How has our understanding of ADHD changed over the years?

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
Our understanding of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has grown dramatically in the last century. The National Resource Center on ADHD reports that, in 1902, doctors started investigating symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity in children. This may have been the beginning of the clinical study of ADHD. Since that time, ADHD has been given several names, including:

- minimal brain dysfunction
- hyperkinetic reaction of childhood
- attention-deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity

As of 2010, the mental health and medical fields agree that ADHD is a true disorder, which can be treated. ADHD is characterized by symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. While many people show signs of the disorder from time to time, not all people with these symptoms are diagnosed with ADHD. To meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, people must first experience these symptoms before age 7 and be severely and negatively affected by the disorder.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

Our understanding of ADHD has changed more than television since I Love Lucy. And like an episode of Lucy, there are many misunderstandings that ultimately get worked out. A few decades ago, most “experts” believed that children always outgrew ADHD. They also thought that an inconsistent parenting style was a major cause. Not to mention, ADHD was only treated with medication.


Now we know that only some children outgrow ADHD, while many continue to cope with it through adulthood. Also, we believe that genetics and environment, not parenting style, play a key role in who develops ADHD. We don’t know exactly what causes ADHD yet, but we do know that kids with ADHD have brains that aren’t as well developed in areas associated with attention and impulse control. And we know that not only medications, but behavioral approaches, can helps kids get calmer and learn to focus. So while there is still a lot left to learn, we have come a long way since Lucy.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.