Despite popular understanding, we’ve known about ADHD for a long time. Some place its first mention as early as 1775, with German physician Melchior Weikard’s discussion of ‘attention deficit’. After this, British paediatrician George Frederic is generally credited with first identifying the condition in 1902. The American Psychiatric Association would go on to officially include ADHD in their second edition of the DSM in 1968.
So we’ve known about ADHD for 50 years, if not 250! And yet, it is still so widely misunderstood. This ignorance translates into pernicious myths that stop people from seeking help; an estimated 3 in 4 people with ADHD go undiagnosed and unsupported.
Here’s just a handful of those myths and how you can bust them.
Bizarrely, many see ADHD as a ‘phase’ – a restless kid who’ll grow out of it once they enter the ‘real world’.
This is simply not true. Several long-term studies find that roughly 80% of children diagnosed with ADHD still show symptoms in adolescence, and between 50% and 86% of those with ADHD continue symptoms from childhood to adulthood.
It is true that some symptoms diminish with age, or that changes in environment can alter the expression of symptoms. But this is not the same as ‘growing out of it’. Even in ‘recovered’ adults, the neurobiological hallmarks of ADHD can be seen on brain scans.
What tends to look like recovery might be better understood as learned management, those with ADHD know ways to mask their symptoms. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re ‘fixed’, but rather that they’ve had to adapt to hostile environments, lack of understanding, and not receiving the support they need.
The CDC estimates that boys are three times more likely to receive diagnoses than girls. This is not because less girls and women suffer from ADHD, but rather a mix of presentation differences and gender expectations.
Girls with ADHD are more likely to:
Gender norms tend to personalise these symptoms – labelling those with ADHD ‘ditzy’, ‘shy’, and ‘petulant’ – and they can be less disruptive for parents and teachers, so they tend to fly under the radar.
This stops girls from getting the help they need, so symptoms worsen as they age. Undiagnosed women may develop self-esteem issues and mood disorders. Symptoms can interfere with work (especially from employers ignorant about their condition), causing women with ADHD to struggle to hold down a job. Coupled with a poor social support system due to trouble maintaining relationships, it isn’t hard for unsupported women with ADHD to fall into poverty.
Parents are often blamed for their child’s ADHD – told to ‘set better boundaries’, or ‘discipline them more’.
In reality, ADHD is a neurological condition. For decades now, MRI scans, radioscope scans, and neuropsychological testing reveal clear differences in ADHD brains, including lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine (responsible for self-regulation). What’s more, twin studies have discovered possible hereditary links between genetics and ADHD.
Some environmental factors are thought to cause ADHD, such as difficult births in which blood flow to the infant’s brain is interrupted and exposure to specific toxins at a young age. But these have nothing to do with parenting styles.
This nasty myth can make parents fear seeking help. As a result, they’re left with the stress of raising a child without fully understanding their needs, and both child and parent are left without the proper support.
All this being said, there are ways a parent can better help their child by providing consistent rituals, empathetic understanding, fair discipline (never physical), and support in helping kids learn from their mistakes.
You might think this is the case. ‘It’s in the name!’, after all. But many people experience ADHD without hyperactivity.
There are three recognised presentations of ADHD:
As explored earlier, women and girls are more likely to experience ADHD without hyperactivity (formally ADD), though men do still. How a person presents might change over time and in response to life changes. What’s more, different types can require different treatments; medicating for ADD might improve attention, but is unlikely to help with organisation, time management, or memory problems.
ADHD is not a learning difficulty. Learning difficulties – such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia – are the result of differences in the wiring of the brain, causing trouble receiving and processing some types of information.
ADHD, on the other hand, is a problem of executive function. Those with ADHD don’t have trouble learning things so much as they have trouble concentrating and organising information. This might present similar learning difficulties, but the underlying condition and biological causes are very different.
There is, however, a higher rate of learning difficulties among those with ADHD compared to those without. But again, correlation is not causation.
Now, you’re armed to meet these common misconceptions with informed responses. Attacking these myths wherever you see them is key to dispelling the stigma around ADHD and helping those with ADHD receive the correct diagnoses and accessing proper support. And making sure employers are aware of what ADHD is and how it works is key to allowing those with ADHD to hold down long-term employment and bringing their unique strengths – hyperfocus, creativity, and enthusiasm – to the workplace.