Logo for kidsinthehouse.com, a parenting site with 9,000 videosI wrote an article, ”Why I Believe Attention Deficit Disorder is a Myth,” for the website The Kids in the House:  The Ultimate Parenting Resource, on August 29, 2017.   The Kids in the House is a site that offers 9,000 videos from experts and parents (who are the real experts!) on a wide range of parenting topics.  You can also watch a video on ADHD on this site, ”How to Thrive with ADD and ADHD” where I am one of the panelists.

The title of my new book is The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, and some people might get upset and think that I am saying that their disorder or their kids’ disorder simply doesn’t exist.  I say no such thing!  As a former special education teacher, I know that the symptoms associated with a diagnosis of ADHD—hyperactivity, distractibility, and/or impulsivity–are very real indeed!  So let me clarify what I mean when I say that ADHD is a myth.  I’m using the word ‘’myth’’ in its original sense of the term in Greek, which is mythos, meaning ‘’story.’’ So I’m talking about ADHD as if it were a story.  It’s a story that has been developed over the past three decades about why certain people are inattentive, fidgety, spacey, disorganized, impulsive and/or hyperactive.  The plain truth is that I don’t think it’s a very good story.  There are plenty of inconsistencies.  The main one, in my view, is the fact that professionals can’t seem to agree on how many kids have the disorder.  The DSM-5, which is the official manual of the American Psychiatric Association, says 5% of kids have ADHD.  The International Classification of Diseases, which is used instead of the DSM-5 in many parts of the world, uses an entirely different term – hyperkinetic disorder or HKD—and concludes that the prevalence is 1-3% of all kids.  The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, says 11%.  The prevalence also differs by state.  In Nevada 5.6% of all children are diagnosed with ADHD, while in Kentucky that number jumps to 18.7%.  That’s a lot of variation!

I think one of the reasons for the huge differences has to do with the fact that there is no objective diagnostic tool that can definitely say whether someone has ADHD or not.  Instead, the decision about who is ADHD relies mostly on subjective judgements.  The most commonly used tool—behavior rating scales—which are used in 90% of the diagnoses of ADHD, ask simple questions about behaviors, whether a child has sleep problems, whether he forgets his homework, and so forth.  The answers to these questions depend heavily on context.  A child might forget homework whenever he dislikes the assignment, or because the teacher gives the assignment at the start of the day instead of at the end, or because the dog ate his homework (sorry, just joking about this last one!).  The point is, that ADHD is a psychiatric diagnosis—that’s serious stuff—and to make this diagnosis hinge upon the subjective judgements of teachers and parents is very iffy to me.

Advocates of the ADHD story usually emphasize the gravity of the disorder by pointing out that there are thousands of studies indicating that ADHD is a brain-based disorder, probably of genetic origin.  I agree that there are brain differences between many kids diagnosed with ADHD and typically developing children, but the key word here is ‘’difference’’ not ‘’disorder.’’ Recent studies, for example, indicate that the brains of kids’ identified as having ADHD develop normally, but lag behind typically developing kids by two to three years.  This finding has huge implications for many of the other brain studies that have been done over the past twenty years especially those which have discovered problems in the executive functioning areas of the brain that govern planning, organization, inhibition, and goal-setting.  In kids diagnosed with ADHD, these areas of the brain (in the prefrontal cortex behind the forehead) are developmentally delayed and thus are apt to be less functional than so-called normal children.

Another issue related to brain studies is that these brain differences can be due to environmental effects such as early childhood trauma, adversity in the family, and even growing up in poverty (in fact several studies have suggested just that).  Advocates of the ADHD story also emphasize the genetic nature of ADHD, with the implication that this disorder is heritable and thus hard-wired into the DNA of ADHD-identified children.  Such arguments, however, ignore the fact that recent trends in genetics have focused increasing attention on how the environment can affect which genes are turned on and which are turned off (a phenomenon known as ‘’epigenesis’’).  In one study, a gene-environment interaction was noted where a child with a specific genetic mutation would develop behavior disorders under conditions of parental criticism.  That means if the child is in a family where the parents are supportive and helpful, this particular gene will not be expressed and the behaviors will not manifest themselves.

One final problem that I have with the ADHD story is that many kids with the diagnosis also have diagnoses with other mental disorders such as depression, autism, anxiety, and bipolar disorder—a situation referred to as ‘’co-morbidity.’’  In fact, one study in Denmark noted that 52% of all kids with an ADHD diagnosis had at least one other disorder.  The raises the following question in my mind:  if a child is both depressed and ADHD, where does the one disorder stop and the other one start?  How do we know for sure whether it’s not the depression alone which causes the inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity? These are also symptoms of depression in children.

All of these issues, to my mind, suggest that we should be critical in thinking about the validity of ADHD, and not rush to judgment in placing a label on a child and medicating him with a potentially hazardous medication (although medications can be helpful for some kids).  Yes, the symptoms are real, but is there really a ‘’thing’’ called ADHD that is responsible?  I have my doubts. (Note: all decisions regarding diagnoses and medications should be made in conjunction with your physician).

