Understanding the History of ADHD & What We've Learned So Far

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 01/07/2021

ADHD remains one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children, with the CDC estimates that over 6.1 million children are ever diagnosed with ADHD. It's a disorder that not only affects the patient's childhood but can also follow them into adulthood if not properly treated.

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In fact, millions of American adults likely live with ADHD yet have no idea they're suffering from it. In their eyes, they might just have a hard time focusing and blaming it on something else going on in their lives. Of course, these people never see treatment and often never find relief.

As much as we know about ADHD today, scientists and researchers still have a long way to learn everything there is to learn about ADHD. Until we have a cure and understand more about developing ADHD, scientists will continue to delve into the science behind it.

With that being said, let's go over the history of ADHD, everything that's been discovered about ADHD over the years, and what we must still learn when it comes to ADHD. Of course, we'll start with your most-burning question first: "What is ADHD?"

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child's ability to focus, control impulses, pay attention, and relax. It can be developed as early as two years old and can follow the patient into adulthood, but it is difficult to diagnose because most children are overly active.

With ADHD, these everyday troubles (focus, impulses, relaxing) never get any better and often worsen as the child gets older. Instead of growing out of the behavior, it'll start to affect them into their school days, as they start to meet friends, and even at home with family.

People with ADHD are frequently forgetting things, daydreaming often, find themselves fidgeting a lot, talk an excessive amount (even when they don't mean to), are prone to simple mistakes, have difficulty resisting urges (even small ones), and often don't get along well with others.

Since everyone's body is different, most ADHD patients have different experiences with the disorder - through the core characteristics behind the disorder, remain the same. While it's almost certain to affect your quality of life and the ability to lead a healthy life, there are ways to receive the help you need.

When Was ADHD Discovered?

Now that we've uncovered the basics behind ADHD and what the symptoms are, you're likely wondering when ADHD was discovered, who discovered it, and how the disorder came to be what it is today.

It was officially discovered in 1987, which is when the disorder was given the ADHD title. With that being said, the history of ADHD dates back to Ancient Greece, though they didn't know it as ADHD at the time. Let us explain.

Hippocrates was the first person believed to mention something similar to ADHD sometime around 460-375BC. He noticed how some people had difficulty focusing and would recommend they transition to a bland diet and exercise more.

What about everything in between?

There wasn't much talk of this 'lack of attention' between the 400s BC and the 1800s, but it started to receive attention again in 1798 when Sir Alexander Crichton wrote a book about something he called 'the disease of attention." The book was called An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement.

The late-1790s, early-1800s also saw famous philosopher John Locke mention a group of students who found it difficult to stop their minds from wandering off. Textbooks in the 1800s also referred to something similar to ADHD but listed several other names for it, including "nervous child."

The history of ADHD continued in 1902 when Sir George Frederic Still, a British pediatrician, studied a group of children that had difficulty paying attention, difficulty self-regulating, and frequent aggressive behavior. He noticed the children didn't have any impairments, and there were more boys than girls.

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In the 1920s, doctors started to treat the symptoms of ADHD as a post-encephalitic behavior disorder, PBD, a popular disorder at the time due to a virus. That was eventually shut down when doctors realized they were just similar symptoms.

The introduction of amphetamines changes everything...

That's when the medical community saw the introduction of Benzedrine, the world's first amphetamine. It was largely used by Dr. Charles Bradley to treat headaches, but he noticed a change in behavior and reduced headaches. The changes in behavior were linked to schoolwork and the ability to focus.

Benzedrine was then prescribed to children with hyperactivity, with an alternative to Benzedrine, eventually making its way to the community in the 1950s. It became known as the popular Ritalin and is still used to this day.

In the late-1960s, the medical community started to move closer to the official designation for this disorder. 1968 saw the symptoms of ADHD added to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as DSM-II). Unfortunately, it was listed as 'hyperkinetic reaction of childhood,' not ADHD.

1980 saw the DSM-III (third edition) finally list the disorder as ADD, which was eventually changed to ADHD in 1987.

Modern ADHD History

Since 1987, a lot has changed when it comes to the way we view and treat ADHD symptoms. It's amazing what was possible once we finally agreed on a name to give the disorder.

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Shortly after agreeing to the name, the United States saw a rapid increase in ADHD diagnoses. This could've been due to the increase in efficiency when diagnosing the disorder, but it was also much more discussed now that there was a diagnosis.

Of course, there was also the possibility that more children were developing ADHD, and it had nothing to do with finally having an official name for it.

It became so popular so quickly that the APA refined ADHD in the DSM-IV in 1994. It included three types of ADHD -- inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, and the combined type.

Today, these are viewed as 'presentations' rather than 'types' because they can be experienced at different times in a patient's life. This was noted in the APA's DSM-V (2013).

Over the past few decades, treatments for ADHD have improved by a wide margin, as well as our ability to detect and diagnose it. Since mental health awareness and ADHD awareness are extremely popular today, people are given a wide range of options when finding help or relief from the symptoms.

Despite there being no cure for ADHD, doctors and researchers are doing everything they can to make it manageable until that cure or deeper understanding comes.

The Future Of ADHD

As we mentioned above, there's still a long way to go when fully understanding ADHD, how we can relieve it, and what causes it. Although we've learned so much, scientists and researchers remain dedicated to solving this several-thousand-year-old mystery.

The future holds much for the study of ADHD. Researchers are committed to making treatments more effective, more available, and easier to take. They're also committed to spreading awareness and ensuring everyone is given the right tools and resources needed when managing this neurodevelopmental disorder.

Among all of that, there's one thing researchers are more focused on than anything, and that's finding the underlying cause of ADHD. Once that is understood, researchers can start delving into a cure or at least a way to more accurately prevent it in the future.

What Should You Do If You Have ADHD?

While ADHD in children gets most of the attention, ADHD in adults is a real thing -- even if you've never been diagnosed with it before. Whether you have a child showing ADHD symptoms or showing symptoms yourself, a second opinion is always recommended.

Scheduling an appointment with a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist should be the first thing on your list. They'll be able to do a thorough evaluation to determine whether or not you might be suffering from ADHD, as well as help you find the right treatment to relieve those symptoms.

Of course, we also understand this might not be a feasible option for everyone, and you may be stuck waiting several weeks before seeing the doctor for the evaluation. If you need immediate assistance or simply feel alone when dealing with your symptoms, don't be afraid to reach out to anyone in your support group - or anyone nearby for that matter.

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If you're having difficulty deciding whether you might be suffering from ADHD or whether you're just going through a 'little funk,' Mind Diagnostics is here to help. We created an online ADHD test designed to help you feel a little more comfortable about what to do next.

If you feel you need further assistance and need the help of a therapist, we're here to help with that, too. We'll help match you with a nearby therapist with raving reviews from people just like you.