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What is ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain-based disorder that is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. People with ADHD often report having problems with time management, emotional regulation, organization, activation or getting started, and self-control. They may also show a persistent pattern of inattention or not being able to complete a task or pay attention, hyperactivity or a usually high level of activity of excitement or restlessness, and/or impulsivity, or acting on sudden desires or feelings.

To be diagnosed with ADHD several symptoms must be present before a child reaches twelve years of age and symptoms must be present in two or more settings (such as at home and school or at home and work). There must be also be clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of social, school or work functioning. Based on types of symptoms experienced, a person can be diagnosed as one of three types as long as symptoms were expressed for at least the past 6 months.

  • ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Presentation (known as ADD)
  • ADHD Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation
  • ADHD Combined Presentation

It is important to note that symptoms may be experienced differently at different ages. For example, a child may express hyperactivity as a high level of energy, while as an adult that same person can express hyperactivity as extreme restlessness or impulsivity.  Since symptoms can change over time the ADHD diagnosis can also change over time.

Some people call it ADHD, some people call it ADD, do they mean the same thing?  

The term ADD became popular in the 1990s when many adults were being formally diagnosed with ADHD. During this time many people began to start labeling themselves as having ADD even though ADD is not a formal diagnosis. This happened because when people thought about having hyperactivity (the H in ADHD) they pictured the stereotypical full of energy child and could not identify as having this symptom. Because they felt they did not have hyperactivity they removed the H from ADHD, which then resulted in the colloquial term ADD. The problem is hyperactivity also describes restlessness and impulsivity and by labeling oneself as ADD, these commonly experienced symptoms cannot be properly addressed in treatment. Because not everyone experiences the same symptoms of ADHD, and to make sure all symptoms are represented in the diagnosis medical professionals moved to categorize ADHD into three different types stated above.

Some people have called ADHD a disorder of executive functioning but what exactly does this mean?

One hallmark of ADHD is problems with executive function. Executive function refers to high-level cognitive skills that allow us to analyze, organize, problem solve, execute and self-regulate.

Executive functions help us manage life tasks of all kinds. For example, executive functions let you pay a bill, organize a project or complete a paper.  With someone who has executive dysfunction these tasks can become very time consuming and difficult to complete.

Children and adults that have ADHD tend to struggle with core executive functions that include inhibition, self-motivation, and planning and problem solving. Anyone who exhibits the classic symptoms of ADHD will have difficulty with all or most of executive functions. Most ADHD treatment focuses on gaining control over ADHD symptoms and boosting executive functions.

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