ADHD: What Is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

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Imagine living in a fast-moving kaleidoscope, where sounds, images, and thoughts are constantly shifting. Feeling easily bored, yet helpless to keep your mind on tasks you need to complete. Distracted by unimportant sights and sounds, your mind drives you from one thought or activity to the next. Perhaps you are so wrapped up in a collage of thoughts and images that you don’t notice when someone speaks to you.

For many people, this is what it’s like to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. They may be unable to sit still, plan ahead, finish tasks, or be fully aware of what’s going on around them. To their family, classmates or coworkers, they seem to exist in a whirlwind of disorganized or frenzied activity. Unexpectedly–on some days and in some situations–they seem fine, often leading others to think the person with ADHD can actually control these behaviors. As a result, the disorder can mar the person’s relationships with others in addition to disrupting their daily life, consuming energy, and diminishing self-esteem.

ADHD, once called hyperkinesis or minimal brain dysfunction, is one of the most common mental disorders among children. It affects 3 to 5 percent of all children, perhaps as many as 2 million American children. Two to three times more boys than girls are affected. On the average, at least one child in every classroom in the United States needs help for the disorder. ADHD often continues into adolescence and adulthood, and can cause a lifetime of frustrated dreams and emotional pain.

But there is help…and hope. In the last decade, scientists have learned much about the course of the disorder and are now able to identify and treat children, adolescents, and adults who have it. A variety of medications, behavior-changing therapies, and educational options are already available to help people with ADHD focus their attention, build self-esteem, and function in new ways.

In addition, new avenues of research promise to further improve diagnosis and treatment. With so many American children diagnosed as having attention disorder, research on ADHD has become a national priority. During the 1990s–which the President and Congress have declared the “Decade of the Brain”–it is possible that scientists will pinpoint the biological basis of ADHD and learn how to prevent or treat it even more effectively.

This booklet is provided by the National Institute of mental health (NIMH), the Federal agency that supports research nationwide on the brain, mental illnesses, and mental health. Scientists supported by NIMH are dedicated to understanding the workings and interrelationships of the various regions of the brain, and to developing preventive measures and new treatments to overcome brain disorders that handicap people in school, work, and play.

The booklet offers up-to-date information on attention deficit disorders and the role of NIMH-sponsored research in discovering underlying causes and effective treatments. It describes treatment options, strategies for coping, and sources of information and support. You’ll find out what it’s like to have ADHD from the stories of Mark, Lisa, and Henry. You’ll see their early frustrations, their steps toward getting help, and their hopes for the future.

The individuals referred to here are not real, but their stories are representative of people who show symptoms of ADHD.

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