Attention for ADHD: 9 Key Facts

New guidelines make it easier for doctors to diagnose it in kids as young as 4, yet many parents feel the condition is overdiagnosed. It's time for a closer look at this misunderstood disorder.

Brian Maranan Pineda

The 4-year-old who talks incessantly and blurts out answers ahead of his classmates... the racing-on-all-cylinders 5-year-old who leaps before he looks... the overzealous 6-year-old who butts into games and then is surprised when he's rejected... the spacey 8-year-old who can never find her homework folder, shifts from one unfinished task to another, and has trouble following directions. They're all very different children, but they all could have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"ADHD is the most common and yet one of the most misunderstood of all childhood psychiatric illnesses," says Steven Kurtz, Ph.D., senior director of the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center at New York City's Child Mind Institute. It's also a disorder that never fails to trigger controversy and leave overwhelmed parents feeling guilty about their disruptive, daydreamy, disorganized child. A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was a reminder of ADHD's prevalence: Roughly 7 percent of 4- to 17-year-olds have the disorder, according to their parents. This represents a 22 percent jump in just four years.

"It's good news that more kids are being identified instead of falling through the cracks," says Dr. Kurtz. "The fact that parents and teachers are aware of the condition means that some of the shame that held parents back from seeking treatment for their children is now lifting."

Late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for diagnosing and managing ADHD in children as young as 4 (previous guidelines started at age 6). Meanwhile, in a recent survey Parents conducted with the Child Mind Institute, 63 percent of people believed that too many kids are being diagnosed with ADHD when they really just have behavioral issues. But a youngster with ADHD has problems that show up more often, last longer, and are more intense than the average child's, explains Mark Wolraich, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma's College of Medicine, in Norman. "If his behavior is frequently out of control and that's causing him to get into trouble not only at home but also in preschool or day care, then it's important to find out why--and the earlier the better.

"There remains a great deal of confusion and public debate about where to draw the line between typical childhood behaviors and those that signal a clinical condition that should be treated," continues Dr. Wolraich, lead author of the AAP guidelines. We shed light on nine essential facts.

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