May 19, 2021


Myth: ADHD is an American disorder.
Those who claim ADHD is an American disorder believe that ADHD is due to the pressures of living in a fast-paced, competitive American society.   Some argue that if we lived in a simpler world, ADHD would not exist.  

Fact:  ADHD occurs throughout the world.

Wherever scientists have searched for ADHD, they have found it.  They have done this by going to different countries, and speaking to people in the community to diagnose them with or without ADHD.   These studies show that ADHD occurs throughout the world and that the percentage of people having ADHD does not differ between the United States and the rest of the world.   Examples of where ADHD has been found include  Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, The Netherlands, and Ukraine.   ADHD is not an American disorder.

Myth: A child who sits still to watch TV or play video games cannot have ADHD.
Many parents are puzzled that their child can sit still to watch TV or play video games for hours, but that same child cannot sit still for dinner or stay at their desk for long to do homework.  Are these children faking ADHD symptoms to get out of homework?

Fact:  ADHD does not necessarily interfere with playing video games or watching TV.

Because children cannot turn their ADHD on and off to suit their needs, it does seem odd that a child who is typically hyperactive and inattentive can sit for hours playing a video game.  But this ability of ADHD children fits in very well with scientific facts about ADHD. First, you probably understand the effects of rewards and punishment on behavior.  If your behavior is rewarded, you are likely to do it again.  If it is punished, you will avoid that behavior in the future.  Rewards that have the strongest effect on our behavior are large and will occur soon. For example, consider these two choices:
a)      if you listen to a boring one-hour lecture, I will pay you $100 immediately after the lecture
b)      if you listen to a boring one-hour lecture, I will pay you $110 one year after the lecture
Choice (a) is more appealing than choice (b).  Most people will not think it is worthwhile to wait one year for $10.  We say they have 'discounted' the $10 to $0.
Now consider the choices:
c)      if you listen to a boring one-hour lecture, I will pay you $100 immediately after the lecture
d)     if you listen to a boring one-hour lecture, I will pay you $2,000 one year after the lecture

Choice (d) is more appealing than choice (c).  Most people will wait one year for$2,000.   It is obvious here is that if I want the best chance of having you watch a lecture, I should offer you a large sum of money immediately after the lecture. What is not so obvious is that people vary a great deal in the degree to which they are affected by rewards that are either small or distant in the future.   For some people, getting $2,000in one year is almost like getting nothing at all.  We say that such people are not sensitive to distant rewards.

What does this have to do with ADHD and video games?  Well, people with ADHD are usually not very sensitive to weak or distant rewards.  To affect the behavior of a person with ADHD, the reward needs to be immediate and fairly large.  When a child with ADHD sits down to do homework, the potential reward is getting a good grade on their report card, but they won't receive that grade for weeks or months, so it is very distant.  Thus, it is not surprising that the possibility of that reward cannot control the child's behavior.  In contrast, video games are created so that players are rewarded very frequently by winning points or completing one of the many levels one must pass to finally complete the game.  Because playing well is also rewarded by friends, the video game rewards are strong and immediate, which makes it easy for people with ADHD to sit still and play for long periods.

 Myth: ADHD disappears in adulthood.
Until the 1990s, it was commonly believed that children grew out of ADHD.  The reason for this is not clear.  Some theories about ADHD suggested that ADHD children had a lag in brain development, and that they would make up for that lag during adolescence.  So ADHD was seen as a delay in brain development that could be overcome.   The idea that children routinely recovered from ADHD was so strong that many insurance companies would not pay for the ADHD treatment of adults.

Fact: In the majority of cases, ADHD persists into adulthood.
This myth about ADHD has been proven wrong by studies that diagnosed ADHD in children and then examined it many years later than in adults.  These studies showed that, although there was some recovery from ADHD, about two-thirds of cases persisted into adulthood. The studies also taught us that ADHD symptoms tend to change with age.  The extreme and disruptive hyperactivity of many ADHD children gets somewhat better by adulthood, as do some symptoms of impulsivity.   In contrast, inattentive symptoms do not decrease much with age.

