Is ADHD Overdiagnosed?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder often diagnosed in children that can continue into adulthood. Diagnostic criteria for ADHD are outlined by the American Psychiatric Association.

Like the name of the disorder says, people with ADHD generally have trouble paying attention for extended periods of time and can become hyperactive. People with ADHD might have trouble listening, following instructions, organizing tasks and items, and avoiding distractions.

Researchers estimate that, worldwide, the prevalence of ADHD falls between 3.4 and 7.2 percent of the general population. In the United States, the prevalence of ADHD might be quite a bit higher at over 10 percent. ADHD diagnoses in the U.S. have increased at a rapid rate over the past few decades. The occurrence of ADHD varies in different parts of the country, however, and in some states and school districts the disorder has been found to be diagnosed in 30 percent or more of male students.

The variation in ADHD diagnosis rates across the U.S. has led parents and experts alike to wonder if ADHD is being overdiagnosed. And if ADHD overdiagnosis is real, does that mean children are simply misbehaving? Is medication unnecessary? Is improper parenting to blame? Is ADHD even real?

The answer to the ADHD diagnosis question is complex. ADHD is an actual disorder, so yes, it is real and has now been the subject of research since the 1700s. That said, ADHD is likely overdiagnosed, according to medical professionals. About 5 percent of the U.S. population likely actually meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD even though a much larger percentage receive an ADHD diagnosis in many areas.

There are likely multiple reasons children are being misdiagnosed. One is that many doctors don’t actually adhere to the ADHD diagnostic criteria. Instead, they give children who show some signs of ADHD, such as restlessness, the label. Also, because medical professionals know that ADHD is more common in boys, doctors tend to be quicker to diagnose boys with ADHD than girls.

Research shows that kids who are younger than their classmates are more frequently diagnosed, and sometimes misdiagnosed, as having ADHD. The reality is that many of these younger students don’t have a neurodevelopmental disorder; they are simply not as developed as their slightly older peers.

Other children are wrongly diagnosed with ADHD not because they are just kids being kids, but because they have a different disorder. ADHD has overlapping symptoms with multiple psychiatric, developmental, and physical disorders. A child misdiagnosed with ADHD might have other disorders, such as sleep apnea or autism.

The bottom line is ADHD is real, and children who have it should be treated. ADHD medications come with side effects and risks, however, so it is important for parents to be aware that they don’t want their child on ADHD medication unless the child truly has ADHD. If a parent is concerned about their child being misdiagnosed, they might consider seeking out another doctor for a second opinion.

Written by: Jay Summer

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