Everyone has something to say about ADHD. Most of us know someone with ADHD or someone who parents or looks after a child with the condition. Despite a consensus of psychiatric, scientific and academic opinion, there is still some controversy around the diagnosis and treatment of this neurodevelopmental condition. This contributes to a lack of knowledge and understanding about an endlessly fascinating condition and the precious children who live with it. We owe it to these children to raise awareness of the strengths and challenges, the joys and difficulties that come with ADHD.
Here are five things about children with ADHD, that may surprise you, or make you nod along in understanding.
Children with ADHD are:
1. Curious thinkers with unique world views
Every person views the world in their own unique way. Children with ADHD are all as different from each other as one individual is from the next. It is true though, that children with ADHD are very often curious and investigative in their nature. They want to understand how the world works, how things are made and how they operate.
Navigating through life is a daily sensory experience and children with ADHD feel this acutely. ADHD often comes with sensory issues that result in overstimulation or sensory-seeking behaviours. In either of these cases, children with ADHD learn to adjust their experience of the world to meet their own needs – they hear the daily sounds that others dismiss as background noise, and they know what materials their clothes are made of because of how they feel against the skin, they know the architecture of buildings based on steps and bannisters that are good for balancing games, they know how a pedal bin mechanism works because they’ve taken it apart to find out.
Children with ADHD are natural problem solvers and entrepreneurial spirits, using the experience of life with a different working brain to identify areas where improvements are necessary for a better society and a fairer world.
2. Widely misunderstood
It comes as a surprise to many people that ADHD does not mean that a child lacks attention, but instead means that a child has challenges directing attention. They can struggle greatly to filter out inputs and focus on one thing.
Writing a sentence may be easy for someone that can unconsciously filter out the sounds of other children talking, birds tweeting outside, a daydream about going swimming later, thoughts about last night’s visit to Granny’s house, the urge to draw on your leg, the smell of lunch wafting down the hall. But for children with ADHD all these demands on attention feature with the same prevalence in their minds, making the task of writing a sentence just one of the countless stresses on the brain.
Hyperactivity can be perceived as troublesome and can cause real disruption in homes and classrooms, but it is a symptom of ADHD that is not the child’s choice. If a child with ADHD is told to sit still, it is often impossible for them. Intense movement may be due to a lack of impulse control or is frequently a self-regulatory behaviour. A child might wish to be able to focus in class but can only filter out other inputs by moving their body or making certain noises to calm their minds. They try, consciously or otherwise, to help themselves meet expectations by self-regulating in the way their bodies are telling them to (more on trying below).
The antithesis of these struggles is a superpower known as ‘hyperfocus’, an ability of many children with ADHD. Hyperfocus allows laser beam attention to be given to a task that the child is interested in and engaged in, to the exclusion of all other inputs. If the teacher is calling, they won’t hear. If they’re hungry, they won’t notice. If there’s an unavoidable interruption to their flow, they might not be happy.
The challenge of focussing attention gives children with ADHD the advantage of being very driven to engage in activities that they find stimulating and fulfilling, a valuable pursuit for us all, ADHD or not.
3. Trying. Really hard.
Too often identified as disruptive or uninterested, children with ADHD are not always given the support and understanding they need. With a brain well described as a Ferrari with the brakes of a bicycle, there are times when children with ADHD simply cannot behave in the way that is expected of them, and desperately need help to understand and meet the requirements of social expectations (for example, not interrupting others), impulse control (for example, waiting their turn), academics (for example, completing their school work), and daily life (for example, getting dressed).
Children with ADHD do not want to disappoint their teachers or carers and they do not fail to focus or follow instructions deliberately. They are not manipulative or lazy. Children with ADHD are trying hard, against the odds, to function in a world where there are endless distractions and demands.
An example can show how hard children must try to meet basic expectations. Getting ready for bed seems simple but is in fact a complex multi-stage process. Even a small number of instructions can be overwhelming for a child: put on pyjamas, brush teeth, get into bed. The reality is that to accomplish these tasks the child must take off their clothes and face whatever temperature change greets them; locate or choose pyjamas amongst clothes of many colours and textures; put the pyjamas on by engaging the head, arms, legs, and feet in an appropriate order; walk to the bathroom past distracting toys and noises; pick up the toothpaste and apply it delicately in the correct quantity to their toothbrush (not their sister’s toothbrush) and replace the cap; stand still for two minutes remembering to brush their teeth thoroughly and not play with the temptingly tactile tap instead; put the toothbrush away where it belongs; make their way back to the bedroom while fighting the impulse to play with the dog and stop to listen to the conversation floating to their ears from the next room; get into bed even when it feels like there is still so much to do and experience in what is left of the evening.
When we can filter activities and focus on one thing at a time, we might not realise that the day-to-day activities we carry out are often very demanding of attention and impulse control. Children with ADHD are often unable to complete these activities without support, but they are trying.
4. In need of help sooner rather than later
Help and support for children with ADHD come in many shapes and forms. It is, after all, the most treatable condition in psychiatry. There are many social, emotional, and behavioural inputs available, as well as training for parents.
Medication is effective, safe, and widely used. Many different types of medication are used to treat ADHD and work in different ways, which a healthcare provider will be able to discuss with families.
Children with ADHD who are untreated or left undiagnosed can suffer serious emotional, social and academic consequences, and are at risk of low self-esteem and other mental health struggles. Being diagnosed with ADHD does not change a child, it gives them and their families vital knowledge about what is causing their struggles and how their challenges can be addressed. Most diagnoses are given to children between the ages of 3 and 7 but professional help should be sought for children of any age who are displaying symptoms that have a detrimental impact on their lives. As a parent of a child with ADHD put it, no one would wait to get glasses for a child who was struggling to see clearly.
Taking medication for ADHD has been shown to reduce the likelihood of substance misuse in later life, as those with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD are more likely to turn to illegal or unregulated substances in an attempt to self-medicate to allow them to manage their daily challenges.
5. More likely than not to become an adult with ADHD
90% of children with ADHD will continue to experience some or all of their symptoms into adulthood and continue to require support. These adults are from diverse backgrounds and enter numerous areas of study, endeavour, and entrepreneurship. Adult and child populations throughout the world contain people living with ADHD. They explore the world, experience the full spectrum of life’s emotions, and often go on to have children of their own with ADHD.
From childhood to adulthood, people with ADHD need compassion, understanding, and the opportunity to use their wonderful brains to their full and expansive potential.
Hannah Stewart is a mother of three children aged 13, 10, and 7; her 7-year-old son has ADHD. Hannah has spent a lot of time educating herself on ADHD, as well as witnessing the huge challenges and beautiful insights that the condition has brought to her family.