What Are the Symptoms of ADHD?
The three people you've just met, Mark, Lisa, and Henry, all have a
form of ADHD--AAttention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD
is not like a broken arm, or strep throat. Unlike these two disorders,
ADHD does not have clear physical signs that can be seen in an
x-ray or a lab test. ADHD can only be identified by looking for
certain characteristic behaviors, and as with Mark, Lisa, and
Henry, these behaviors vary from person to person. Scientists
have not yet identified a single cause behind all the different
patterns of behavior--aand they may never find just one. Rather,
someday scientists may find that ADHD is actually an umbrella
term for several slightly different disorders.
At present, ADHD is a diagnosis applied to children and adults
who consistently display certain characteristic behaviors over
a period of time. The most common behaviors fall into three categories:
inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
People who are inattentive have a hard time keeping their mind
on any one thing and may get bored with a task after only a few
minutes. They may give effortless, automatic attention to activities
and things they enjoy. But focusing deliberate, conscious attention
to organizing and completing a task or learning something new
For example, Lisa found it agonizing to do homework. Often,
she forgot to plan ahead by writing down the assignment or bringing
home the right books. And when trying to work, every few minutes
she found her mind drifting to something else. As a result, she
rarely finished and her work was full of errors.
People who are hyperactive always seem to be in motion. They
can't sit still. Like Mark, they may dash around or talk incessantly.
Sitting still through a lesson can be an impossible task. Hyperactive
children squirm in their seat or roam around the room. Or they
might wiggle their feet, touch everything, or noisily tap their
pencil. Hyperactive teens and adults may feel intensely restless.
They may be fidgety or, like Henry, they may try to do several
things at once, bouncing around from one activity to the next.
People who are overly impulsive seem unable to curb their immediate
reactions or think before they act. As a result, like Lisa, they
may blurt out inappropriate comments. Or like Mark, they may run
into the street without looking. Their impulsivity may make it
hard for them to wait for things they want or to take their turn
in games. They may grab a toy from another child or hit when they're
Not everyone who is overly hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive
has an attention disorder. Since most people sometimes blurt out
things they didn't mean to say, bounce from one task to another,
or become disorganized and forgetful, how can specialists tell
if the problem is ADHD?
To assess whether a person has ADHD, specialists consider several
critical questions: Are these behaviors excessive, long-term,
and pervasive? That is, do they occur more often than in other
people the same age? Are they a continuous problem, not just a
response to a temporary situation? Do the behaviors occur in several
settings or only in one specific place like the playground or
the office? The person's pattern of behavior is compared against
a set of criteria and characteristics of the disorder. These criteria
appear in a diagnostic reference book called the DSM (short for
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
According to the diagnostic manual, there are three patterns
of behavior that indicate ADHD. People with ADHD may show several
signs of being consistently inattentive. They may have a pattern
of being hyperactive and impulsive. Or they may show all three
types of behavior.
According to the DSM, signs of inattention include:
- becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sound
- failing to pay attention to details and making careless mistakes
- rarely following instructions carefully and completely
- losing or forgetting things like toys, or pencils, books,
and tools needed for a task
Some signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity are:
- feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming
- running, climbing, or leaving a seat, in situations where sitting or quiet behavior is expected
- blurting out answers before hearing the whole question
- having difficulty waiting in line or for a turn
Because everyone shows some of these behaviors at times, the
DSM contains very specific guidelines for determining when they
indicate ADHD. The behaviors must appear early in life, before
age 7, and continue for at least 6 months. In children, they must
be more frequent or severe than in others the same age. Above
all, the behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two
areas of a person's life, such as school, home, work, or social
settings. So someone whose work or friendships are not impaired
by these behaviors would not be diagnosed with ADHD. Nor would
a child who seems overly active at school but functions well elsewhere.
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