10 Common Myths about ADHD
As part of our ADHD Clinic, we provide education about Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Unfortunately, there is often confusion about ADHD. Misconceptions tend to be reinforced through misperceptions about mental health problems in general, as well as anecdotal stories. The following lists 10 common myths about ADHD. It is important to know as you read through the following list that controversy still exists about ADHD in terms of its cause, diagnosis procedures, and effective treatments.
MYTH 1: ADHD is not “real.”
Some people speculate that ADHD is not a “real disorder,” and may go as far as speculating that it is entirely made up. However, leading researchers, neurologists, clinicians, and clients with ADHD know that ADHD is real and involves pervasive and chronic symptoms that lead to impairments in many life activities (e.g., education, relationships, job-performance).
MYTH 2: Everyone seems to have ADHD- Doctors are just overdiagnosing!
A common concern is that ADHD is overdiagnosed. While overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis can certainly happen, the situation is more complicated than this. First, prevalence rates of ADHD vary across sources, making it difficult to know true ADHD rates. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) estimates that 5% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD. The Center for Disease Control, however, reports closer to 11% (2011), with a trend towards ADHD diagnoses going up in numbers. It is unclear what is in charge of the rising numbers (e.g., misdiagnosis, overdiagnosis, different methods used for diagnosing, increased awareness of ADHD, client willingness to talk to a doctor about their symptoms, or all of these reasons put together).
To complicate matters further, many scientists and clinicians (including those of us at Sandstone) believe that certain groups of people are actually underdiagnosed, including females, ethnic minorities, and those with inattentive (versus hyperactive) type. For each of these reasons, Sandstone clinicians believe that it is very important to undergo careful, thorough assessment to help determine whether symptoms are truly ADHD or if another underlying cause is affecting concentration.
MYTH 3: ADHD is caused by toxins in food – changing one’s diet can get rid of ADHD symptoms.
There have been many attempts to reduce ADHD symptoms through dietary restrictions, such as reducing sugar intake, reducing artificial food coloring, or employing an elimination diet. At this time, there is not much scientific evidence that suggests such dietary changes produce substantial changes in ADHD symptoms. Most psychological research suggests that ADHD is a bio-psychosocial condition. This suggests that it is biological/chemical in origin, and is further affected and influenced by environmental, social, and emotional factors.
MYTH 4: ADHD is the result of bad parenting or a lack of discipline in the home.
When children struggle with anything, parents are quick to blame themselves and wonder what they could have done to prevent their child from having ADHD. Having a child with ADHD can be very stressful for parents. However, parents can alleviate some of their self-blame by knowing that research shows ADHD is a neurological condition that has more to do with inherited or biochemical traits than parenting. Family interactions can, however, influence the course and related distress associated with ADHD. For this reason, Sandstone offers workshops for parents whose teens have been diagnosed with ADHD.
MYTH 5: ADHD only affects children.
Many people assume that ADHD is just a childhood-disorder and people “will grow out of it.” However, nearly 75% of people diagnosed with ADHD in childhood continue to have symptoms as adults. Some symptoms may shift across the lifespan. For example, children with ADHD often display hyperactivity, whereas adults may instead experience inattention or appear restless/impatient.
It is also important to note that while ADHD symptoms begin in childhood (prior to age 12), some individuals do not get diagnosed until later in life. This can happen for many reasons, including: 1) Doctors and researchers now know more about ADHD than they used to and can recognize symptoms more easily than before, 2) Relatedly, some adults may not have understood their symptoms when they were younger and realize they also have ADHD when their child is diagnosed, and 3) Many adults have learned over time to behaviorally mask their ADHD symptoms (e.g., pretending to look attentive even when they have actually tuned out or learning alternative ways to keep focus even for a short time).
MYTH 6: I can’t have ADHD – I’m not hyper!
People often assume that ADHD primarily involves hyperactivity (i.e., kids running, jumping, climbing inappropriately; children unable to sit still for 5 minutes). However, there are actually three types of ADHD:
Hyperactive/Impulsive type is what most people visualize when thinking of someone who may have ADHD. Children, particularly boys, with hyperactivity are more likely to be referred for ADHD testing and receive a diagnosis due to being behaviorally disruptive. Someone with this type of ADHD would display some of the following symptoms:
- Fidgeting and difficulty remaining seated
- Running about or climbing in situations where it is inappropriate
- Unable to play or engage in activities that are quiet or calm
- Appearing “on the go” or “driven by a motor”
- Excessively talking and having difficulty waiting his or her turn.
In contrast, someone with an Inattentive presentation may not display any hyperactivity, but instead display the following symptoms:
- Sitting quietly in their chair but daydreaming about something off topic
- Failing to give close attention to details
- Making careless mistakes and not following through with things
- Not seeming to listen when spoken to directly
- Difficulty organizing tasks and frequently losing things
Children with Inattentive ADHD are less likely to be referred for testing, perhaps because their behavior is less disruptive to parents and teachers as compared to children with hyperactivity.
The last type, Combined Presentation, displays both symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention. Research shows that Combined ADHD is the most common type, followed by Inattentive, then Hyperactive/Impulsive Types.
MYTH 7: I took Ritalin once and it helped, therefore, I must have ADHD.
Some people believe that if certain ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin (psychostimulants) helped them concentrate, then they must have ADHD. However, psychostimulants tend to improve motivation, focus, and concentration even for people who do not have ADHD. In fact, there has been a spike in the number of people who are beginning to abuse ADHD medication because they find that they perform better with its aid or simply enjoy the high of the prescription drug. This is concerning given the high risk for addiction or abuse with such drugs. Just because someone experiences positive results on ADHD medication, it does not confirm that they have ADHD.
MYTH 8: ADHD doesn’t need to be a diagnosed- it doesn’t really cause that many problems in a person’s life.
Yes, it can cause many problems. To be diagnosed with ADHD, one’s symptoms must interfere with or reduce the quality of social, academic, and/or occupational activities. The degree to which someone’s ADHD symptoms impact their life can vary; some people experience mild impairment whereas others experience severe impairment. Common life impairments associated with ADHD include:
- Relationship problems
- Academic problems (e.g., more likely to drop out of school)
- Increased risk for substance abuse (i.e., alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use)
- Employment difficulties
- Frequent car accidents
MYTH 9: Therapy won’t help my ADHD. Only medication will help.
ADHD cannot be cured, but it can be successfully managed through medication and therapy. Therapy can be particularly helpful for learning strategies to behaviorally manage symptoms. People with ADHD commonly experience other concerns, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, conduct problems, learning disabilities, and substance abuse. Therapy can assist with these issues, as well as ADHD symptoms.
MYTH 10: Only males have ADHD.
Women also have ADHD, although it is somewhat more common in males, with a ratio of approximately 2 : 1 in children and 1.6 : 1 in adults. Females with ADHD tend to be less likely to be referred to ADHD testing because their symptoms may not be as overt or behaviorally problematic than their male peers.