Deafness and Attention Deficit Disorder

Deafness? ADHD? Or Both?

Mother signing with deaf son
Deafness and ADHD. Disability Images / Getty Images

It is not easy to diagnose attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in deaf children. Conversely, it is not easy to tell when a deaf child does not have ADD or ADHD. Whenever possible, deaf children who are suspected of having ADD should be evaluated by people with knowledge of both deafness and ADD.

Confusing Deafness with ADD/ADHD

It can be easy to make the mistake of thinking a deaf child has ADD because of a deaf child's behavior.

This can happen if a deaf child's behavior seems to indicate ADD or ADHD. For example, the deaf child may seem to not be paying any attention, be impulsive, or be overly active.

My Personal Experience with ADD/ADHD

A school nurse at my child's school said that many of the deaf children had ADD and were taking Ritalin. So many had it that it appeared to be "normal."

A few years later, a teacher complained my child appeared to have ADD. My child was evaluated. Finding a specialist familiar with both ADD AND deafness was difficult, and it was critical to find one familiar with both because my child's deafness made it very hard to make a definite diagnosis of ADD. After a long evaluation process, the diagnosis was ADD.

After a while on Ritalin, there was no change in my child's grades so we stopped the Ritalin. I now believe my child never had ADD in the first place.

Prevalence of ADD/ADHD in Deaf Children

That experience led me to question whether deaf children were more likely to have ADD or ADHD.

An article published in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, "Theoretical and Epidemiological Aspects of Attention Deficit and Overactivity in Deaf Children, asks the same question, and had some interesting findings as follows:

The article states assessing ADHD and overactivity in deaf children is "problematic" in part because hearing professionals can have difficulty getting accurate symptoms from deaf children who use sign language. The authors seek to answer the question, is the prevalence of ADHD and overactivity the same in deaf children as in hearing children? The core symptoms of ADHD and overactivity are inattentiveness and impulsivity. To answer their questions, the authors looked at a handful of studies and work done by other researchers.

One researcher found that inattentiveness and impulsivity was due to less sensitivity to consequences of behavior and a lack of rule use by deaf children to govern their behavior. It was theorized that it is due to how deaf children grow up with language and communication challenges instead of being due to a biological problem.

Are deaf children more impulsive than hearing children? Maybe not. Researchers found impulsivity was actually a developmental delay from early language deprivation. Another researcher found that deaf children with deaf parents had better impulse control than deaf children with hearing parents.

The signing ability of parents may play a role in the above results. If parents have limited signing skills it may be more difficult to explain the consequences of actions (resulting in less sensitivity), and also hinder the use of rules to govern behavior. Another possibility is that anxiety and/or depression could be mistaken for hyperactivity in a deaf child frustrated with communication, learning, etc.

Another question raised by the authors is whether some causes of deafness such as rubella, meningitis, and cytomegalovirus damage the brain, leading to more hyperactivity. A 1993 study looked at the prevalence of ADD in 238 deaf children at a residential school. Compared with hearing children there was no difference, or it was actually lower. However, children with acquired (eg. meningitis) deafness had worse evaluation scores. The article's authors advise caution in interpreting that study.

A different 1994 study of 414 deaf children in Finland compared with hearing children. That study found that overall, hyperactivity was not greater in deaf children, but it was greater if the deaf children had additional disabilities. In addition, the level of communication ability made a difference. There was no difference between deaf-only children and hearing children.

Finally, a British study examined if the prevalence of hyperactivity disorder in hereditary deaf children is the same as hearing children. Overall there were no significant differences with hearing children. The British study did suggest that hyperactivity disorder was more frequent in deaf children, but communication ability did not seem to make a difference as much of a difference in the prevalence of hyperactivity as has been suggested in other studies.

Support For Families of Deaf Children with ADD/ADHD

There are support groups for parents of deaf children such as the Listen-Up list, which has several parents whose deaf and hard of hearing children also have ADD/ADHD. However, there do not seem to be any groups just for parents of deaf and hard of hearing children with ADD/ADHD. In addition, has a guide to Attention Deficit Disorder.

Additional Resources

  • "The Challenge of Attention Deficit Disorder in Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing," in the American Annals of the Deaf, Vol. 138 no. 4, pages 343-348, 1993. The Eric database has a summary in record number EJ472756.
  • " Evaluating and Managing Attention Deficit Disorder in Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing," in the American Annals of the Deaf, Vol. 138 no. 4, pages 349-57, 1993. The Eric database has a summary in record number EJ472757.
  • AD(H)D and Hearing Loss:Deficit or Boredom? - An undated document that briefly looks at the prevalence of AD(H)D in deaf children, and the question of whether misdiagnoses are taking place.


    Raising Deaf Kids (accessed February 2008).

    Hindley, Peter and Leo Kroll. Theoretical and Epidemiological Aspects of Attention Deficit and Overactivity in Deaf Children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Winter 1998; 3: 64 - 72.

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