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Understanding ADHD and the Conditions that Mimic It

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Understanding ADHD

ADHD child and teacher

Credit: US Department of Education (CC License by 2.0)

Many of us experience some degree of distraction and lacking focus from time to time. However, persistent inability to sit still, pay attention, or control impulsive behavior can be clear signs of a greater mental health issue. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly referred to as ADHD, is a growing issue among children and parents alike. The most recent statistics show that the condition is common, impacting 3.62% of boys and 0.85% of girls between the ages of five and 15 living in the UK. Throughout the world, the prevalence rate of ADHD is an estimated 5%, although some research suggests the number may be lower because of initial misdiagnosis.

Having ADHD can be debilitating for both children and adults, although some are thought to outgrow the symptoms of the condition by the time they reach adolescence. For those who do not, the need for a proper diagnosis is crucial to long-term success in managing the mental health condition as a child or an adult. However, like many other mental health issues, ADHD is widely misunderstood and ultimately, improperly diagnosed. To ensure a child – or adult – with ADHD is given the best course of action for his or her symptom management and treatment, recognising the warning signs of the condition alongside common conditions that mimic ADHD is essential.

Recognizing the Signs of ADHD

ADHD is broadly defined as a hyperactivity disorder that creates behavioural nuances among adults and children. The most common signs of ADHD, particularly among children between the ages of six and 12, can be broken down into two broad categories: inattentiveness and hyperactivity/impulsiveness. Warning signs under the inattentiveness category may include:

  • A short attention span
  • Being easily distracted during activities that require focus
  • Consistent, careless mistakes in schoolwork
  • Forgetfulness or losing track of items
  • An inability to stick to tasks or assignments that are time-consuming
  • Constantly changing activities
  • An inability to organize or prioritise

When it comes to hyperactivity and impulsiveness, red flags warning of ADHD often appear as:

  • An inability to sit still in calm or quiet surroundings
  • Fidgeting
  • An inability to concentrate on tasks or assignments
  • Excessive physical movement or talking
  • Being unable to wait their turn
  • Interrupting conversation
  • Acting without thinking
  • Minimal sense of danger

While these symptoms alone do not represent an urgent concern for most parents of hyperactive children or adults who may have a hard time focusing, any combination of persistent warning signs should warrant a discussion with the doctor. Getting the right diagnosis for ADHD at the early onset of warning signs can reduce the problems children and adults face, including underachievement, poor social interactions, and discipline issues.

The Conditions that Mimic ADHD

Although ADHD is fairly prevalent, particularly among young children and teens, the mental health condition is often misdiagnosed. This takes place either in the form of an ADHD diagnosis when it is not truly the culprit of underlying symptoms, or when another condition mimicking symptoms of ADHD is diagnosed incorrectly. In either case of misdiagnosis, the ramifications for children and adults can be devastating.

According to a group of medical negligence solicitors in the UK, ADHD misdiagnosis is incredibly common. An inability to focus on certain tasks, reduced attention spans, and declining behaviour can be simply overlooked as “normal” child or teen tendencies. In some cases, doctors may suggest a more disciplined approach to parenting or a tighter routine to help combat the symptoms. When ADHD is actually the cause, these changes do little to help the child or teen in working toward a solution. Among adults, ADHD is often described as laziness or a lack of motivation, for which recommendations are rarely made. ADHD symptoms may also look eerily similar to other common conditions, including digital eye strain.

In the hyper-connected world in which we live, the use of electronic devices is prevalent. Among children, many are used to working with a mobile device or tablet every day, and in some cases, for hours at a time. Adults are also prone to use their smartphones or tablets more often than is recommended for optimal eye health. Digital eye strain may be the result, and its symptoms often resemble ADHD warning signs.

For example, digital eye strain in children may cause irritability, a perceived lack of focus, or an inability to complete tasks and stay organized. Declining school work may be the end result, but ADHD may not be the cause. Instead, this outcome has to do with the stress placed on the eye and the discomfort it causes. Misdiagnosing digital eye strain for ADHD may lead to unnecessary prescriptions regimens that lead to changes in mood or behaviour – and symptoms that do not ease over time.

Among adults, an inaccurate diagnosis of another disorder may be provided when ADHD is the real reason for symptoms. Common conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, and bipolar disorder may present with similar warning signs, and the wrong diagnosis can be detrimental to individuals. Similarly, non-mental health issues, including dehydration and low blood sugar may also lead to inattentiveness or an inability to focus. Receiving the right diagnosis creates better opportunities to start the right plan of treatment, potentially avoiding negative side effects of unnecessary medications or a lack of treatment at all.

Getting the Right Diagnosis

For parents of children who exhibit symptoms of ADHD or a mimicking condition, as well as adults who experience hyperactivity or inattentiveness, seeing a doctor is crucial to getting the right help. ADHD is diagnosed through a a series of steps, including an open and honest discussion surrounding symptoms, the timeline for when they started, and the severity of the issues related to the symptoms. In some cases, GPs will refer a child or an adult to a specialist for an assessment that takes a closer look at physical and mental health. For many children and adults concerned about ADHD, this assessment is meant to rule out other potential causes of symptoms, as there is no singular test that can diagnose ADHD.

Once a proper diagnosis is received, individuals living with ADHD can begin a treatment plan that works best for managing symptoms. Treatment options include prescription medication, either stimulants or non-stimulants, and psychotherapy which often focuses on cognitive behavioural therapy tactics. For some, a combination of these treatment plans is the best course of action in managing ADHD symptoms. However, the first step is understanding how the mental health condition presents itself, and the importance of getting an accurate diagnosis from the start.

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