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Ten things you didn’t know about ADHD

You’ve probably heard of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – better known as ADHD.  It’s a relatively common condition that is thought to affect somewhere between 1 in 100 to 3 in 100 children in the UK. But there are a lot of misconceptions around ADHD, so here are ten things you might not know about it.

1. ADHD is not just ‘naughty’ behaviour

ADHD is a combination of attention difficulties, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour which causes real problems for how children get on both at home and at school, and affects learning and relationships. This pattern of symptoms has a strong biological basis.

2. ADHD is not ‘new’

Children with the clinical features that characterise ADHD were described by a paediatrician in the The Lancet medical journal as early as 1902, and there are also much earlier descriptions – so it certainly isn’t a ‘new’ condition.

Photograph of a young boy in a classroom

3. ADHD hasn’t become more common recently

The prevalence of ADHD isn’t increasing – research shows that the number of people with ADHD hasn’t changed over recent years. However, there is now more awareness of and recognition of ADHD, so more people are being diagnosed.

4. Some children grow out of ADHD, but some don’t

The course of ADHD is very variable. While some individuals no longer experience ADHD symptoms when they reach adulthood, many will continue to meet all the criteria for a diagnosis, or will at least retain some of the symptoms.

5. A diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t necessarily mean a child will be prescribed medication

In the UK, behavioural interventions are the first line treatment for children with milder ADHD. Medication is only used when ADHD symptoms are severe and are causing major difficulties. Even then, medication shouldn’t be given without behavioural interventions.

Photograph of a woman smiling with a young girl on her shoulders.

6. There’s no test for ADHD

Neither blood tests nor brain scans can tell whether or not someone has ADHD. The diagnosis is made by taking a careful clinical history including information from home and school, and by observing the child in a clinic setting.

7. ADHD has nothing to do with junk food, or bad parenting

So far there has been no substantial evidence to suggest that sugar and artificial food additives play any part in ADHD. There is also little evidence to show that dietary changes can help with ADHD symptoms.

ADHD is certainly not caused by bad parenting or lack of discipline.

Parenting a child with ADHD can be challenging, but specific parenting strategies with more structure, routines and positive reinforcement can help.

8. There is no single cause for ADHD

We know so far that ADHD is a largely genetic disorder, but some environmental factors also play a role. We still have yet to understand how these different factors contribute to developing the condition.

Abstract graphic representing genetics

9. Genetics are important, but there’s no ‘ADHD gene’

While ADHD is strongly linked to our genetics, there isn’t a specific gene that causes it – instead there are many different genes that seem to contribute to our risk of developing ADHD.

We also know that these genes don’t entirely account for the development of ADHD, so things in a young person’s environment must also be involved. We don’t know exactly what yet, which is why research like ours is taking place. This is also why there isn’t a genetic test that can tell us whether or not someone has ADHD.

10. ADHD can run in families, but doesn’t always

People who have a close relative with ADHD are more likely to have ADHD, or features of ADHD, themselves, than people who don’t.

However, as described above, the way genes contribute to ADHD isn’t straightforward. This means someone with a close relative with ADHD won’t necessarily have the condition themselves, and someone with ADHD might have no other relatives with it.

The way that genes interact with other factors is extremely complicated, which is why research in this area is so important.

Professor Anita Thapar

Professor Anita Thapar leads the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry section at the Division of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, Cardiff University and also directs the developmental disorders group within the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics.

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