Myths About ADHD

Misconceptions About ADHD - Separating Fact from Fiction

Vintage childrens alphabet blocks spelling ADHD
Dimitri Otis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Misconceptions and Myths About ADHD

Myth #1: ADHD Is Not a Real Disorder

ADHD is recognized as a disorder/disability by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the United States Congress, the Department of Education, the Office for Civil Rights, the American Medical Association, and every other major professional medical, psychiatric, psychological and educational association or organization.

Part of the misunderstanding about ADHD stems from the fact that no specific test can definitively identify ADHD. A doctor cannot confirm the diagnosis through laboratory tests as they can other medical diseases such as diabetes. Though there is not yet a specific medical test for diagnosing ADHD, clear and specific criteria must be met for a diagnosis to be made. Using these criteria and an in-depth history and detailed information about behaviors, a reliable diagnosis can be made. An additional misconception may occur because symptoms of ADHD may not always seem clear-cut. We all experience problems with attention and focus to some degree. For an individual with ADHD, however, these symptoms are so severe that they impair daily functioning. ADHD represents an extreme on a continuum of behaviors. Sometimes the behaviors are misunderstood. Symptoms of ADHD can certainly appear similar to other conditions.

That is why the health professional making the diagnosis must first rule out any other pre-existing conditions or causes for the symptoms.

Myth #2: ADHD Is Caused by Poor Parenting

This myth has often created negative feelings of self blame in parents of children with ADHD. It is simply not true that poor parenting causes ADHD.

What is true, however, is that positive parenting with clear and consistent expectations and consequences and a home environment with predictable routines can help manage symptoms of ADHD. Conversely, a home setting that is chaotic or parenting that is punitive and critical can worsen symptoms of ADHD. 

Myth #3: Only Children Can Have ADHD

Though the symptoms of ADHD must be present by age 7 in order to meet the criteria for diagnosis, many individuals remain undiagnosed until adulthood. For some adults, a diagnosis is made after their own child is diagnosed. As the adult learns more and more about ADHD, he or she recognizes the ADHD traits in themselves. They may think back to their own childhood and recall the struggles in school and problems with attention that were never treated. It is often a huge relief to finally understand and put a name to the condition causing the problems. Thirty percent to 70 percent of children with ADHD continue to exhibit symptoms into adulthood. Often times, the hyperactive behaviors common with children decrease with age, but symptoms of restlessness, distractibility, and inattention continue.

Left untreated adult ADHD can create chronic difficulties with work and in relationships and can result in secondary issues such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Myth #4: You Have to Be Hyperactive to Have ADHD

This myth has lead to a lot of confusion about ADHD. Even the name of the condition itself -– Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder -– leads to misunderstanding. There are actually three different types of ADHD: the predominately hyperactive-impulsive type, the predominately inattentive type, and the combined type. The predominately inattentive type does not include symptoms of hyperactivity at all. Because of this, it is often referred to simply as ADD. An individual with the inattentive symptoms may present as daydreamy and easily distracted, disorganized, forgetful, careless. The predominately inattentive type of ADHD is much less disruptive to others around the individual. So it often gets overlooked, but it is no less stressful for the individual. It is also important to point out that adults with ADHD may lose some of the hyperactive behaviors that may have been present in childhood. Instead the hyperactivity is replaced with a sense of restlessness. Click on ADD verses ADHD to read more.

Myth #5: Use of Stimulant Medications Leads to Drug Abuse and Addictions

Research has actually found the opposite result. If left untreated, individuals with ADHD are at a higher risk of substance abuse. This is likely because secondary problems (such as anxiety or depression) develop from the untreated ADHD and the individual uses the illicit substances to help relieve the ADHD symptoms. It becomes a way of self medicating, though it is obviously not effective. For those who receive appropriate treatment, which often does include stimulant medications, the rate of substance abuse is much lower.

Myth #6: If You Can Keep Focused on Some Activities, You Do Not Have ADHD

It can be quite confusing to see someone with ADHD focus intently on an activity when ADHD seems to be an “attention deficit.” It is actually more appropriate to describe ADHD as a condition in which individuals have difficulty regulating their attention. Though they may have extreme problems focusing, organizing, and completing certain mundane tasks, they are often able to focus intently on other activities that interest and engage them. This tendency to become absorbed in tasks that are stimulating and rewarding is called hyperfocus. Click on Hyperfocus and ADHD to learn more.

Myth #7: Medication Can Cure ADHD

Medications do not cure ADHD rather they help to control symptoms of ADHD on the day they are taken. ADHD is a chronic condition that does not go away, though symptoms may change or lessen over time. Many individuals develop coping and organizing strategies to help manage and control symptoms over their lifetime. Some individuals continue to need medical treatment through medications to help control their symptoms into adulthood.

ADHD Myths continued on page 2.

Myth #8: ADHD is Over-Diagnosed

It’s hard to know for certain whether or not ADHD is over-diagnosed. Many believe that the inattentive type of ADHD is actually under-diagnosed because symptoms are less disruptive and overt and are easily overlooked. So there is certainly the possibility that many individuals with ADHD who are missed altogether -- not diagnosed and not treated, often developing serious secondary problems related to the ADHD. As a result, they struggle and suffer silently through life not knowing that daily functioning can significantly improve with proper treatment. Some people may jump to the conclusion that every child or adult who displays hyperactive, impulsive or inattentive and disorganized behaviors must have ADHD; however this would be an inaccurate assumption to make. There may be a number of reasons why an individual displays these symptoms including trauma, depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, hearing or vision problems, etc. This is why it is so important for healthcare professionals to conduct careful and thorough evaluations to rule out alternative causes or conditions that may be leading to the problematic behaviors so that diagnoses are accurate and treatment is appropriate.

Andrew Adesman, M.D., Anne Teeter Ellison, Ed.D. ADHD: Top 10 Myths. Webcast. Health Talk. September 5, 2007.

National Institute of Mental Health. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008. Timothy E. Wilens, MD, Stephen V. Faraone, PhD, Joseph Biederman, MD and Samantha Gunawardene, BS. Does Stimulant Therapy of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Beget Later Substance Abuse? Pediatrics. January 2003.

Continue Reading