 Myth: People with ADHD cannot do well in school or succeed in life.
This myth is based on several facts: 1) ADHD affects many aspects of life; 2) ADHD impairs thinking and behavior and 3) for most people, ADHD is a lifelong disorder.   Altogether, doesn't this mean that people with ADHD won't succeed in life?

Fact: People with ADHD can succeed and live productive lives.
There are two reasons why people with ADHD can succeed in life. The first is obvious.  Although treatments for ADHD are not perfect, they can eliminate many of the obstacles that would otherwise make it difficult for ADHD patients to do well in school or on the job.  But, more importantly, having ADHD is only one of many facts about a person's life.   Some ADHD people have other skills or traits that help them compensate for their ADHD.  For example, if you have a high level of intelligence, an engaging personality, or excellent athletic skills, you can do well despite having ADHD.   Consider Michael Phelps, who broke so many Olympic swimming records. He was diagnosed with ADHD at age 9 and took Ritalin to help his hyperactivity.   James Carville has ADHD, but he completed law school and helped Bill Clinton become President of the United States.  Cammi Granato's ADHD did not stop her from becoming captain of the United  States Olympic ice hockey team, and Ty Pennington's ADHD did not stop him from becoming a  star on TV.

 Myth: ADHD does not affect highly intelligent people
The mistake behind this myth is that it assumes that being very intelligent protects people from having ADHD.  It's true that if you are highly intelligent, you can use that intelligence to compensate for some ADHD' effects, but does high intelligence completely protect a person from ADHD?

Fact: People with ADHD can succeed and live productive lives.
When my colleagues and I studied this question, we found clear evidence that high intelligence does not completely protect people from ADHD. Like people who don't have ADHD, having high intelligence will help Alderpeople do better than ADHD people who are not smart.  But when we compared highly intelligent Alderpeople with highly intelligent non-ADHD people, we found that the highly intelligent ADHD people had many of the impairing problems that are known to be associated with ADHD.  For details about these problems, see Complications of ADHD.  In another study, we compared ADHD adults who had received straight A grades in high school, with non-ADHD people who had achieved the same grades.  Despite their good grades, these ADHD adults were not doing as well in their jobs and not earning as much income as the non-ADHD adults.  And ADHD also has an impact at every level of education.  As you can see from the figure, even for people with college degrees, having ADHD lowers your chances of being employed.

Faraone, S. V., Sergeant, J.,Gillberg, C. &Biederman, J. (2003). The Worldwide Prevalence of ADHD: Is it an American condition? World Psychiatry2, 104-113.Polanczyk, G., de Lima, M. S., Horta, B. L., Biederman, J. &Rohde, L. A. (2007). The Worldwide Prevalence of ADHD: a systematic Review and Meta-regression Analysis. Am J Psychiatry164,942-8.
Scheres, A., Lee, A. &Sumiya,M. (2008). Temporal reward discounting and ADHD: task and symptom-specific effects. J Neurol Transm115, 221-6.
Faraone, S., Biederman, J. &Mick, E. (2006). the Dependent Decline Of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder:  Aneta-Analysis Of Follow-Up Studies. Psychological Medicine36,159-165.

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Are there Positive Aspects to ADHD?

Are there Positive Aspects to ADHD?

What are we to make of adults who exhibit the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but are nevertheless high-functioning and successful? A trio of British investigators has just published six case studies that explore this question.  It would have been better for them to have conducted a much larger, controlled research study but, in the absence of such data in the area, these case studies are intriguing and may help guide more informative research.

The authors recruited six successful men between the ages of 30 and 65 from a National Health Service tertiary service in London. Four were in long-term relationships, with children. All had good jobs.

In open-ended taped interviews of up to an hour in length, each was asked three questions:

1.     What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of having ADHD?
2.     Please describe a time when you felt that your ADHD helped you to achieve something?
3.     What aspects of your ADHD would you miss if it went away?

