According to the most recent findings published by the Centers for Disease Control, 11% of U.S. children are currently diagnosed with ADHD, including 5.6% of girls and 13.2% of boys. The CDC further states that about 17% of boys will be treated for ADHD at some point between the ages of 4 and 17. With the exception of asthma, ADHD is the nation’s most commonly reported childhood condition. Yet despite its prevalence, it is also one of the most commonly misunderstood. For those who have raised or been ADHD kids, it will come as no surprise that many people – including parents and educators – adhere to misleading myths and misconceptions about ADHD. Here are five of those myths along with some corrective thoughts for each.
Myth 1: ADHD Kids Do Not Pay Attention. This is what teachers often tell parents, which helps explain why the majority of ADHD referrals begin at school. But, while it may look to the teacher as though ADHD kids are not paying attention to anything at all, a more accurate view is that they are not paying attention to the teacher. Instead, they are attending to something else or, just as likely, attending to several things at once. I have come to believe that the term “attention deficit” is a misnomer. Most ADHD kids do not have a shortage of attention. They are more likely to have a surplus. What they lack is the kind of sustained attention needed for planning and completing tasks such as classroom work, homework, and chores.
The fact that ADHD kids may be distractible does not mean that they are disinterested. In a recent edition of Psychology Today, Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. described a study of children who frequently daydream in the classroom. It concluded that “the daydreaming students reported greater connection to their school, a greater concern about doing well in school, more strategies for actually realizing their dreams…and better attendance. In other words, daydreaming helped students achieve the very things educators assume it hinders.” As these findings suggest, It can be a mistake to confuse ATTention with INtention.
Myth 2: ADHD is Caused by Sugar and Other Foods or Additives. While there is evidence that sugar and carbohydrates can “rev” a child’s engine, there is little to suggest that any food substance is a cause of the symptom cluster known as ADHD. Instead, a large and growing body of research indicates that ADHD is a condition arising from the interaction of three other factors.
The first includes certain environmental circumstances related to pregnancy such as inadequate nutrition, low birth weight, prenatal exposure to nicotine or alcohol, in utero drug exposure, and a pregnant mother’s use of the pain killer acetaminophen. Some studies have also associated the severity of ADHD with being born of younger fathers or older mothers.
The second factor behind ADHD is experience. The human brain is “use dependent.” How it develops relies in part on how it must respond to life’s circumstances. For example, research shows that the rate of ADHD is unusually high among children who have experienced early childhood exposure to such traumatic conditions as abandonment, profound neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.
The third factor behind ADHD is heredity. Studies have shown that if one member of a family has ADHD, the likelihood of a parent, sibling, or child also having it is 80%. With identical twins the concordance increases to 90%. ADHD runs in families. It is a part of the human genome. While experience and environment do play a part, these numbers suggest that the development of ADHD is primarily a product of genes.
Myth 3: ADHD Kids Could Do Better if They Would Just Try Harder. Actually, ADHD has less to do with effort than with neurobiology. A number of recent studies have indicated that the brains of kids who have ADHD develop differently than those of kids who do not. One of the differences has to do with a deficiency in the brain’s production and re-absorption of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps people manage current behavior based on the expectation of future consequences. As many a parent already knows, ADHD kids have difficulty doing this. For them, the prospect of a consequence is seldom reason enough to pay attention or resist an impulse.
Dopamine is just one example of a variation in the ADHD brain. There are others. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies and Positronic Emission Tomography (PET) scans have shown that in comparison with non-ADHD kids, those who do have ADHD exhibit less activity in parts of the brain associated with concentration, planning, working memory, and impulse control. On the other hand, they may display greater activity in the parts having to do with motor activity, creativity, divergent thinking, and intuition.
What these and other findings suggest is that children’s ADHD does not signify a lack of effort. Rather, it reflects of how their brains work. It is not a choice but a largely genetic neurological condition.
Myth 4: If They Can Concentrate on Video Games, They Can Concentrate on Homework. As mentioned above, ADHD appears associated with the dopamine system, which helps people regulate their current behavior based on future rewards and punishments – or, as the behaviorists put it, positive and negative reinforcements. Because this system is different in ADHD kids, so are their reactions to the reinforcements. Research suggests that ADHD kids are less responsive to consequences than are other kids – in fact, 45% respond hardly at all. Those who do will generally respond more to rewards than to punishments and more still to frequent small rewards than to big, deferred ones. These small, repetitive, and sometimes unpredictable rewards are precisely the kind that kids get from video games, where unexpected, interesting things are always happening. It is very rare that schoolwork, homework, or chores can provide such a high level of stimulation. Thus, the ability to concentrate during “screen time” does not prove or predict an ability to concentrate during “work time.” Instead, it clarifies why those two times seem so different to ADHD kids.
Myth 5: ADHD Kids Are Not Motivated to Succeed. Of all the myths about ADHD, this one may be the most distorted. In fact, some of the scientific studies mentioned above tend to suggest that the brain centers associated with motivation are especially active in kids with ADHD. These young people may actually be more ambitious and more driven than many of their peers, and their motivation may be amplified by their eagerness to overcome their frequent lack of success, especially in school.
At the same time, this lack of success may lead them to adopt the appearance of not wanting to achieve it. What they are experiencing, however, may not be a shortage of motivation but rather a hesitance to risk acting upon their motivation because of what they fear – failing, being judged by their parents and teachers, feeling rejected by their peers, or enduring the inner pain that comes with shame. Ultimately, what looks like an unmotivated child may actually be a child with a great deal of motivation blocked by a great deal of fear and self-doubt. Unblocking it must be a chief goal of those who parent, teach, and treat ADHD kids, something we can accomplish not by badgering or judging them but through acceptance, encouragement, support, and the deeply held faith that ultimately they will succeed.