Despite much publicity over the last two decades, ADHD is still a condition that’s widely misunderstood.
The common stereotype of the ‘naughty, uncontrollable child,’ still prevails among many people. Even when this stereotype isn’t being reinforced by lack of education, the condition is most often seen as being related solely to children being hyperactive and unable to concentrate. Other aspects of the disorder are often not recognized.
In addition, stereotypes and stigmas exist with regards to what causes ADHD, including assumptions such as poor diet, bad parenting and incorrect behaviors during pregnancy (such as excessive drinking or smoking).
Over the past two decades, new techniques in brain imaging and epigenetic research have led to a deeper understanding about ADHD, it’s causes and symptoms. However, many stereotypes still abound, among both professional and non-professional people.
ADHD Only Occurs in Naughty Children
Perhaps one of the most damaging stereotypes surrounding children who suffer from ADHD is that of the naughty child.
This stereotype asserts that if a child is just disciplined properly, or is told to focus enough, then ADHD symptoms will be eliminated.
Individuals with ADHD are Not Properly Parented
Linked to these assumptions is the idea that poor parenting, with few boundaries and permissive attitudes are responsible for any or all the symptoms children with ADHD suffer from.
This is damaging to both the child and parents, who are often all trying extremely hard to find ways of dealing with their challenges. When this stereotype comes into play it can lead to lack of self-worth in both children and the adults caring for them.
At best, it is a dismissal of the condition they are suffering from and at worst it blames them for something they have had little control over.
Individuals with ADHD Can’t Sit Still
Another stereotype regarding ADHD is the belief that all people with ADHD are hyperactive and unable to sit still or concentrate for any length of time.
In fact, many sufferers can concentrate for extended periods of time, depending on the level of their engagement with a task.
Because of this some people often assume that ADHD isn’t a ‘serious’ disorder, and that since most people find they have trouble concentrating or focusing from time to time, children with ADHD are similar, but just not trying hard enough.
ADHD Only Affects Boys
Some people mistakenly believe that ADHD is a boy’s disorder and rarely effects girls.
In fact, although the diagnoses of ADHD between boys to girls is about 3 boys for every 1 girl, when adults are diagnosed this figure changes to around 1.6 males to 1 female in epidemiological studies, and around even in clinical assessments.
So, whilst it is a disorder that is more commonly diagnosed in boys, it doesn’t necessarily follow it is extremely rare in girls. The possibility is that the symptoms are simply more widely recognized in boys than in girls.
Children Who Have ADHD Are Exposed to Too Much Television
With the growing popularity of video-games and television many have assumed a causal relationship between screen time and ADHD in children.
This feeds into the stereotype of ADHD really being children who have simply watched too much TV. In 2014 researchers working at the University of Amsterdam and Ohio State University conducted a meta-analysis of over 50 studies into media and ADHD symptoms.
Their findings suggested some link between the two, however there was no evidence to suggest screen time in fact caused ADHD.
Children with ADHD Aren’t Fed Proper Diets
Dietary influences are commonly held to be partially or fully responsible for the disorder.
It has been considered that certain food-colorings or additives were partially to be blamed for symptoms of ADHD in children. In addition, it’s been commonly claimed that a diet high in sugar is the cause.
There are many books on the market which claim to cater for a special ADHD diet. However there have been no studies which conclusively prove that this is the case. Although a causal link may have been indicated in one or two studies, the numbers were not sufficient to be of statistical significance.
As of 2016, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence – NICE – does not have any guidelines which prohibit artificial colorings or additives. Their advice centers around ensuring children get a healthy, balanced diet.
ADHD Children Are Addicted
One further damaging stereotype of the ADHD child is that of the ‘junkie kid’.
With the advent of drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall the stereotype of children needlessly ‘dosed up’ on drugs has risen. Certain religious groups have sometimes criticized the use of medication for ADHD and in areas of the media such as tabloids the disorder has often been demonized.
In addition to this, there is also a common assumption that the only treatment for ADHD revolves around medication, and that in time children with ADHD simply grow out of the condition.
When you take these stereotypes altogether, it’s no wonder that many sufferers and caregivers still feel frustrated and that their condition is poorly understood at best.
So, what do we know about ADHD, and how it really manifests?
ADHD is a condition which affects what we call ‘executive function’ in the cognition of sufferers.
It is a neuro-developmental disorder – which means it is a disorder that results from differences in the way the brain processes information, as compared to a child without ADHD. It is also a disorder that can present in many different forms, and with a combination of factors which influence behavioral traits.
According to the CDC there are three main categories of ADHD:
- Predominantly Inattentive: The child finds it hard to finish tasks, follow instructions and conversations or pay attention to details
- Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: The person finds it hard to remain still and has trouble with impulsive behaviors
- Combined Presentation: Occurring when symptoms of both types are mixed
As we have developed our ability to examine functions within the brain, researchers have been able to identify factors which relate to structural, functional and chemical processes.
For example, structural areas affected include reductions in the volume of several areas of the brain and thickness in grey matter, as well as abnormalities in connections which are responsible for attention and emotion regulation.
In addition to this chemical processes in the brain which may affect dopamine and noradrenaline have been found. These areas influence impulsivity and inattention.9
The issue of dopamine has been challenged in recent years, including in a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge.
The researchers found that when they gave doses of Ritalin to volunteers who did not suffer from ADHD, they showed a similar response in the increase in levels of dopamine to those who had ADHD and were given Ritalin. The study questions whether fundamental abnormalities in dopamine are responsible for causing ADHD.
What we do know however is that dopamine, along with many other factors all play an inter-related role in what is a complex disorder.
New studies are being conducted every year, and new theories are being suggested as to the exact nature of the disorder. In his book “Taking Charge of ADHD,” Russell Barkley suggests that not only do children suffering from ADHD struggle with many of the issues which are becoming more widely known, but they also have a poor concept of time and the future.
This means that they lack the skills to be able to locate their actions within a framework of the present and future.
The issue of emotional regulation is also another area to consider when trying to understand ADHD.
Many children struggle with controlling their emotional responses, and with finding enthusiasm for tasks that they are not deeply engaged with. Because of this many children are labelled as being ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty,’ adding to frustration and low self-esteem.
As we can see ADHD is a complex disorder that has many different traits and manifestations. It has often been stereotyped as a disorder that is either made up, or is not as serious as reported by people such as parents, teachers or children.
However, the vast range of studies over the past two decades, coupled with more advanced capacities to study the brain through mediums such as MRI scans, has led to a greater awareness and understanding of the condition.
It appears that attitudes are slowly beginning to change. Many clinicians and professionals now accept the need for medication or other therapy, and there are many parenting networks dedicated to challenging the stereotypes found online or in the print media.
ADHD is a disorder than can bring many challenges to the child suffering and those who care for them. But with greater information and understanding we can continue to challenge stereotypes and help to funnel efforts into research and support.