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How to Spot Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

Paul WANG, Chair of Psychology, Acting Chair of Psychiatry, Clinical Psychologist

It’s usually easy for parents to recognize when their child is physically unwell, but a child’s mental health condition can be more difficult to identify. Parents have a responsibility for both children’s mental health needs as well as their physical health needs. For a majority of people who are mentally ill, the problems begin during adolescence. Mental illness can worsen if left untreated, but diagnosed and properly treated, the illness improves.

A common disorder among children, ADHD is a behavioural problem characterized by an inability to pay attention. ADHD is thought to affect 3% – 5% of children worldwide according to research from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Symptoms of ADHD can be seen at an early age.

There are three primary subtypes of ADHD.

Predominately Inattentive Type

Symptoms

  • Has difficulty paying attention
  • Struggles to follow through on instructions
  • Has difficulty organizing
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort
  • Easily distracted or forgetful

Predominately Hyperactive/Impulsive Type

Symptoms

  • Fidgets or squirms a lot
  • Always in motion, cannot stay in one place
  • Has difficulty playing quietly
  • Talks excessively or blurts out words
  • Interrupts or intrudes upon others

ADHD Combined Type

Symptoms

  • Has both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive traits

What causes ADHD?

The specific causes of ADHD are still unknown. But there are a number of factors that exacerbate or maintain ADHD. These include genetic, neurobiological and environmental factors. Research from the American National Institute of Health indicates that ADHD is highly inheritable and that genetics factor into about 75% of all cases.

Psychological factors such as ineffective parenting, negative interactions can exacerbate or maintain ADHD behaviours, but do not cause them. Psychological factors interact with genetic and neurobiological factors in ADHD.

Exposure to mother’s tobacco and alcohol use when the child is in the womb or in very early life has been linked to ADHD. Exposure to maternal smoking can damage the dopamine neurotransmitters in a fetus. Low birth weight may also play a role.

Recent studies also suggest that individuals with ADHD have smaller frontal lobes (brain regions involved in self-regulation), smaller caudate nucleus and reduced cerebral blood flow.

Treatment of ADHD

ADHD can be treated with stimulant medications that reduce disruptive behavior and improve attention and concentration ability. The most effective methods of treatment involve a combination of behavior conditioning, lifestyle change, counseling and medication.

Every child has different needs and there is no single form of treatment that works for all children. If you believe your child has ADHD, consult a psychologist. He or she will be able to recommend psychotherapy to help your child cope with ADHD, teach positive behaviors and recommend medication. A psychologist can also teach parents and teachers additional skills to help children with ADHD.