Outgrowing ADHD … or growing into it?

ADHD across the life span

About 1/3 of children who are diagnosed with ADHD are said to no longer meet criteria for it when they reach adulthood. Still, this leaves a majority of the children diagnosed with ADHD, experiencing the symptoms throughout their life time. Children with more severe impairments or co-morbid conditions (such as anxiety and depression) are less likely to “outgrow” their ADHD.

Outgrowing ADHD refers to the idea that as children mature, they no longer experience their symptoms because they have gained control over them. Also
“growing out of ADHD” is also associated with the idea that ADHD is soley a children’s disorder.

ADHD symptoms do change across the life span and ADHD will look very different in an eight-year-old child compared to a forty-year-old adulthood. As a child, ADHD will be reflected through hyperactivity and impulsivity like constantly running around, blurting out responses or poor conduct in school. As an adult, inattention becomes the more primary symptom and tasks like planning and organizing are challenges. 

One must be careful to understand that a child may not be outgrowing their ADHD but perhaps their ADHD symptoms are changing as they mature. It is possible to stop experiencing ADHD symptoms but then again, this is for the less severe cases with no co-morbidity and still for only 1/3 of cases.

Why is outgrowing ADHD possible?

Studies have been conducted to understand how brain development in ADHD youth compares to development non-ADHD youth. These studies have found that brain development works almost the exact same way in both groups, just that children with ADHD experience delays in development.

When comparing scans of children with ADHD to non-ADHD children, the brains of the children with ADHD matured about three years later than normal. But once their brains matured, it was the same as the non-ADHD children. At around age 7.5,  the cortex of non-ADHD children thicken and this occurs at the age of 10.5 in children with ADHD. This thicker prefrontal cortex is responsible for memory, attention, and suppression of thoughts.

This can explain why children with ADHD are able to outgrow their symptoms: once their brain matures, they have better control over their thoughts and impulses. Interestingly, the primary motor cortex matures faster in ADHD children which can explain why they are more likely to feel restless and fidget. 

Can you be in full remission from ADHD?

Some studies have explored adults in full remission from ADHD and adults in partial remission from ADHD (meaning they experience some symptoms but do not meet criteria). These investigations found that adults who did not meet full criteria for ADHD anymore still experienced difficulties in psychosocial functioning.

While their ADHD symptoms may have been alleviated, they still were having trouble in interpersonal relationships and other types of functioning. It is important to understand that ADHD can affect a range of areas, not just executive functioning.  Psychotherapy or other forms of treatment can always be helpful regardless of age or life stage. 

It is especially important to manage symptoms of ADHD in teenagers and adolescents as impulsivity can be dangerous. Youth with ADHD are more likely to take part in risky behavior like unsafe sex, substance abuse, and dangerous driving. Stimulant medication, therapy or other interventions can curb these impulses and teach a teen strategies to prevent dangerous situations.

Take away points 🙂 

1.Do not assume a child has outgrown ADHD! More than half the cases persist into adulthood

2.Adults face different challenges than children do (so their ADHD symptoms may look different)! 

3. More and more research is showing ADHD can persist over decades

4. Treatment is SO important at all stages of life!!!!!!