Hyper-focus in ADHD is generally considered a deficit, inset-shifting, and task-switching. But the authors report that participants associated it with productivity. One said, “I think the energy that the ADHD brain seems to’s unfocused, quite scattered, chaotic and a bit random...but give that brain something that you can tune into, and it’s your interest, then all that random stuff just goes boom... I get this incredible intense concentration and that’s great for work.”
Participants also saw advantages in divergent thinking, with one stating, “I’m an artist.... a creative type... a Bohemian.... you are most likely to be a creative person if you are a divergent thinker....and not convergent... I am very creative and that’s through and through... I’m a fine art graduate, a musician, a published poet, an entrepreneur, a performer.”

All the participants reported being seen as nonconformists. Depending on a viewpoint, that can be seen as either detrimental or advantageous.
Impulsivity is a core symptom of ADHD. Participants however related it to bravery, and more specifically adventurousness, spontaneity, and thrill-seeking. One said, “thrill-seeking is an ADHD thing... I can list in my life have done white water rafting, bungee jumping, hand-glider pilot … I have done a lot in my life and achieved a lot and experienced a lot... Furthermore, I would see a lot of that as being quite positive, and a lot of that is ADHD drive.”
Another common theme was high energy and “spirit.” One participant said, “I’ve got all this energy.... a lot of energy... whatever it's to do with... nature/nurture/spiritual stuff.”

These testimonials are useful as a check on the usual narrative of impairment. ADHD does not predestine all it afflicts to an unfulfilling life. Many, often assisted by medication, still lead exciting, successful, rewarding lives.   Yet, we must be cautious in concluding that these individuals were successful because of their ADHD.  It is possible, even likely, that they had other strengths such as high intelligence that compensated for their ADHD symptoms.  We can not know from this report if their lives had been even more fulfilling or successful in the absence of ADHD.   See, for example, my blog about highly intelligent people with ADHD:

While the authors concede that “generalizing the findings of this study is not easy to do,” they inexplicably “also argue that the positive aspects we found are relevant to other adults with ADHD regardless of sample size, age, gender or ethnicity.”   It is not possible to draw such a definitive conclusion without a much larger sample.
On a hopeful note, they conclude, “This is a study that reaches out to people with lived experience of ADHD: service users, patients, family members, carers, partners, to say that not all symptoms of ADHD are maleficent. Recovery, high functionality, and flourishing with ADHD are possible. Too often people with lived experience hear about ADHD deficits, functional impairments, and associations with substance misuse, criminality, or other disadvantages on almost every level of life (school, work, relationships). … This study affirms the positive human qualities, assets, and attributes in ADHD that can promote and sustain high functioning and flourishing.” I fully endorse the idea that those with ADHD can have wonderful lives, especially if they receive appropriate treatment, both medical and psychological.

April 4, 2022

Advanced Economy Outlier: Even in China’s largest cities, ADHD is seldom treated with pharmaceuticals

Advanced Economy Outlier: Even in China’s largest cities, ADHD is seldom treated with pharmaceuticals

China is the outstanding economic growth story of the early twenty-first century. According to the World Bank, China has “experienced the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history – and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.”

That expansion has been accompanied by major investments in medical research, and medical treatment capability, especially in the major urban centers that have spearheaded the boom. Life expectancy has risen from 71 in 2000 to 77 in 2019, nearing the U.S. level of 79.

Yet when it comes to pharmaceutical treatment of ADHD, China is an outlier, as revealed by a new study exploring the data in the two main medical insurance programs for its urban population.

The Urban Employee Basic Medical Insurance(UEBMI) covers both employers and employees in public and private workplaces, while the Urban Residents Basic Medical Insurance (BMI) covers the unemployed. As of 2014, these programs cover over 97% of urban residents. The China Health Insurance Research Association (CHIRA) database is a random sampling database from the UEBMI and UBMI databases.

The study population consisted of residents of the 63 cities in the CHIRA database from 2013 through 2017. Prescription prevalence was calculated by dividing the total number of patients prescribed ADHD medications in the CH IRA database by the urban population of the included cities, which was two hundred million as of 2017.

