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What exactly is ADHD and how can we detect it?

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Professionals still can't agree about what causes this seemingly common neurological disorder.

He’s a really active child who never sits still. It’s impossible for him to concentrate on what he’s doing. He is impulsive, does not measure his words, and even engages in risky behavior. Is he simply a “restless” child or is there something else going on?

For some, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is just a “trendy disease,” a label people slap on behaviors when they don’t want to own up to child-rearing. For others, it is a way of cataloging children who “don’t fit the mold” that society imposes, and it can lead them to treat as an illness something that is actually a character or behavioral issue. For those living with the disorder — even undiagnosed — it can be a source of rejection, frustration, depression, and personal and social failure.

What do the experts say? Well, even though there are conflicting voices who say it is not a medical disorder but a social construction, much of the scientific community agrees that there is a biological and psychological basis for talking about ADHD.

According to several studies, it has been found that two chemicals that use neurons to communicate with each other, dopamine and noradrenaline, are altered in children with ADHD, but not in healthy subjects. Thus, while such compounds abound in the basal ganglia and in the frontal lobe of normal people, they are not sufficiently available in hyperactive people.

What is — and is not — ADHD?

According to the medical literature, ADHD is a disorder that is characterized by difficulty concentrating, impulsivity, and motor hyperactivity that hinders and sometimes prevents the normal development, integration, and social adaptation of children and adolescents. It may also afflict adults.

In addition, ADHD, especially when not treated properly, can be the basis of other types of disorders as a result of the person’s poor personal and social integration: depressions, social maladjustment, personal failure, low self-esteem, etc.

What is the problem when it comes to detecting ADHD? Diagnosing ADHD requires specific training and, above all, a lot of clinical experience in order to avoid confusing it with a behavioral problem, or the child’s character, or perhaps a case of delayed maturity.

For example, a child who is “distracted” in class, or who exhibits behavioral problems does not necessarily have ADHD. It could be the case of a child with high intellectual abilities who simply gets bored, or whose behavior is masking other problems, such as a conflict-ridden home environment.

Another important point: ADHD has a hereditary component in 80 percent of cases. Several studies show that upbringing is not the cause of the disorder.

According to the psychiatry manuals, some of the symptoms of ADHD are:

  • Difficulties organizing oneself, with the sensation of not reaching one’s goals
  • Doing several tasks simultaneously without having finished the previous ones
  • Tendency to blurt out the first thing that goes through one’s head without reflecting
  • Constantly looking for new stimuli and being easily distracted
  • Creativity, with great initiative and signs of impatience
  • Difficulty working through the established channels and following the “right” procedure
  • Verbal or physical impulsivity and feelings of insecurity
  • Tendency to worry unnecessarily and often
  • Changes in mood and attitudes with expressions of restlessness
  • Chronic self-esteem problems related to experiencing rejection
  • Family history of ADHD, manic-depressive illness, depression, substance abuse, or other disorders involving impulse control or mood
  • Insomnia

In order to diagnose ADHD correctly (and not to misidentify hyperactivity), it is essential for the parents to work together with pediatricians, educators, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Precisely because the symptoms of ADHD can be confused with the normal stages of childhood, it is very important to do a multidisciplinary follow-up. A team of experts can give help and guidance particularly when these behaviors have escalated and may be out of control, and when behavioral therapies and educational guidelines are not working because there is “something else” going on.

The article was written with the help of Javier Fiz Pérez, Psychologist, Professor of Psychology at the European University of Rome, delegate for International Scientific Development and head of the Scientific Development Area of ​​the European Institute of Positive Psychology (IEPP).

This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia.

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