ADHD: Is It Over-diagnosed?

If you know anything about kids, you know they can have a lot of energy, and as hard as they try, they might have trouble paying attention.  If that describes your children, people may try to tell you they have ADHD -- after all, those are symptoms for the disorder.  But how can you tell if it really is ADHD, or if your kid is just a kid?

Newschannel 6 has learned more on the condition that often has people jumping to their own conclusions.

Eight-year-old Zachary Beavers is in third grade.  He loves to play and can talk up a storm.  His mother, Michelle, realized he needed some help about four years ago.

"It was his impulsivity, and his excessive, excessive energy.  And I don't mean typical three-year-old, four-year-old energy.  He had a lot of extra energy during the day to where literally he would just bounce off the wall," she said.

According to Board Certified Psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Anderson, that's  one of several things that can tip a parent off.

"Either the parent notices some difficulty in terms of behavioral problems, or  difficulty listening or following directions," he said.

Michelle says Zachary would often get frustrated with himself.

"Because all the other kids...I just can't fit in," Zachary said.

He couldn't focus in school, and he had a hard time doing his work.  At that point, his mom started wondering if it was Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.

"I pretty much thought that's what it was, but I just needed confirmation from a doctor," she said.

Dr. Anderson did diagnose Zachary with ADHD, and now he has medication for it.

"My doctor's good.  He takes care of me and I like him.  He's awesome," Zachary said.

But often parents, teachers, and other adults throw the term around so loosely that it's hard to know if a child really does have the disorder.  Dr. Anderson says an official diagnosis needs to be done by  a clinician -- usually a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a pediatrician.

"In the parent's mind or the school teacher's mind, when they start seeing difficulties in terms of behavior or performance, the first thing they may think about in terms of behavior or performance is, 'Is this ADHD?'  However, and this is why it's so important to have a clinician accurately diagnose it, there are other things that may be causing inattention or poor academic performance," he said.

Things like relationship issues, difficulties at home, neglect, depression, and abuse.  All those things need to be ruled out first.

"Not every kid is like that just because they jump up out of their seat or blurt out something," Michelle said.

But Dr. Anderson says even at a doctor's office,  a professional could be quick to diagnose ADHD, if based on the first five or ten minutes of observation.

"There is a tendency, perhaps, sometimes, to take the diagnosis that a patient may simply say, 'These are my symptoms, and this is what I think I have.' While that may be somewhat of a clinical shortcut, it is certainly plausible that that happens," he said.

There's also a genetic link in ADHD that could make people make a presumptive jump to the disorder at home.

"Quite often  the parents are actually seeing some of the same symptoms in their child that they themselves had when they were their child's age," Dr. Anderson said.

"Probably my oldest son and daughter had it, but nobody thought about it then.  It's coming more to light, I think, recently," Michelle said.

Nowadays there are three subtypes that fall within ADHD: the primarily hyperactive, the primarily inattentive, and a combination of the two.  Unfortunately, the inattentive ones -- usually girls -- may fly under the radar because they're not as noticeable as the hyperactive kids.

"The biggest factor is that there's going to be a delay in proper diagnosis and subsequent treatment," Dr. Anderson said.

And treatment doesn't just refer to the medication.  It often means helping parents to develop skills that will be helpful.

"ADHD, even though it's an individual difficulty with a child, it can create difficulties in the family," Dr. Anderson said.

To address that, he often advises parents of children with ADHD to break tasks up for their kids to make them easier.

"Simple things, like, I know this sounds silly, like getting in the shower.  Ya know, 'Get in the shower.  Now wash your hair.  Now wash your body, then get out.'  He'll get in there and start thinking about something else, and so he'll forget," Michelle said about Zachary.

Because Zachary has been diagnosed, he's in a special program at school that gives him extra assistance.

"They explain it and then I say it, and they say 'no' or 'yes,'" Zachary said.

He also has medication, which his mom says has greatly helped him to sit still longer, and to focus and understand better in school.

"They help me.  They let me able to do stuff like I'm not able to do," he said.

But even with the help, it doesn't make the difficulties go away.

"It's a day-to-day stress.  You never know from one day to the next day what they're gonna wake up like," Michelle said.

"But all hope is not lost for people with ADHD.  Dr. Anderson relates it to running in sand instead of on asphalt.

"It's certainly much more difficult to run in sand, but if we're putting that effort forward, we are still going to be at least somewhat successful," he said.

"Zachary doesn't want to be on this medication.  The other day he said he just wants to be a normal kid,"

Zachary continues to visit Dr. Anderson each month.  Sometimes his meds change.  Other times, it's just to see how he's coming along.  Aside from possible over-diagnosis of ADHD, Dr. Anderson says over-medication can also be a serious problem, often making a child's symptoms worse.  He says it is worthwhile for someone who feels they have symptoms of ADHD to see a clinician.

And don't let it worry you if someone tries to say that ADHD is a result of bad parenting; Dr. Anderson says that idea is "poppycock."

Spencer Blake, Newschannel 6