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What Is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? (video)

Understanding a learning disability that affects millions of people

Understanding a learning disability that affects millions of people

Fidgeting, not paying attention, and controlling impulsive actions are common among kids. But for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these behaviors are more than just “kid stuff.” ADHD affects about 6.1 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, it’s not just kids — some 10 million adults have ADHD as well.

In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks about the risks, symptoms and treatment of ADHD with Shirin Alonzo, MD, an internal medicine physician and pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center San Marcos, with a specialty in neurodevelopmental disorders.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a learning disability that affects the ability to focus on information and process it in a timely manner. Until recently, problems with concentration and attention were classified as two different types of disorders: ADHD and ADD (attention deficit disorder). Now, both are classified as ADHD. There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined.

In addition to difficulty concentrating and paying attention, common signs and symptoms of ADHD include being easily distracted and having problems with organization and following through on tasks. Those with hyperactivity or impulsiveness may fidget constantly, find it difficult to do quiet activities or have trouble controlling themselves.

“ADHD can have a variety of symptoms and they can increase or decrease over time,” says Dr. Alonzo. “We not only screen for symptoms, we rule out other conditions that might be contributing, such as stress or medical issues.”

While the specific causes of ADHD are unknown, Dr. Alonzo notes that the risk is higher in children who were exposed to alcohol or drugs, such as cocaine or heroin before birth. Other factors that affect the development of the fetus, such as low birth weight and premature birth, may also contribute to learning disabilities.

ADHD treatment

Treatment for ADHD depends on the symptoms. In some cases, lifestyle factors, such as not sleeping well or a poor diet, may play a role. Children with mild symptoms that have a minimal effect on learning may simply need adjustments, such as placing them closer to the teacher or giving them more freedom to move around in class. 

Kids with moderate or severe symptoms may benefit from medication to improve focus or help with hyperactivity. Dr. Alonzo says that while some people are reluctant to give ADHD medication to their children, it is an important option to consider — especially if the child’s ability to learn is affected.

“If a child has untreated ADHD, they know they are learning at a slower pace, and that affects their self-esteem,” she says. “They have higher rates of depression and anxiety. It affects their mood and their relationships.”

In addition, ADHD treatment can help normalize the condition and break the stigma sometimes associated with a learning disability.

“Every person learns in a different way. You might need more support at school or medicine to help you focus, and that’s okay,” says Dr. Alonzo. “There are a lot of treatment options, and we can personalize a therapy plan so that you feel better and can succeed.”

If you are concerned that your child is showing signs and symptoms of ADHD, or your child’s teacher has mentioned problems with focus or behavior, talk to your pediatrician. They will evaluate your child’s symptoms and determine whether ADHD is the issue. If it is, they can work with you to develop an individual treatment plan, and often with your child’s school to create a supportive environment tailored to their specific needs.

“Any time a person is having trouble learning, we really have to evaluate it,” says Dr. Alonzo. “I encourage anyone who has family members that may be suffering with ADHD or learning disabilities to see their primary care doctor and get the appropriate help. No one has to suffer in silence.”