For more information about why I believe ADHD is a myth, plus 101 practical strategies to help kids with that diagnosis, get my book: The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion.

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.
31 Responses
  1. Ian Ford

    Just a thought. ADHD has a herediatry component. ADHD is more prevalent in USA and Australia than in Europe. Maybe the reason is that the settlers who made the journey to the colonies a few hundred years ago either went out in chains because they had upset the ruling classes by refusing to conform to the social or religious norms, or else they needed to be a special personality type to face the risk of a long sea journey to an unknown future. In other word, the risk-takers and adventurers said farewell to family and friends for ever and started a new life. The risk-averse conformists stayed put in Europe, prayed in the esablished church each Sunday for the King and the lord of the manor, and watched the turnips grow.

  2. Kathy collins


  3. Navya Malik

    I think it is also important to consider the purpose of diagnoses in the first place. One of the biggest reasons diagnoses exist is so that patients can get the right treatment. If the symptoms of ADHD exist, and a patient is diagnosed with ADHD and their symptoms are targeted, I don’t quite see the point of discussing whether ADHD is a “thing”. Patients are diagnosed with ADHD when they display symptoms, and then those symptoms are treated. If the treatment works and improves the patient’s quality of life, then what is point of discussing whether ADHD is a “real” diagnosis? What constitutes as “reality” for you, if it is not the presence of symptoms that affect one’s daily functioning?

    PS – With all due respect, I believe that by calling ADHD a “myth”, you are spreading the wrong idea, since, as you noted in the first couple of sentences, you are not using the word its colloquial sense. This can be damaging since in today’s world, a lot of misinformation is spread and beliefs are formed due to articles and books titled such as yours, since many people do not take the time to actually read what the article says, which can negatively affect the lives of patients with “real” ADHD.

  4. Father

    “In one study, a gene-environment interaction was noted where a child with a specific genetic mutation would develop behavior disorders under conditions of parental criticism. That means if the child is in a family where the parents are supportive and helpful, this particular gene will not be expressed and the behaviors will not manifest themselves.”

    This is very interesting. Can the expressed gene be “turned off”. I.e. if the family becomes more supportive, could the symptoms disappear/improve drastically?

  5. (1=”kid with adhd” , 2=” kid without adhd” ) 100 % agree just think if 1 was messing about and 2 saw , but 1 got toys becuz 1 has adhd, but 2 has been good ,but 2 don’t get toys
    so he thinks that if 1 get toys by messing about then 2 will do the exact same as 1 ,so 2 will get toys , then comes the medication if you don’t need it it could cause death or serious brain damage then it carries on and on and a big circle of shit literal bullshit but that my apion ,adhd is purley apion there is no fact but on our side there is slight fact so no one is right but on apion im on the side of it doesn’t exist and i want to know


  6. Jaskiran

    I have ADHD and Panic Disorder, the argument that ADHD symptoms could be symptoms of the second disorder isn’t true because :
    1. I developed a panic disorder when I was 14 and I had symptoms of ADHD since I was 7
    2. my panic disorder meds don’t alleviate any of my ADHD symptoms

    It isn’t just that I cant focus even when I pay attention I still can’t retain information. the diagnosis was much more complicated than just a few questions I was visiting my psychologist for 3 months and she would run various tests and gave surveys for my teachers and parents to fill out.

  7. Randy Norton

    Correct me if I’m wrong. Wasn’t most of the research done on this disorder funded by pharmaceutical companies, the ones that supplies the drugs for it? And the authors of the books published were affiliated with these companies. If so that should say it all…

  8. Samantha

    That is exactly the point Randy Norton. If you have big pharma companies doing the “research”, that’s almost like the cops investigating themselves and find they did no wrong doing… Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking cops, just making a comment.

  9. Bianca

    My son was struggling in reading comprehension. Teachers and the principal made suggestions that he may have ADHD. I did not think that was the case. I started to focus more on him and started to really look into what was going on in the classroom, which was over crowded. I started to request updates from the teacher. Needless to say his grade improved tremendously and no one is talking to me about him having ADHD anymore. If I would’ve listened to the principal my son would be taking medication that is not needed. Changing his diet also made a big difference.

  10. Yes, ADHD seems to be the ”default” response when a problem in school is identified. You did the right thing to work directly with the teacher – in my book The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Attention and Behavior without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, forging an alliance with the teacher was one of my 101 ways, and diet was a part of two or three other ways. Good going!

  11. K709rs

    Great article! There should be more talks and education about it. There is no need to overmedicating young kids with drugs that alter their brain development forever and Not giving it a chance to correct itself. Many of the “troubled” children just need more love, understanding, attention, and one on one work with caregivers. And really does every single child need to earn PhD? Can’t they be happy with the normal life instead turning them into zombies on meds?

