The Truth About ADHD
“That’s just my ADHD kicking in.” So I hear phrases similar to this one quite often, and I say it myself frequently. From my experience, ADHD (which now includes what was formally labeled ADD) is one of the most self-diagnosed disorders in mental health. And in this fast-paced society with constant demands vying for our limited attention from every angle, I am sure that most of us struggle with attention and concentration on a regular basis. Many factors can impact your ability to focus. The same is true for children. When we place very young children in classroom environments (i.e., in a chair) for most of the day most days. We are in a big way setting them up for failure (But that is another blog post… check back)! We are asking too much of them and often of ourselves. Burn out, mental fatigue, depression, and other contributing factors might be playing a role in your ability to focus. So is ADHD a “real disorder”? You bet! 100%!
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that as your brain and nervous system were/are developing (usually from about two weeks after conception until approximately age 25) something was impaired. In ADHD there is typically frontal lobe impairment, and other parts of the brain can be affected as well. Though the structure of the brain is likely unaffected in individuals with ADHD, there is often a difference in the way some neurons (brain cells) interact with one another through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Since ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, it is almost always present by early childhood, and many children and teens “outgrow” ADHD by early adulthood.
Of course we all associate inattention as a primary symptom of ADHD. Indeed, people with ADHD might be easily distracted, careless with details, and have difficulty sustaining focus for long periods even in play or conversations. We also think of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Two of the three subtypes of ADHD include these symptoms. Children and adults with these symptoms often squirm or fidget in their seats, leave their seats at inappropriate times, talk excessively, blurt out, interrupt, and have difficulty waiting their turn. I think most of us have a good picture of a typical child with ADHD. But often the quiet, smart girl without the hyperactivity piece of ADHD gets overlooked!
Now let’s talk about what ADHD can really look like in daily life. In almost every single client that I have diagnosed with or treated for ADHD, the main problems they experience are executive functioning difficulties, and that is why I say that ADHD is primarily an executive functioning disorder. What even is executive functioning? One of my very smart supervisors, and a neuropsychologist, used to explain it like the air-traffic controller of the brain. Executive functioning (EF) is the brain’s ability to do what it is supposed to be doing. EF impairments result in difficulty focusing on relevant sensory information, inhibiting behaviors and emotions, choosing actions based on potential outcomes, time management/estimating the time and effort required to complete a task, initiating tasks (aka procrastination), completing tasks, organizing, planning, scheduling, and mentally manipulating information. So yeah, it’s pretty important in our daily lives! Are you the ultimate procrastinator, who puts their car keys in the fridge, looks for their phone while talking on it, and loses your train of thought mid-sentence? You really might have ADHD.
ADHD can often be diagnosed by a doctor or psychiatrist based on symptoms reported. A psychologist can perform a psychological evaluation to confirm ADHD and rule out other potential causes for symptoms. A psychological evaluation is not as scary or as cool as it sounds! It is mostly face-to-face “testing” with a psychological professional that you cannot “pass or fail”. It typically involves IQ testing, academic testing, emotional/behavioral questionnaires, attention/concentration testing, and executive functioning testing. There are several effective treatment options for ADHD that can be helpful with or without medication. Children and college students with ADHD are eligible for specific academic accommodations to help them in school. If you think you or your child might have ADHD, please seek medical or psychological help.