Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): what is it?
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have brains that work differently from the brains of children without ADHD. These differences mean that children with ADHD have particular difficulties and strengths.
Typically, children with ADHD have difficulties with:
- paying attention – for example, they find it hard to concentrate on tasks
- being hyperactive – for example, they find it hard to sit still for long
- controlling impulses – for example, they might say or do things before thinking them through.
These difficulties happen most of the time and have a big effect on children’s daily lives.
Children with ADHD also have many strengths. They can:
- be highly creative and think about things in unique ways
- focus on and spend a lot of time learning about and enjoying things they love
- be adventurous and open to trying new things
- channel their energy into physical activity and be very successful.
Children and teenagers with ADHD might need support to learn, manage their emotions and behaviour, develop friendships, and do everyday tasks in ways that work for them. You can find out how to do this in our articles on supporting children and pre-teens with ADHD and supporting teenagers with ADHD.
Characteristics of ADHD
The characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) fall into 2 groups.
This means that a child:
- doesn’t pay close attention to details and makes ‘careless’ mistakes
- has difficulty following instructions and finishing tasks like homework or chores
- has difficulty keeping attention on things and is easily distracted
- is often distracted by little things, like someone moving or a sound outside the window
- has trouble remembering everyday things
- avoids tasks that require a lot of mental effort, like schoolwork or homework
- doesn’t seem to listen when spoken to
- has trouble getting things in order or doing things on time
- often loses things like schoolwork, pencils, books, clothing, lunch boxes or water bottles.
Hyperactive and impulsive characteristics
This means that a child:
- fidgets a lot and can’t sit still
- runs around and climbs on things in inappropriate situations
- is on the go all the time
- finds it hard to play or take part in activities quietly
- talks a lot
- has difficulty staying seated at school or the dinner table
- is impatient and doesn’t wait for a turn
- blurts out answers before questions are finished
- interrupts other people’s conversations or games
- uses things without asking.
If your child has some of these characteristics, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child has ADHD. Other conditions can cause characteristics that look like ADHD. This is why it’s best make an appointment to see your GP, who can refer your child for a proper assessment.
Diagnosing ADHD: what professionals look at
Children might be diagnosed with 1 of 3 types of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depending on their characteristics:
- ADHD combined type: children with this type have both hyperactive/impulsive and inattentive characteristics. They tend to have difficulty concentrating, are fidgety or restless and are always on the go. They often act without thinking things through.
- ADHD inattentive type: children with this type mainly have inattentive characteristics. They tend to have difficulty concentrating, remembering instructions, paying attention and finishing tasks.
- ADHD hyperactive/impulsive type: children with this type mainly have hyperactive and impulsive characteristics. They’re always on the go, have difficulty slowing down and often act without thinking things through.
When health professionals are working out whether a child has ADHD, they’ll look at things like the following:
- Age: the characteristics appeared before the age of 12 years.
- Number of characteristics: the diagnosis depends on how many inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive characteristics a child has.
- Duration of characteristics: the characteristics have been present for at least 6 months and can be seen in more than one setting – for example, at home and school.
- Severity of characteristics: the characteristics are present most of the time and significantly affect the child’s life.
Diagnosing ADHD isn’t easy because ADHD can overlap with other conditions. But the right diagnosis means your child can get the right therapies and support.
Getting an ADHD diagnosis
It’s important to diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as early as possible so children can get support. The earlier it’s diagnosed, the earlier you and your child’s health professionals can work on a plan to support your child and build on their strengths.
If you’re wondering whether your child has ADHD, your GP is a good place to start. Your GP might refer your child to a paediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist, who can look at your child’s characteristics and work out what these characteristics mean.
The diagnosis process might include most, if not all, of the following:
- an interview with you and your child’s other carers
- an interview with your child
- questions about your child’s emotions and behaviour
- information from your child’s teachers.
Your child might also have other assessments, including:
- developmental, learning, educational or IQ checks
- language, speech and movement checks
- general health checks
- vision and hearing tests.
Sometimes ADHD isn’t diagnosed until later childhood or the teenage years. This is when children have more schoolwork and they go through social and emotional changes. Characteristics that you hadn’t noticed before might become more obvious because of these challenges and changes.
ADHD and teenagers
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might find the teenage years bring extra challenges. On the other hand, your child might also have built up some strategies to make the most of their ADHD strengths and manage their difficulties..
Also, as your child gets older, their ADHD characteristics might change. For example, your child might still have difficulty focusing, remembering things and thinking before they act, but they might be less hyperactive.
Some children might no longer have ADHD characteristics when they’re adults, but others will continue to have ADHD into adulthood.