children in the preschool and early school years. It is hard for these children to control their behavior and/or pay attention.

  • It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of children have ADHD, or approximately 2 million children in the United States.
  • Two to three times more boys than girls are affected.
  • ADHD has long-term adverse affects on success at school, work, and in social relationships.
  • The principal characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Many normal children may have the symptoms of ADHD, but at a low level, or the symptoms may be caused by another disorder, so it is important that the child receive a thorough examination and appropriate diagnosis by a well-qualified professional.
  • Because the symptoms of ADHD vary so much across settings, ADHD is not easy to diagnose. This is especially true when inattentiveness is the primary problem.


Symptoms of ADHD will appear over the course of many months, often with the symptoms of impulsiveness and hyperactivity preceding those of inattention, which may not emerge for a year or more. Different symptoms may appear in different settings, depending on the demands the situation may pose for the child's self-control.

There are three subtypes of behavior recognized by professionals. These are the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type, the predominantly inattentive type, and the combined type.

Some signs of hyperactivity-impulsivity are:

  • feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming while seated
  • running, climbing, or leaving a seat in situations where sitting or quiet behavior is expected
  • blurting out answers before hearing the whole question
  • having difficulty waiting in line or taking turns.

Some signs of inattention:

  • often becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
  • often failing to pay attention to details and making careless mistakes
  • rarely following instructions carefully and completely losing or forgetting things like toys, or pencils, books, and tools needed for a task
  • often skipping from one uncompleted activity to another.

Because everyone shows some of these behaviors at times, the diagnosis requires that such behavior be demonstrated to a degree that is inappropriate for the person's age. The diagnostic guidelines also contain specific requirements for determining when the symptoms indicate ADHD. The behaviors must appear early in life, before age 7, and continue for at least six months. Above all, the behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two areas of a person's life such as in the schoolroom, on the playground, at home, in the community, or in social settings.

To asses whether a child has ADHD, specialists consider several critical questions:

  • Are these behaviors excessive, long-term, and pervasive?
  • Are they a continuous problem, not just a response to a temporary situation?
  • Do the behaviors occur in several settings or only in one specific place like the playground or in the schoolroom?


For children with ADHD, no single treatment is the answer for every child. A child may sometimes have undesirable side effects to a medication that would make that particular treatment unacceptable. And if a child with ADHD also has anxiety or depression, a treatment combining mediation and behavioral therapy might be best. Each child's needs and personal history must be carefully considered.

For decades, medications have been used to treat the symptoms of ADHD. The medications that seem to be the most effective are a class of drugs known as stimulants, such as Ritalin. Some people get better results from one medication, some from another. It is important to work with the prescribing physician to find the right medication and the right dosage.

Medication can help the ADHD child in everyday life. He or she may be better able to control some of the behavior problems that have led to trouble with parents and siblings. But it takes time to undo the frustration, blame, and anger that may have gone on for so long. Both parents and children may need special help to develop techniques for managing the patterns of behavior. In such cases, mental health professional can counsel the child and the family, helping them to develop new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to each other.

Mental illness at a glance:

Introduction | Depression | Bipolar Illness | Suicide | Schizophrenia | Anxiety Disorders | Panic Disorder | Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder | Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder | Social Phobia | Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

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