Recently, there has been much attention paid to an article entitled “ADHD Doesn’t Exist” that appeared in a number of major U.S. publications, based on a book of the same name just published by Richard Saul, MD. Dr. Saul, who describes himself as a behavioral neurologist, makes his point by describing cases of children who came to him exhibiting signs suggestive of ADHD (difficulty concentrating, poor academic work etc), but who turned out upon closer examination to instead have a learning disorder, anxiety, impaired vision, or even bipolar disorder. His implication is that all children who are referred for attention or behavior problems will be found instead to have another condition that accounts for their symptoms. Abundant evidence indicates otherwise.
Any reputable, knowledgeable mental health practitioner will take care to rule out these alternative conditions as the exclusive or primary cause of a child’s attention or behavior problems before diagnosing ADHD. But after other possible disorders are ruled out, a significant number of children meet the formal criteria for ADHD, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. These are: (1) symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that are extreme for the child’s age; (2) that occur both at home and at school; (3) with clear evidence that the symptoms reduce the quality of the child’s social, academic, or occupational functioning; (4) that are chronic, starting before age 12 and lasting at least 6 months; and (5) are not explained by another disorder.
Evidence that ADHD is a real disorder—and specifically a brain disorder—comes from several major sources. Neuroimaging has demonstrated that children with ADHD show (a) structural size differences in relevant brain areas and (b) less activation of brain regions that control attention, impulses and motor activity, organization, and planning, and that many of these differences persist to adulthood as well. Finally, family studies indicate that the condition is highly heritable and point to a genetic predisposition in the great majority of cases.
The unfortunate impact of this and other publications that are not fact-based is that they add to the stigma of ADHD and hinder the diagnosis and treatment of thousands of people who do have ADHD, and whose lives would be significantly improved with treatment.
Mary V. Solanto, PhD, is associate professor of psychiatry and director of the ADHD Center in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She is a member of the advisory board of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and of the editorial boards of the Journal of Attention Disorders and The ADHD Report. Dr. Solanto serves on the professional advisory boards of Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD) and the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders (APSARD). She is the author of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD: Targeting Executive Dysfunction (Guilford Press, 2011).