ADHD affects an estimated 3 to 7 percent of school-age children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). These numbers make ADHD the most commonly diagnosed childhood behavioral disorder. While data vary, experts widely agree that ADHD rates have steadily been on the rise. In fact, the CDC reported that the diagnosis of ADHD in children increased an average of 3 percent annually from 1997 to 2006 (2008).
The increasing rates of diagnosis concern some parents, teachers, and experts, who wonder if ADHD is overdiagnosed.
ADHD Overdiagnosis Concerns
The continuing increase in ADHD diagnoses is striking. It’s unclear whether these numbers reflect a true increase in ADHD incidence, or if other factors â€” such as improved identification or simple misdiagnosis â€” may be at play.
Some parents may feel pressure to seek an ADHD diagnosis if their children are displaying any ADHD symptoms. However, seeking treatment for a condition the child does not have is unlikely to yield positive results.
Some researchers and experts are particularly concerned about ADHD overdiagnosis as the long-term consequences of the stimulants used to treat ADHD remain unknown.
The Effects of Age on ADHD Diagnoses
Age and relative maturity may contribute to ADHD diagnosis. A North Carolina State University study (2010) reported that children who were young for their grade (born just before the kindergarten enrollment cutoff date) were more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than children almost the same age who missed the cutoff and were therefore among the oldest in their class.
The authors suggested that the relative immaturity of the young students may have contributed to a false ADHD diagnosis. A Michigan State University study (2010) yielded similar results. This research indicates the importance of accounting for other potential contributing factors when considering diagnosis for ADHD.
Conditions Resembling ADHD
Behavior problems don’t necessarily indicate that a child has ADHD. Some medical conditions can have symptoms resembling ADHD, including:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Hearing problems or auditory processing disorder
- Lead poisoning
- Mood disorders (e.g., anxiety or depression)
- Seizure disorders
- Tourette’s syndrome.
These conditions should be ruled out before an ADHD diagnosis is made. Learning disabilities and language disorders can resemble ADHD, as well; however, these conditions can also co-occur with ADHD, and ADHD cannot be ruled out based solely on the presence of a learning disability.
Seeking a Reliable and Appropriate Diagnosis
If you suspect your child may have ADHD, the best course of action is to seek help from a mental health professional â€” such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist â€” with ADHD experience. There is no official standardized test for ADHD, but a thorough assessment by a professional familiar with treating and recognizing ADHD most often yields a reliable diagnosis.
Remember that ADHD is a real, recognized disorder. Concern about overdiagnosis should not allow those who truly suffer from ADHD to go without treatment. Untreated ADHD has been linked to further problems, including poor school performance, social problems and even substance abuse later in life.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): date and statistics. Retrieved August 21, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html.