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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 3, No. 5 - September/October 2011

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

By Anthony Fraser & Matthew McKevitt

Have you ever focused so much on one thing that you have ignored, forgotten, or completely missed the things going on around you? Children affected by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suffer from this misfortune constantly.

So What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a common childhood condition that affects approximately 1 in 20 children. Boys are three times more likely to be affected than girls. ADHD occurs when the brain does not function as it should. Your brain normally uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to send messages from one nerve to another. In ADHD, there are low levels of two of these chemicals, dopamine and noradrenaline. Without them, parts of the brain can't communicate properly with other parts.

One part of the brain, the frontal lobe, is in charge of coordinating thoughts, making decisions and planning. In ADHD, it's the frontal lobe that is most affected and unable do its job properly.

As a result of this children with ADHD have difficulty paying attention. They find it hard to ignore irrelevant things that are happening around them. In essence a child with ADHD focuses on too many things at once, overwhelming the brain.

What to Look For

As the frontal lobe also controls some of the brain's higher functioning (the 'thinking' of the brain), this neurotransmitter imbalance has
other effects on a child's life.

Children with ADHD can have problems shifting from one mind-set to another meaning they can get too focused on doing one thing and cannot move on to anything else.

They can have trouble organising themselves and their thoughts and therefore have problems planning their immediate future and anticipating what they need to do or should do next. Because the frontal lobe controls movement and speech, this difficulty in planning comes across as hyperactive behaviour such as moving around or talking constantly and when it's not appropriate, in a classroom for example.

Basically children with ADHD have a low level of attention but a high level of activity. This means that this activity appears haphazard and out of step with what is happening around them.


Presently, the cause of ADHD is thought to be genetic. No environmental causes have been identified, although there may be some links with problems during pregnancy (including smoking) and/or delivery, head injuries, toxin exposure, heavy marijuana use and family dysfunction.
Tests to diagnose ADHD may include psychometric and educational testing. Children can undergo testing, and parents and teachers may be asked to fill out questionnaires on their behaviour.


Fortunately there are a number of relatively good treatment options for ADHD which can help a child with ADHD improve their concentration. The treatment options that are discussed here may not all be suitable for your child so it is important to discuss all options with your doctor.

There are two main approaches; medications prescribed by your doctor and behavioural sessions with a trained therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Most kids have a combination of both of these therapies.

Most of the medicines for ADHD aim to 'wake up' the frontal lobe and increase its activity, so the main medications that are used are stimulants. Other types are sometimes used dependant on the situation. Your doctor can talk to you more about these if appropriate.

There are a number of different types of medicines that may or may not be suitable for your child. All medications have side effects associated with them which your doctor can discuss in more detail. Most of the medicines used have been around for over a decade, and are generally considered safe to use.

Behavioural therapies aim to teach a child with ADHD strategies to cope with or overcome their symptoms. Relaxation and anger management techniques are taught along with tactics to help with attention and focus.

Approximately half of all children with ADHD will have symptoms that persist into adulthood. Inattentive symptoms are more likely to persist than hyperactive symptoms.

Checklist Symptoms that May Suggest Your Child Has ADHD

All children with ADHD may have some of these symptoms. They may have all three, just one, or a mix. Everyone will experience these things at some point in their lives, but in ADHD the symptoms are experienced often and interfere with your life.


  • Excessive fidgetiness or talking
  • Difficulty remaining seated
  • Difficulty playing quietly
  • Frequent restlessness


  • Difficulty waiting turns
  • Blurting out answers too quickly
  • Disruptive behaviour
  • Intruding or interrupting


  • Forgetfulness
  • Being easily distracted
  • Losing or misplacing things
  • Disorganisation
  • Academic underachievement
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor attention to detail

Remember, a full diagnosis of ADHD can only be made by a paediatrician or a psychiatrist. If you have any concerns, see your GP.

About the Authors

Anthony Fraser and Matthew McKevitt are final year medical students at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. They have a passion for making medical information easier to understand for the general public and have recently spent time training with Medikidz.

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