DEAR DOCTOR K:
I think my son may have ADHD. What should I be looking for?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be a major problem for some kids (and even some adults). It can interfere with schoolwork, with friendships and socializing, and complicate the relationship between children and their parents. Kids with ADHD have inattention (inability to pay attention), hyperactivity (always being on the move) and impulsive behavior (acting without self-control).
At times, nearly every child will fail to finish tasks, play recklessly or whirl about in constant activity. However, these behaviors happen much more often in children with ADHD.
The first step toward figuring out if your child has ADHD is to carefully observe your child’s behavior at home and in other settings. Look for signs of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Symptoms usually start before age 7. Ask your son’s teachers if they see these behaviors in the classroom.
Specific signs to look for are listed below. For a complete list of symptoms and behavioral clues associated with ADHD, see the table at the end of this article.
- Makes careless mistakes
- Fails to finish tasks
- Is easily distracted
- Fidgets or squirms
- Cannot remain seated
- Acts as if “driven by a motor”; continually “on the go”
- Acts without thinking
- Has difficulty waiting his or her turn
If you suspect your child has ADHD, talk to your pediatrician. He or she may manage the problem or refer you to a specialist.
There is no single test for ADHD. The diagnosis will be based on information about your child’s behavior provided by you and your child, your child’s school and other caregivers. The doctor will also perform a physical exam to make sure that another condition is not affecting your son’s behavior. For example, trouble hearing or seeing, learning disabilities, seizure disorders and anxiety can affect behavior. They can lead to the mistaken diagnosis of ADHD.
If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, the doctor will work with you to make a treatment plan. There is no cure for ADHD, but a combination of medication and behavior therapy definitely can help your child focus his thoughts and control his behavior. In some cases, your child’s school will provide special services to facilitate your child’s learning.
What causes ADHD? Whether food additives, sugar in the diet, or deficiencies of certain metals or fatty acids in the diet cause ADHD is hotly debated. In my judgment, there is not much evidence that they play a major role.
In contrast, there clearly are genetic causes: The disorder runs in families. Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques also find measurable changes in the brains of kids with ADHD. This is a biological problem, not a problem of character.
Symptoms and behavioral clues in children with ADHD