Sara Ainsworth delves into the misconceptions surrounding ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a debilitating condition, which is a mix of genetic and environmental factors that can be present in children from as young as 18 months. It affects up to 10% of children and adults in the UK. The illness is still sometimes referred to as ‘naughty child syndrome’ so does ADHD actually exist, or is it just a result of bad parenting?

Underdeveloped social communication skills, poor concentration and being disorganised are all key characteristics of ADHD. According to health professionals there are three definitions identified by the American Psychiatric Association, these are Predominantly Hyperactive Impulsive, Predominantly Inattentive, and Combined Type (meaning patients are hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive). There are also varying degrees of the disorder: some people exhibit oppositional behaviour where they are incapable of controlling their actions which can result in anger and aggression, conversely some sufferers are introverted, causing them to daydream frequently and switch off entirely to the outside world. However, focussing on a task is a problem for any sufferer because they all have poor concentration levels. Because of the variants in behaviour, diagnosis can be a lengthy and complicated process.

Many critics refuse to believe that ADHD is a medical condition, some put it down to bad parenting, others a culmination of late nights and a poor diet, but a study carried out by the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York in 2009 suggests that there is concrete medical evidence to suggest that ADHD does actually exist, but even today there is no full explanation of the disorder. It is believed to be a result of an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain; these are the fundamental chemicals noradrenalin and dopamine that transmit nerve signals. Sufferers have lower levels of dopamine receptors and transmitters in two different areas of the brain; these are the nucleus accumbens and the midbrain. An imbalance of hormones in the brain causes fluctuation in emotions because the brain can’t process information at the normal rate.

Earlier studies of ADHD have suggested that children may outgrow the condition, but at least 60% of children’s problems continue into adulthood. Doctors regularly prescribe stimulants to treat patients by helping them to focus. They produce many side effects such as insomnia, lack of appetite and growth deficits, however, these should cease if a child stops taking medication.

Ritalin, a class B drug which can only be obtained by prescription, is commonly used to treat ADHD patients, but the drug is highly addictive. ADHD was discovered more than 50 years ago in the US, but medication has only been prescribed in the UK for the past twenty years. Research about the damaging effects of Ritalin to a child’s brain is subjective because there is still a lot more research to be carried out. During the past 20 years, 11 lives have been lost to Ritalin, namely due to heart failures in children, respiratory failures and brain diseases. Significantly, whilst taking the drug two young children have taken their own lives.

Dr Llina Singh of Kings College, London undertook some research with children who have ADHD to decipher whether medication turned children into zombies. Last month her work was published as a book and a short animated film, ‘ADHD and me’, available on YouTube.

Both depict ADHD in the eyes of children who have the condition. Children, from both the US and UK were asked if they understood their condition. Many did not and furthermore, they didn’t know why they had to visit their doctors twice a year. Other children said they kept the fact they had ADHD concealed from peers as they were worried about bullying and some stated they were taunted for being different. After undertaking research with ADHD children, Dr Singh reported that Ritalin doesn’t turn children into robots, and that most children felt it helped them to make better decisions.  She was also surprised that very few children were offered alternative treatments to medication, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Funding was provided by the Independent Wellcome Trust with the aim to challenge the stigmas of ADHD.


Sara Ainsworth