Despite much research into ADHD and attempts to increase awareness of the disorder, many myths surrounding ADHD still exist.
These can lead to issues with people seeking help, as well as increases in low self-esteem and negative associations regarding challenges that many ADHD sufferers face.
Some myths regarding ADHD have been widely repeated in areas such as the media and by some healthcare professionals or teachers and parents.
Why are Myths Harmful?
Myths surrounding ADHD are harmful because they lead to wide-spread misinformation, and can lead to negative impacts such as refusal to take medication, adherence to diets or other lifestyle choices which are not shown to be effective, or by increasing stigma and negative assumptions about people who have ADHD.
What Myths Prevail about ADHD?
ADHD is and Invented Disorder
One of the most harmful myths about ADHD is that it doesn’t exist at all, and is an ‘invented’ condition with no evidence to support the complex effects on areas such as impaired Executive Function.
Some members of the health profession have argued that ADHD is a myth – Thomas Armstrong in a book in the 1990’s made this claim.
A new, revised edition is due to be released in 2017.
This appears to correct many of the assertions Armstrong made in his original work.
However, articles from earlier years are still available over the internet.
In an article in 1996 Armstrong argues that one of the reason he believes ADHD is a myth is because children pay attention at certain times:
“I’ve seen studies showing that the symptoms of ADD disappear or lessen under several real life situations: when the child is doing things that interest him, when he’s engaged in one-to-one interaction with someone he trusts, when he’s being paid to do something, and when he can control the outcomes of his activities. If ADD can disappear under these conditions, then how can ADD really exist as a medical disorder?”
We now know that many children with ADHD can pay focused attention when they are engaged with a task and that impairments in Executive Function can be situationally variant and depend on complex factors.
More recently, authors such as Michael Corrigan have written books which claim to ‘debunk ADHD’, and there are also conspiracy theories which remain popular in some circles regarding ADHD and Pharmaceutical Companies – such as that ADHD was ‘invented’ to sell drugs such as Ritalin, or to medicalize normal childhood behavior.
Some critics of ADHD argue that due to there being no ‘biological marker’ to test for the conditions, such as a blood test, this means it doesn’t exist.
Because something cannot be tested for with a biological marker, this doesn’t negate its existence.
You Grow Out of ADHD
Further to the idea that ADHD is an invented condition is the myth that it is something that children simply grow out of.
Research has shown that ADHD is a lifelong disorder, and that over time some children may find that they are better able to manage symptoms.
However, this doesn’t mean they no longer have the disorder, rather in some cases a developmental lag has stopped having such a significant impact, and in others they have found life situations which allow them to mitigate their symptoms.
The idea that children ‘grow out’ of ADHD also reinforces negative perceptions of parenting and adds to the assumption that ADHD is a result of poor parenting and lack of discipline and boundaries.
Medication for ADHD is Harmful
Even when ADHD is accepted as a condition, myths surrounding medication prevail.
This includes the myth that children who are prescribed medication such as Vyvanse, Adderall or Ritalin will grow up to be drug addicts.
In fact, many people suffering from ADHD may be at increased risk from substance misuse if they are undiagnosed and attempt to self-medicate.
These myths surrounding behavior, parenting and incorrect drug use all reinforce negative stereotypes and attitudes towards the use of medications which have been in use for many years and have been shown to be effective for many sufferers of ADHD.
ADHD is Curable
Myths such as ADHD being curable through better parenting or by alterations to the diet are also damaging.
Whilst some research suggests that removing additives or excess sugar from the diet of some people with ADHD can help to improve symptoms, there is no evidence to suggest a special diet can ‘cure’ ADHD.
Despite this there are still many books and websites dedicated to the myth that by following certain diets ADHD can be eliminated.
This could be particularly damaging if these methods are followed without accessing professional support and advice, and accessing information and strategies to help people with ADHD manage their symptoms.
People with ADHD are Mentally Incapable
Further myths surrounding ADHD are related to IQ and the capability of those who have the condition.
Many people assume that children with ADHD are ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ and will never be able to achieve academically or in other areas of life.
People with ADHD are no more likely to have low IQ than anyone else, however studies have shown that even amongst those who have been tested and found to have high IQ’s, issues with Executive Function were still significant.
This tackles another related myth – that if a person is deemed to be ‘clever’ or have a high IQ they don’t have ADHD or they ought to be able to manage problems with Executive Function.
Only Boys Have ADHD
Because of the myth that it is only, or mostly, boys who suffer from ADHD, in addition to the Myth that ADHD is only a hyperactivity disorder, many girls are overlooked when it comes to early diagnoses.
This often means that girls and women internalize their symptoms and it can take many years before they seek a diagnosis.
The gender difference in presentations and how Executive Function is often affected can also lead to lack of understanding of how complex ADHD is.
As so many other myths already exist regarding medication, how ADHD isn’t ‘real’ or how it can be ‘cured’ with diet this can be especially harmful for women and parents of girls seeking to understand their condition.
Why Do These Myths Prevail?
ADHD has been widely misrepresented in many areas of the media and in online communities.
Because it is a disorder which is primarily diagnosed using a pattern of behaviors, this can lead to assumptions about how the behaviors are created.
These assumptions fail to consider Executive Function challenges and the complex array of impairments that ADHD sufferers face.
This can include cultural or societal assumptions about unruly children and discipline, as well as fears regarding additives in food or the growing use of medications.
Many myths are damaging.
Some researchers even believe that the title of the condition itself – ‘ADHD’ may be damaging as it feeds into the myth that ADHD is primarily an attention disorder, when the most recent research suggests it’s a disorder more commonly associated with difficulties in self-regulation
Because ADHD became more widely known before the advent of recent developments in genetics and advances in brain imaging techniques, it has been easy for the media or some professionals to demonize it and accuse those who reported the effects of the disorder to be to blame.
Although newer research and many advances in understanding the complexity of the disorder and the different ways it can present are being frequently made, there has been a huge amount of coverage of ADHD myths since the 1990’s in particular. Many of those negative labels and myths remain widely spread amongst those who are unaware of more recent research.
It’s important to challenge assumptions and myths regarding ADHD when they arise.
This will help to counteract harm caused by negativity and stigma, which has prevented some people from seeking help for their condition.
It will also help to support caregivers such as parents to make more informed choices regarding their child’s ADHD. Better education for professionals who are working with those who have ADHD is also needed in order to challenge the myths and misconceptions that are still prevalent.