My son Dexter is failing his sixth-grade computer class. The kid taught himself Adobe Premiere to edit Minecraft videos and has started learning to code, but he’s flunking out of a basic, “here’s how to open a file” middle school computer class. So we met to his teacher, and the meeting echoed meetings we’ve been having with his teachers since kindergarten.
Mrs. Crabapple (name changed to protect the innocent) told us, “He has no problem with the material, but he never pays attention in class and his flash drive is always missing, so he never hands anything in.”
That meeting, plus his disorganized black hole of a bookbag, his sometime inability to concentrate, and my own diagnoses of ADD had us thinking he might have an attention problem.
What is ADHD, anyway?
ADHD and its sister ADD (that’s the less “hyper” style of ADHD) are common disorders in children that show themselves through executive function impairments: Problems paying attention, problems controlling behaviour, hyperactivity and, yeah, losing flash drives constantly.
Although it was first identified in 1902, ADHD wasn’t widely diagnosed until the 1990s, when doctors began to understand the disorder better and the number of identified cases began to climb. In Australia, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing reported that 11 per cent of the child and adolescent population fulfill the criteria for ADHD.
In the past, a child who couldn’t concentrate or sit still might have been labelled “a handful,” “lazy,” or a “delinquent,” thrown into a detention hall and admonished to quit being a pain in the arse. But kids with ADHD genuinely can’t help it and can neither buckle down nor fly right, no matter how much anyone yells at them.
How can I tell if my kid has ADHD?
“Doesn’t every kid sometimes have trouble paying attention in school?” you might be asking. Well, yes, which can make identifying the disorder tricky. It’s sometimes hard to identify the boundaries between normal kid behaviour and a mental disorder.
“There’s nothing I can show you that says, ‘This number is X, therefore your child has ADHD.’ There’s no particular scan or blood test or anything like that,” Dr. Karl Gundersen, a Los Angeles-based board certified psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents with ADHD, told me.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible to identify it as a problem, but parents and computer teachers aren’t equipped to make medical diagnoses (even if they’ve read a ton about ADHD on WebMD.com), so you have to call in the professionals.
How do I get my kid evaluated for ADHD?
First stop on the ADHD train: Your pediatrician. Our doctor recommended a psychiatrist to check Dexter for ADHD, but yours might send you to a different kind of mental health professional. You should also talk to your school’s counseling office. Public schools are legally obligated to locate and evaluate kids with ADHD.
“What we’re looking at is the severity of the symptoms,” Gundersen says. “There are nine criteria for inattention, and there are nine criteria for hyperactivity and impulsivity. The person we’re evaluating has to have at least six out of those nine criteria, they have to be to a significant degree, they have to be impairing, and they have to be impairing in more than one setting.”
In Dexter’s case, it turned out that flunking computer class was an isolated problem likely not caused by ADHD, but at least we know. A mental health professional will be able to rule out other causes of your child’s behaviour and identify any other issues that might be causing the problematic behaviour.
“If you have a kid that’s showing issues in school and not showing issues at home, then there might be something else,” Gundersen says. “There might be a learning issue. There might be an issue in socialisation or interaction.”
What kind of treatment is available for kids with ADHD?
Research into ADHD has shown the most effective treatment is a combination of medication and behavioural management. Depending on their needs, kids with ADHD are often prescribed a stimulant medication like Adderall or Ritalin (although non-stimulant medications work, too) and visit with mental health professionals, who can also help parents develop and implement a framework of behavioural techniques to use at home.
According to Gundersen, the combination of drugs and behavioural techniques is effective in about 80 or 90 per cent of the people who have strong cases of ADHD.
Your ADHD-positive child should also receive help at school. But be aware: Getting treatment for a kid with ADHD might involve parental advocacy, depending on the school your child attends or your doctor’s views on the subject. There are still a lot of misconceptions floating around about the disorder.
My brother was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in primary school. A neurological condition caused by an underproduction of attention-regulating chemicals in the brain, ADHD comes in three types: Inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive and combination. He was hyperactive, literally crawling up walls as he scaled the load beam between our dining room and kitchen. His energy was undeniable.
“We had our daughter Lilly tested when she was eight because it was clear that she was struggling socially,” says Molly Ferguson, a program manager with an 11-year-old daughter with ADHD. “We went to a neuropsychologist, and we didn’t actually get the ADHD diagnosis at that point… but it started to get more and more pronounced. Her impulsiveness, her lack of focus, her not being able to concentrate.” After four years, Lilly was finally diagnosed and medicated properly.
“Finally, her diagnosis is on a report,” Ferguson said. “We can present it to the school and say, ‘You have to give her the help that she needs.’”
But should we really be drugging up our kids?
According to Gundersen, ADHD medications have been studied extensively and, if used as prescribed, are safe and effective. But even if you want to forgo medicating your child, there are drug-free behavioural options for treating ADHD that work, too.
“I’ve found that parents that are interested and motivated to do consistent behavioural strategies can succeed very well,” Gundersen says. “But sometimes it’s hard for everybody to be consistent over a period of time, and that’s what kids learn from.”
No matter what treatment road you go down, the important thing is to take the disorder seriously. It’s a real thing, and lack of treatment can have life-altering effects.
“Many parents and adults still have the idea that mental illness can be overcome by working harder,” Gundersen says. “But there’s something specific that is going wrong inside all of these people’s brains, and they can’t just ‘get over it’ without help.”