A Straightforward Definition of ADHD
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a unique and often misunderstood condition that affects people of all ages. Whether you found this page because you have it, you think you might have it, or you know someone who has it, you’re on the right path! The first step toward meeting your needs and the needs of your loved ones is to understand what’s going on in the ADHD brain and the definition of ADHD.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition. (You’ll notice that we tend to say “condition” more often than “disorder” here. Neurodivergence is a state of being that’s neither better nor worse than being neurotypical.) Symptoms can vary widely from person to person, but typically people with ADHD experience persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, or both. They also might experience “ADHD paralysis“, so tasks that might seem easy to complete from the outside feel impossible to start.
The Dopamine Connection
Dopamine lies at the core of ADHD. It’s a neurotransmitter that’s job is to regulate attention and motivation. In those of us with ADHD, our brains’ dopamine pathways function differently. These differences turn into difficulties when we try to force ourselves to conform to neurotypical systems and environments.
ADHD and Dopamine: An Example
Let’s imagine a neurotypical person (Pat) and a person with ADHD (Terry). Pat dedicates the first day of the month to paying his bills and is never late on payments. If Pat will be on vacation on the first of the month, he remembers to pay them before he leaves, just like he remembers to pack a charger and his toothbrush. For Pat, these things are more or less automatic and require little/no cognitive bandwidth..
For Terry, these things are much more difficult to manage. When she’s very interested in something, it’s easy for her to get lost in a project for hours at a time. New and exciting things cause a neurobiological response of increased dopamine, the very thing an ADHD mind is lacking. But boring tasks like paying bills lack novelty and are much more difficult to remember to do on time. If she’s leaving for vacation and is wrapped up in packing and planning her trip, there is a greatly increased chance she’ll forget about the bills and incur some late fees.
Neither Terry nor Pat is better than the other – they’re just different. And, once Terry understands her challenges and stops trying to force herself to conform to someone else’s process, she frees herself to find systems that work much better for her. For example, she might set up all her bills on an auto-pay account or track her payments with fun stickers on a calendar, so that she can forget about that chore and still have confidence that everything is paid on time.
As you can see, differences in dopamine regulation can lead to difficulties in maintaining focus, organizing tasks, and managing impulses. Due to the common stereotypes, we’ll say this over and over: ADHD is not a result of laziness or a lack of intelligence, and the fix isn’t as simple as “just concentrate! It is a genuine and complex neurological condition that affects millions of people worldwide.
PREVALENCE, DEMOGRAPHICS, AND THE RISING DIAGNOSIS RATES
If you only look at the numbers, ADHD appears to be becoming more and more common.
And, some people argue that it is more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago. There are plenty of other factors to consider before jumping to that claim, though. The top ones we’d encourage you to think about include:
- We’re gaining a better understanding of ADHD. In the past, a child who had trouble sitting still in class might have been disciplined, while today, that same child might receive a diagnosis.
- Improved diagnostic criteria. As a society, when we learn more about a condition our ability to identify it improves. In the past, a too-narrow diagnostic lens might have allowed people with ADHD to fall through the cracks and not receive the help they needed.
ADHD affects people of all ages. According to the CDC, 9.8% of children aged 2-17 in the United States have been diagnosed with it. That’s (roughly) 6 million kids! Many of us also carry those traits into adulthood, with about 4.4% of American adults experiencing symptoms consistent with ADHD.
The demographics around ADHD are diverse. It affects a wide range of people regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. However, it seems that boys are more commonly diagnosed with ADHD than girls, with a ratio of about 3:1. This discrepancy may partly be due to differences in how ADHD presents in boys and girls, which might be leading to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis in girls and women. It’s important to recognize that ADHD can impact anyone, regardless of background or identity.
Shattering Common Misconceptions About ADHD
We’re based in the United States, and here there are plenty of myths about ADHD. As a society, we have only recently begun to understand the symptoms of the condition… That means we have also only recently learned how to effectively help kids and adults who have it. Plenty of stereotypes still persist that represent ADHD poorly and inaccurately. Let’s address some common misconceptions.
Myth 1: ADHD is a result of bad parenting or a lack of discipline.
Truth: ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder with biological origins. As we’ve mentioned, there are very real nervous system differences in people with ADHD compared with neurotypicals. A “time-out” doesn’t change the way someone’s brain works, so it’s not possible for a certain parenting style or discipline to cause ADHD.
Myth 2: ADHD only affects children and is outgrown in adulthood.
Truth: Remember that 4.4% statistic? We’ll remind you: “4.4% of American adults experience symptoms consistent with ADHD.”
Now, it is possible that the symptoms might manifest differently as we grow and age. That doesn’t mean that adults with ADHD are destined to struggle through life, though. The right resources and support are crucial for personal growth and well-being.
Myth 4: ADHD medications turn individuals into zombies or make them high.
Truth: Many ADHD medications are stimulants, which is where this myth likely comes from. Since ADHD brains work differently, medication interacts with them differently, too. If a neurotypical person takes Adderall, for example, their experience will be much, much different from someone with ADHD who has been prescribed to take Adderall and is following their doctor’s instructions. When used properly and under the direction of a healthcare provider, medications can help to restore balance in the brain. This can improve focus, attention, and impulse control. They do not change a person’s personality or induce a state of euphoria.
Myth 5: ADHD is just an excuse for bad behavior or poor academic performance.
Truth: ADHD can indeed lead to behavioral challenges and academic difficulties. But, it’s not an excuse – it’s a valid explanation. The difference is that for someone with ADHD, effective support strategies and appropriate accommodations can drastically change academic outcomes and set them on the right behavioral track. If someone was just making an excuse to behave and perform poorly, then their behavior wouldn’t change with support and accommodations.
Myth 3: People with ADHD are just lazy or not trying hard enough.
Truth: Kids and adults with ADHD often have challenges with executive functions. This goes back to the dopamine differences in our brains. From the outside, it might look like we “just need to try harder,” but if it was possible to “just try harder and not have ADHD anymore,” we probably wouldn’t need to write articles like this. This myth can even be damaging for neurodivergent people. People with ADHD hear so many negative messages, that many experience rejection sensitive dysphoria – a hypersensitivity towards feeling excluded.
Keep Exploring the ADHD Universe
Understanding ADHD is the first step toward fostering a supportive environment for yourself and your family (or your classroom, office… whatever brings you here!)
To learn more and find some practical tips, tricks, and ideas, we encourage you to explore our other content. Discover strategies for managing ADHD symptoms, learn about effective treatments and therapies, and connect with communities that provide support and understanding. Together, we create an inclusive world where individuals with ADHD thrive.
A final note about us: we’re not doctors, and we absolutely believe in science. Our resources here are informative only, and should not be taken as medical advice. We’ll update our content as new research emerges, so if you see something that’s gotten out-of-date, please send us a message!