Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is diagnosed when there is a constellation of 6 or more inattentive or hyperactive symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Commonly seen symptoms of the inattentive type include difficulty sustaining attention, making careless mistakes in school work, being easily distracted, seemingly uninterested when spoken to, and illustrating difficulties in organizing tasks. A child with the hyperactive presentation often seems fidgety, gets up frequently when should remain seated, is overly talkative, shows difficulty in remaining still for an extended period of time, and runs or climbs when inappropriate. At times, you can see a combined presentation of inattentive and hyperactive symptoms.
There is a great deal of conflicting information out there about ADHD. Is it always ADHD when a child presents with inattention or hyperactivity? Well the answer is NO. Symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and poor executive functioning skills could also be related to anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, trauma, life stressors, and more.
It is important to identify when the symptoms started. Perhaps Johnny’s lack of ability to sit still in the classroom is related to a recent death in the family or bullying from someone in his school. Second, are there other symptoms present? For instance, does your child also present with lack of motivation, little interest in doing things he/she usually enjoyed, withdrawal from others, and difficulty sleeping? This could be indicative of a depressive disorder. Lastly, we also want to isolate where the problem behaviors are occurring. Is it happening across all settings (e.g. school, home, and community) or is the child displaying inattention only at school? There could be something happening in that environment that is causing the symptoms. It is also important to get an evaluation by a physician to rule out any medical conditions that could potentially be the root of these symptoms.
We are complex beings and are shaped by our life experiences as well as our inherent characteristics. Therefore, it is often unclear what is going on. We do not want to label a child as having a disorder when we are not absolutely certain mainly because the diagnosis impacts the treatment. If we are treating the wrong disorder, we cannot have effective results. In this case, neuropsychological testing is helpful because it can tease out what the actual issue is through a battery of standardized, valid, and reliable testing procedures.
There is hope! Once you identify what is going on, you can move towards treatment to improve the symptoms. And if it turns out that your child does have ADHD, there are successful treatments that can allow your child to live a healthy and productive life.