What is ADHD?

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When a person has ADHD, they often have trouble keeping their focus and paying attention to tasks at school, work, and in other parts of life. They also have trouble following directions and getting organized. These problems can lead to frustration, conflict and failure in different areas of their lives. However, most people with ADHD can manage their symptoms and improve functioning through treatment, which may include medications, psychotherapy or education or training.

Symptoms of ADHD usually start before age 12, but they can appear in childhood, middle school, or adolescence. A qualified health care professional will make a diagnosis based on the symptoms, which must have continued for at least six months. The diagnosis will be made after an interview and review of the person’s history, observation of the person in a variety of settings, review of family, school and work problems and medical records, and physical and mental health tests. A doctor will use checklists and rating scales to evaluate the individual’s symptoms and may rule out other conditions that share some of the same features as ADHD.

There are three types of ADHD. Most children with the disorder show mainly symptoms of inattention, but they can sometimes have problems with hyperactivity and impulsivity. Young children with primarily inattentive ADHD do not pay close attention to details, can be easily distracted, and struggle academically. As they grow older, they often improve in their ability to focus and attend to schoolwork. However, they may still have trouble keeping their seat or leaving it in class and are forgetful in daily activities. They often lose things important to them (like school materials, books, tools, eyeglasses or wallets).

People with primarily hyperactive-impulsive ADHD move around a lot and seem to act as if they are “driven by a motor.” They have a hard time sitting still or waiting their turn. They are talkative, impatient and interrupt others. They can’t wait for their turn in sports, games and other leisure activities. These adults often miss appointments and deadlines. They have difficulty maintaining friendships and relationships. They are often disorganized and frequently get into trouble at work or in the home.

A combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to cause ADHD. The genes most likely influence the development of the brain’s reward and inhibition centers, which control the impulses to do and not do certain things. Environmental factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing ADHD include low birth weight, exposure to toxins during pregnancy, smoking and drinking alcohol during early childhood, and emotional trauma or stress.

NIMH researchers have found that some specific psychosocial treatments can help individuals with ADHD and their families manage the condition. These psychosocial treatments may include educational and behavioral therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, parent-training programs, and medications. The first step is to see a doctor who can diagnose ADHD and supervise treatment. Some people with ADHD need to try several medication options before finding one that works best for them.

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