What's the Difference Between ADD and ADHD?

Doctors are no longer using the term ADD to describe a lack of focus and problems with organization. We explain why.

ADHD Brian Maranan Pineda

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is characterized by multiple symptoms, including trouble paying attention, being easily distracted, jumping from one activity to another, procrastinating, disorganization, forgetfulness, fidgeting, talking excessively, impatience, interrupting, and difficulty completing tasks. There are three subtypes of the disorder: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined, which includes both of the other types.

Previously, the inattentive form of ADHD -- which doesn't involve hyperactivity and impulsivity -- was labeled ADD, or just attention deficit disorder. Recently, though, the lingo has changed, and children with those symptoms have been included under the ADHD umbrella -- the term ADD is no longer used.

It's a controversial topic, however. "There is a question as to whether those with primarily inattentive symptoms should really be classified as ADHD at all, and if maybe the inattentive type isn't more of a learning disability," says Lee Ann Grisolano, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist in Hershey, Pennsylvania. "It's a hot topic right now."

One thing to know about the inattentive type of ADHD is that it's often overlooked. "Sometimes you see a child who zones out in class because he can't focus," says Judith Joseph, M.D., a psychiatrist and clinical instructor at the New York University Child Study Center. "He may also struggle with organization and is known as the child with the messy desk, messy locker, [who] doesn't complete the homework or finish exams. While these kids have organizational and attention issues, they lack hyperactivity and impulsivity, which makes their ADHD go under the radar or undetected. So children with the purely inattentive type of ADHD often go undiagnosed." Children with hyperactivity and impulsivity symptoms tend to be diagnosed earlier because their symptoms aren't subtle, Dr. Joseph says.

    Regardless of the type of ADHD your child has, the medication treatment is the same: Most often these are stimulants, which have positive effects in the majority of children. But behavioral modifications -- which can help children, parents, and teachers learn to manage symptoms through a variety of coping strategies -- will be somewhat different. For instance, a child dealing with hyperactivity may need to find activities that will allow him to get rid of surplus energy, or practice strategies that will help him sit still when he needs to do so. But a child with attention deficits will benefit more from organizational strategies, systems for homework, and tech tools (such as a smartphone) that will help him manage his time.

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