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Pay attention: Myth-busting ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — ADHD — gets a lot of bad press. But it's no illusion, and it isn't a smokescreen for bad parenting. ADHD is a real, biologically driven condition, and it is widespread. We clear up the myths surrounding this controversial disorder and discuss the symptoms parents shouldn't ignore.
A drawing of an eye in which the iris is filled with more than a dozen smaller eyes, symbolizing the divergent focus of someone with ADHD. - Illustration by Brian Stauffer.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer.
The biggest among several myths surrounding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is that it doesn't really exist — or that it is, at best, an arbitrary social construct we use to define rambunctious or exuberant children and adolescents, mostly boys.
In fact, says UCLA alumnus Dr. James McGough, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the UCLA ADHD Clinic, overwhelming evidence indicates that ADHD is a real, biologically driven condition — and that not treating it exposes a child to potential problems that go well beyond inappropriate behavior.
"Children growing up with ADHD are more likely to have a harder time in school, a harder time with friendships, problems with self-esteem, and long-term difficulties with depression and anxiety," McGough says. "They are also at greater risk for becoming addicted to nicotine and for early experimentation with alcohol and recreational drugs."
The medications commonly prescribed for ADHD reduce these risks. And yet, many children either are never diagnosed or fail to start and stay on the drugs that could help them. And that's a big societal problem: Studies show that 5-10 percent of school-age children and 4-5 percent of U.S. adults are affected by ADHD. Yet the number of people treated falls well short of the number believed to have the disorder.
Although in some cases it might make sense not to medicate, most of the time the academic and social benefits of ADHD treatment outweigh any concerns about drugs that are viewed by health professionals as extremely safe, McGough says. Thus, he stresses that parents shouldn't ignore symptoms in their child that might include restlessness, being easily distracted or rushing through schoolwork and making careless mistakes.
McGough cautions that commonly held beliefs about ADHD don't hold up to scrutiny:
It isn't real.
In both genetic and neuroimaging studies, significant differences have been found between people diagnosed with ADHD and those who do not have the condition. ADHD runs in families, and growing evidence points to specific genetic patterns in people with the disorder. In addition, numerous neuroimaging studies have shown structural characteristics unique to ADHD brains. Most recently, for example, studies found that there is about a three-year delay in brain maturation in children with ADHD, specifically in areas related to attention and impulse control.
It's overdiagnosed.
Yes and no. ADHD is much more likely to be diagnosed in affluent areas, perhaps because those parents believe an ADHD diagnosis can help their kids in school, and they are more likely to push for it. On the other hand, lack of awareness about the biological basis of ADHD and a lingering social stigma around mental illness may contribute to underdiagnosis, particularly in less affluent communities.
It's caused by parenting.
"No one 'gets' ADHD because of their parenting," McGough says.
Read more about McGough's thoughts on parenting and ADHD, and clarification about other ADHD myths, in the full story from UCLA Magazine.
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