Is ADHD Real? Answers For The Skeptics

Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW

Published 12/09/2020

Over the years, as ADHD diagnoses have become common, many people – including parents, students, educators, and policy-makers – have been asking: Is ADHD even real? The short answer is, yes, ADHD is a real condition that affects millions of people around the world.

Skeptics often point out that ADHD has been diagnosed more and more in recent years, and they say that this is proof that it is a fake and made-up condition. However, the increase in diagnoses is largely due to more research surrounding ADHD and a deeper and more thorough understanding of the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for ADHD.

Here, you’ll learn about exactly what ADHD is (as well as what it isn’t), the symptoms of ADHD, the causes of ADHD, and the treatment options available to those who have ADHD. This guide will help you navigate the skepticism surrounding ADHD and get a clearer understanding of ADHD as a whole.

What Is ADHD?

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ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This means that a person with ADHD has trouble responding to sensory input because their brain isn’t properly collecting and organizing all of the sensory information efficiently or effectively. This leads the person to act and react to sensory input in a way that could be called “easily distracted” or “not following.” Some of the most common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Not being able to sit still, especially if the environment is quiet and calm.
  • Constant or near-constant fidgeting or movement.
  • Excessive physical movement.
  • Not being able to wait for a turn, wait in a line, or be patient when instructed.
  • Acting rashly or impulsively.
  • Talking too much in settings where it isn’t appropriate.
  • Not being able to concentrate on a task, especially when they’re asked to concentrate on one task at a time.
  • Not being able to finish a project before “getting bored” and starting a new one.
  • Interrupting others’ conversations, as if they cannot wait to share their piece.

Of course, seeing just one or two of these symptoms is not enough to reasonably suspect ADHD. However, if you’d like more insight into whether you might have ADHD, you can check out this ADHD assessment quiz. It will take you through a series of questions that will identify some of the most common symptoms of ADHD and help you determine if you should consult a mental health professional about ADHD.

What Causes ADHD?

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Over the years, as mental health professionals have studied ADHD, they have identified sensory overload as one of the main and major causes of ADHD. In a nutshell, sensory overload happens when a person’s brain is receiving too much sensory information. Because the excess of sensory information from input sensors that are usually classed as a person’s five senses is too much for the brain to process at a given moment, the brain reverts to the fight or flight mode. In most cases, the brain chooses flight.

This means that the brain “freezes” or “shuts down” when faced with excessive sensory input. The brain also often sends messages to the rest of the body through the nervous system to put actual physical distance between yourself and the trigger that is causing excessive sensory input. This could mean that you cover your ears or eyes or that you feel compelled just to get up and walk out of a room where several conversations are going on at once.

The triggers and levels of sensory information that a person finds to be excessive will vary from person to person. This is because the amount of sensory information a person can handle depends on their specific brain. And since each brain is different, sensory overload looks totally different for many different people.

Do People Grow Out Of ADHD?

Most cases of ADHD are seen in children, especially those who attend a traditional school, where they’re asked to focus on academic tasks while remaining relatively still for several hours at a time. Think about the school setting: students are asked to focus only on the teacher and what is being presented to them by the teacher. They’re asked to ignore the other kids in the room and any other sensory input that isn’t coming from the teacher. This requires a lot of focus and attention. So, when a student is sensitive to input – what people might call “easily distracted” is very obvious in the traditional classroom setting. Teachers can parents can see that these patterns of behavior might point to attention deficiency and hyperactivity. The demands of the traditional school setting make these deficiencies more obvious. This is one major reason why ADHD diagnosis rates are much higher among children than among adults. It could also explain why diagnoses among students in more developed educational systems, where attendance is mandatory, and schedules are rigorous, are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. But what about after the child finishes school? Does their ADHD stay with them when they become adults?

Of course, there’s no age limit for ADHD; there’s not a switch that flips on a person’s 18th birthday that makes them suddenly ADHD-free. Instead, ADHD diagnoses are less frequent in adults because of the settings in which adults spend most of their time. Think about the differences between the traditional classroom setting and a job setting. Most people don’t have jobs in which they’re asked to listen and absorb information passively. Instead, most jobs require a reaction to sensory input: replying to multiple messages in a short amount of time, engaging with several customers, monitoring the work of a team of people, or managing several processes at once. Even the most basic jobs these days require a lot of simultaneous reactions to various sensory inputs.

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So, in the “adult world,” an attention deficiency is less noticeable. Since most jobs require attention and focus on more than one thing at a time, a person might not notice the lack of attention of sensitivity to “distractions” in sensory input – distraction is part of the job; in some cases, it’s the job itself! That’s why so few people are diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood and why many adults quit the treatment for ADHD that they started in childhood.

Outside of work, adults with ADHD tend to gravitate towards hobbies and activities that play to their strengths and downplay the need for long, sustained periods of focus on one input. Instead, they may opt for hobbies that revolve around reacting to multiple sensory inputs or ones that involve interacting through sensory input. They also tend to prefer hobbies that involve learning and cultivating new skills.

ADHD isn’t outgrown, but the context in which a person with ADHD is living changes drastically when they leave the traditional school setting. This means that ADHD doesn’t present itself as obviously in adults as it does in children or students.

How Is ADHD Treated?

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There are many different treatment options for ADHD. Some of the most popular treatment options for ADHD include exercise and physical activity and specific brain and body exercises for bringing the symptoms under control. First of all, exercise and physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on brain function and reaction to sensory input for people with ADHD. This means that getting exercise, and exercising intentionally throughout the day, can help people with ADHD win back some of their ability to focus throughout their workday.  It’s also effective for what some describe as “burning off extra energy.” This is more related to the hyperactivity bit of ADHD; many people with ADHD feel like they have excessive energy, which often presents as fidgeting if they find themselves in a setting where they’re expected to stay quiet and still. Exercising helps to diffuse the urge to fidget throughout the day.

Several studies have assessed the efficacy of different approaches in terms of specific activities and brain and body exercises to help with ADHD. Some of the most popular and effective methods include practicing mindfulness and brain gym activities. In both of these practices, the person with ADHD has to slow down and take stock of their bodies and minds. In this way, they can better assess how they’re doing in terms of focus at any given time. They can also use this understanding to curb and redirect sensory input more consciously. This prevents the brain from choosing between fight and flight, and it helps the brain re-focus and pay better attention to the task at hand.

Conclusion

When push comes to shove, ADHD is a real condition. It affects many people, but the people who are most likely to be diagnosed with ADHD are children in traditional classroom settings. There are a lot of different symptoms of ADHD, and they present differently from person to person. Sensory overload and the brain processes that deal with sensory input are major players in ADHD, although the specific and exact causes of ADHD haven’t been determined yet. ADHD can be treated and managed with various methods, including exercise and physical activity, and mental exercises such as brain gym and practicing mindfulness.