Diagnosing and Treating ADHD Is Not One Size Fits All
School is back in session, and along with that comes the return of homework and tests – the bane of every teenager’s (and their parents’) existence. While all of this can be challenging enough for the typical time-crunched family, for students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it can be particularly frustrating.
What is ADHD?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Although researchers are not sure what causes it, studies suggest that genes play a large role and that it probably results from a number of factors. While it’s normal for kids to have trouble focusing and behaving from time to time, kids with ADHD don’t just mature out of those behaviors, and the symptoms, which range from inattention (e.g. difficulty sustaining attention, organizing tasks, and finishing schoolwork, etc.) to hyperactivity-impulsivity (e.g. constantly in motion, fidgeting or squirming while seated, etc.) can cause difficulty at school, at home and with friends.
Twenty-six-year-old Charlie Robson was diagnosed with ADHD in second grade. Although hyperactivity wasn’t really an issue for him, he struggled with focus and attention.
“Honestly, the biggest one for me has always been just not being able to focus on tasks and having a really hard time starting them,” he says. “In my experience, ADHD is definitely hardest when you’re in school. That’s definitely when it affects you the most. There are so many hours that you have to be so focused on your assignments or studying.”
There is no single test for diagnosing ADHD; rather, it’s a process. Many other problems, like anxiety and depression, can have similar symptoms. A medical exam can rule out other problems (hearing loss, etc.) as the source of the symptoms. An ADHD diagnosis can be made by mental health care professionals, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, or by a primary care provider, like a pediatrician.
ADHD is most often treated with a combination of behavioral therapy (especially in younger children) and medication. Of the 6 million kids in the U.S. diagnosed with ADHD, 90% are prescribed stimulant medications to help with their academic performance. For many, ADHD medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve their ability to focus, work and learn, but finding the right doses or combination of medications can be a matter of trial and error. Prescription stimulants like dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) are common treatments.
Robson was prescribed Adderall, which he took in various doses from elementary school through college. As an engineering major in college, he found it worked well to help him achieve the focus he needed to sit through the long hours of classes and mountains of homework his coursework required.
After graduation, when he no longer had the same academic demands, Robson chose to look at other treatment options as he moved into the work world.
“When I graduated from college, I started taking some antidepressants that have been shown to treat some of the symptoms of ADHD. I found that not having to study late nights or do homework solved most of the problems I had,” he explains. “I still have ADHD, and it’s still tough to focus sometimes, but for the most part, it’s much more manageable.”
Although Adderall worked well for Robson for most of his life, he encourages others with ADHD to explore all of their options when it comes to medications.
“Don’t be afraid to try new a medication because a lot of them can have some pretty severe side effects,” he says. “Talk to your doctor, obviously, but be aware that there are other medications out there. It’s not one size fits all. Everyone’s brains are different, and they react differently to different medications.”
For more in-depth information on ADHD and its treatment, visit cdc.gov or psychiatry.org.