Just before Thanksgiving a report was released by the CDC claiming that between 2003 and 2007 the prevalence of ADHD in children jumped a startling 22% and that now 1 in 10 children have ADHD! The media sensationalized the story most likely adding to parent’s fears throughout the country who may now be more likely to pathologize behavior in their children that is actually within the normal range.
As a practitioner with expertise in assessing ADHD, learning disabilities and other disorders usually associated with childhood misbehavior and underachievement, I believe that the report of this large increase of ADHD in children is false. What the 22% increase actually means is that when people were polled by the CDC and asked if their child has been diagnosed with ADHD, 22% more parents indicated that they had. To me, this is another example of how easy it is to misdiagnose ADHD.
The diagnosis of ADHD is actually tricky though it often seems quite simple to laypeople given the huge amount of press coverage this disorder gets. Most people seem to believe that if their child is hyperactive, misbehaves, underachieves in school, or is forgetful, they have ADHD. Compounding the problem is that many professionals in the medical and mental health fields share the same beliefs, and are more likely to make a diagnosis of ADHD when dealing with zealous parents seeking an explanation for their children’s perceived shortcomings.
Part of being a good parent is believing that your child is capable of being a straight A student, well rounded, likeable, and perfectly behaved, but even parents with the best of intentions must be aware that a departure from these virtues, momentarily or otherwise, do not necessarily suggest pathology. Many parents cling to the ADHD label because this is a disorder that can be effectively medicated and in essence, “fixed”. The reality is that the qualities of ADHD overlap greatly with many kinds of learning disabilities (which cannot be treated with medication), mood disorders (which require therapy and a different class of medications), behavioral disorders (which may be made worse by stimulant medication), and the simple, normal range of human behaviors.
There is no doubt that ADHD is over-diagnosed, and this fact only serves to diminish the difficulties that people who actually have ADHD experience. The overlapping nature of many ADHD symptoms with other diagnoses makes procuring a proper ADHD assessment essential to the diagnostic process. This assessment should be conducted by a qualified professional and should include a review of life history, educational history, medical history, and the administration of a battery of tests including a cognitive measure, an achievement measure and an assessment of memory.
As a psychologist who frequently administers these tests I can say that there are many times that a patient seems like they have ADHD, but when tested it becomes clear that there is something entirely different occurring. Objective testing measures need to be sought out and utilized by parents more frequently in order to ensure that their children are receiving appropriate diagnoses which would eliminate the risk of being needlessly, or inappropriately medicated. More knowledgeable parents and practitioners about this issue will undoubtedly lead to more effective treatment of a variety of mental health issues.
Jared Maloff Psy.D.