“Isn’t everyone a little ADHD?”
“Those kids just don’t want to sit still.”
“Girls don’t have ADHD.”
“I was the same way when I was in school, and I turned out fine.”
When it comes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, there are still many misconceptions, despite mountains of research showing the brain-based medical disorder affects children and adults of every gender, IQ and background.
“Just like many other disorders, such as high blood pressure, the symptoms of ADHD are present to a greater or lesser degree in everyone. It’s not like you have high blood pressure or no blood pressure,” says Dr. William Kronenberger, a pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine. “What makes ADHD, or high blood pressure, a disorder is when the symptoms exceed a cutoff level that is known to be abnormal and problematic. In order to have ADHD, the symptoms have to interfere with your daily functioning more than typical for someone your age.”
Here are some common misconceptions about ADHD, debunked by local experts:
Myth #1: Kids with ADHD just aren’t trying hard enough.
ADHD looks different for everyone. The disorder includes three subsets: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive – the kids who have trouble sitting still; predominantly inattentive – the kids who struggle to stay focused or pay attention; and a combination of the two, which is most common.
One of the trademarks of ADHD is trouble with executive functioning skills such as organization, problem solving, reasoning, controlling behavior and working memory, all of which are crucial to learning.
“It has nothing to do with effort. They’re not bad kids,” says Dr. Charles Shinaver, a Carmel-based child psychologist who has a son with ADHD. “A person who has ADHD is more likely to struggle with motivation, but the core of the disorder is not having a bad attitude.”
Myth #2: Only boys have ADHD.
ADHD is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls, but the disparity may have to do with what kind of symptoms are noticed most often, experts say. While research shows that boys tend to have a combination of ADHD types, most girls with ADHD have predominantly inattentive traits.
“The girls with ADHD often get passed over because they’re not being disruptive in class,” says Gary Conway a licensed mental health counselor with Counseling for New Dimensions in Indianapolis who works with children with ADHD. “Parents and teachers focus more on the hyperactive boys, rather than the quiet, inattentive girls.”
Myth #3: There’s only one way to treat ADHD.
When it comes to treating ADHD, experts stress that it doesn’t have to be a choice between medicine or therapy.
“There is a lot of research evidence that appropriate medications are effective in reducing symptoms of ADHD, and there’s extensive evidence that behavior modification works, too,” Kronenberger says. “You have to use the right medications and the right behavior modification. With ADHD, you can’t just go to somebody who does non-specific treatment.”
Shinaver utilizes a web-based training program called Cogmed to help those with ADHD boost their working memory. He says instead of choosing between medicine and therapy, families often find the most success doing a bit of both.
“Cognitive training helps with working memory, but it doesn’t address hyperactivity, and just because medicine helps a child stop moving, it doesn’t mean they are paying attention,” he says.
Myth #4: Kids with ADHD will outgrow it.
It’s true that the hyperactivity of ADHD tends to dissipate as children grow, but the impulsivity often remains well into adulthood, even if it changes form over time.
“In the same way that a 5-year-old may act out impulsively and break his mother’s vase, a 21-year-old might say something that gets him into trouble because he didn’t think about it first,” Kronenberger says. “Adults mature and develop strategies to help themselves stay on task and focus, but depending on how much it interferes with their life, they may still benefit from continued treatment.”
It’s important to note that these misconceptions can prevent children with ADHD from getting the help they need at school. The U.S. Department of Education recently sent a letter to schools reminding them of their obligation to identify and help students with ADHD, noting that 10 percent of the 16,000 complaints filed with the department’s Office of Civil Rights in the last five years involved allegations of discrimination against students with ADHD.
To find out more about Indiana’s special education policies, visit www.doe.in.gov/specialed.