Other studies have found the prevalence of ADHD among Chinese children and adolescents to be about 6.5%, comparable to North American and European countries. Yet, the prescription prevalence of ADHD medications was 0.036% among those aged 0–14 years in 2017 in China. In other words, only about one in every two hundred youths with ADHD were being prescribed pharmaceutical treatments.

For further context, among other economically prosperous countries in Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe, the lowest prescription prevalence of ADHD medications is 0.27% in France, which is still over seven times higher than the Chinese level.

Among Chinese urban dwellers from 15 through 64 years of age, ADHD prescription prevalence in 2017 dropped by a further order of magnitude (over tenfold) to 0.003%, and among those 65 and older, to a scant 0.001%.

The Chinese study team suggested several likely contributing factors:

  • Lack of training in ADHD treatment among clinical practitioners;
  • Government fears of addiction have led to strict control of stimulant medications;
  • Discontinuation of methylphenidate production by Chinese pharmaceutical enterprises in 2009 meant having to purchase more expensive imported ADHD medications;
  • Widespread parental belief that ADHD is just “bad behavior,” not a disease requiring medication;
  • Parental reliance on alternative treatments, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) 

April 2, 2022

Daytime Sleepiness, Cognitive Function, and Adult ADHD

What’s the relationship between daytime sleepiness and cognitive functioning in adults with ADHD?

Sleep disorders are one of the most commonly self-reported comorbidities of adults with ADHD, affecting 50 to 70 percent of them. A team of British researchers set out to see whether this association could be further confirmed with objective sleep measures, using cognitive function tests and electroencephalography (EEG).

Measured as theta/beta ratio, EEG slowing is a widely used indicator in ADHD research. While it occurs normally in non-ADHD adults at the conclusion of a day, during the day it signals excessive sleepiness, whether from obstructive sleep apnea or neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders. Coffee reverses EEG slowing, as do ADHD stimulant medications.

Study participants were either on stable treatment with ADHD medication (stimulant or non-stimulant medication) or on no medication. Participants had to refrain from taking any stimulant medications for at least 48 hours prior to taking the tests. Persons with IQ below 80 or with recurrent depression or undergoing a depressive episode were excluded.

The team administered a cognitive function test, The Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). Observers rated on-task sleepiness using videos from the cognitive testing sessions. They wired participants for EEG monitoring.

Observer-rated sleepiness was found to be moderately higher in the ADHD group than in controls. Although sleep quality was slightly lower in the sleepy group than in the ADHD group, and symptom severity slightly greater in the ADHD group than the sleepy group, neither difference was statistically significant, indicating extensive overlap.

Omission errors in the SART were strongly correlated with sleepiness level, and the strength of this correlation was independent of ADHD symptom severity. EEG slowing in all regions of the brain was more than 50 percent higher in the ADHD group than in the control group and was highest in the frontal cortex.

Treating the sleepy group as a third group, EEG slowing was highest for the ADHD group, followed closely by the sleepy group, and more distantly by the neurotypical group. The gaps between the ADHD and sleepy groups on the one hand, and the neurotypical group on the other, were both large and statistically significant, whereas the gap between the ADHD and sleepy groups was not. EEG slowing was both a significant predictor of ADHD and of ADHD symptom severity.

The authors concluded, “These findings indicate that the cognitive performance deficits routinely attributed to ADHD … are largely due to on-task sleepiness and not exclusively due to ADHD symptom severity. … we would like to propose a simple working hypothesis that daytime sleepiness plays a major role in cognitive functioning of adults with ADHD. … As adults with ADHD are more severely sleep deprived compared to neurotypical control subjects and are more vulnerable to sleep deprivation, in various neurocognitive tasks they should manifest larger sleepiness-related reductions in cognitive performance. … One clear testable prediction of the working hypothesis would be that carefully controlling for sleepiness, time of day, and/or individual circadian rhythms would result in a substantial reduction in the neurocognitive deficits in replications of classic ADHD studies.”

March 31, 2022