  12. Logan

    I am a teenager with adhd. I have serious issues when it comes to focusing on things that are not interesting or challenging to me. I move around more frequently than my peers. I present all the symptoms of adhd. My parents are wonderful and are not controlling, and I’ve been this way since I was a very young child. I have a genetic link, that being my maternal uncle, to the disorder. Adhd is a very real disorder that is NOT a product of poor parenting, but is simply a different brain. It is a disorder because it interferes with the patients every day life. Kids who present symptoms of adhd are not treated correctly, however. I am on medication and it helps, however my desire is not to rid myself of this disorder. Despite it being a debilitating disorder, there are some definite positives to it. We are passion and challenge driven, which makes me an excellent math student. We crave adrenaline, making us good at sports such as skateboarding. We need to learn to accept the disorder and embrace its effects, as doing otherwise is an attempt to change the character of the patient, which is counterproductive and an awful idea. Trying to make a kid sit still is frustrating and makes the child resent the situation. Helping them accommodate and helping them based on their kinematic nature is the best option for helping adhd children. My point is it’s a very real disorder with genetic links that effects a vast number of people, where medication is helpful and treatment should consist of accommodation rather than getting rid of the symptoms all together. It is not a factor of parenting.

  13. Thanks so much for your comments. I don’t think I said anywhere that ADHD is due to poor parenting (this accusation is typically used by proponents of the deficit model of ADHD as a ”straw man” argument that can be easily knocked down by them). We’re actually not so far apart in our views. I believe ADHD is a difference or a form of diversity that can be disabling in certain environments (e.g. a teacher lecturing in a classroom) but as you note, can also be empowering in environments where creativity and high energy are required (e.g. skateboarding, composing music etc.). That’s pretty much what you said. And I believe that medications can be useful for some people but should also be accompanied by as you call them ”accommodations” or what I call ”niche construction” (building an environment where you maximize your assets and minimize your difficulties). So, here again we seem to agree. I appreciate your taking the time out to articulate your views in such a clear way. Thanks!

  14. Alex

    Hi Thomas,

    I believe that some of the comorbidities that you mentioned arise from the treatment of an individual with ADHD within society.

    A lifetime of being told that you are lazy and just need to try harder really fuels the old depression and anxiety.



  15. Jake

    There is some interesting new research about ADHD and prenatal nicotine exposure. The widespread adopt of smoking in the mid 1900s could have had a significant impact on the number of ADHD cases we are seeing today.

    Secondly, I would definitely agree that current diagnostics leave something to be desired. The symptoms have significant overlap with other conditions. Additionally, the diagnostic criteria have to be evaluated with a patient’s age in mind. A 10 year old that can’t read a book for 5 hours straight isn’t displaying an “Inability to focus”. A 10 year old that consistently can’t remember the content of lessons they just attended would indicate an “inability to focus”

    As for this statement regarding medicine: “potentially hazardous medication”, I would disagree. At initial, clinical doses, stimulants are typically very well tolerated and have minimal long term side effects. Obviously patients shouldn’t be on unnecessary medication but adhd medication is extremely safe, especially compared to other psychiatric medications (neuroleptics and benzodiazepines for example). Given studies have found untreated adhd leads to a significant reduction in lifespan, the hazards of not medicating could be significantly greater than medicating.

  16. Michael

    What I do not get about all those books and comments and studies about whether or not ADHD is “a thing”, what is actually done to help people with these symptoms?

    ADHD, or those symptoms or whatever it is called, are destroying my life.
    So, I can just laugh about people who think there are benefits or it is just a slight variation. I think this is because of it being severly overdiagnosed. If you are just a bit more forgetful or inattentive, you do not have a problem! If you only have those problems in boring situations, it is not ADHD!

    I wish you could live one day of my life and see how it is. I tried suicide two times already and the suffering is real. I am not able to live a normal life since I was a child. And there was no trauma (other than what was caused because of those symptoms!) or bad parenting involved. My parents tried everything and my siblings are normal.

    How come then, that I never was able to get a driver’s license? That I can’t remember stuff, no matter if it is important or not? I can’t have a normal Job or have normal relationships. I can’t use a calendar correctly because I keep making mistakes. Every day is a struggle. Every day activities are a challenge. Medication did help a bit, but it is too expensive where I live.

    What is it, if it is not a “thing”?

    What people like you are telling people like me is: “You are not sick, you are just not as good a person as anybody else! Try harder!”
    That is what I hear since childhood again and again. No wonder there is co-morbidity with depression and anxiety! You grow up seeing that what other people can do, you can not. No matter how hard you try, you keep failing.

    No one has understanding for someone who always forgets and misplaces stuff. What helps for normal people just won’t work for me. Everybody who actually knows someone with this problems would know.

    I am 35 years old. Since kindergarten my life is pain that only very few people understand. And to make it worse, now everybody thinks they have it and knows what helps. Everybody thinks they are entitled to an opinion. I say you have no idea about this problems.

  17. I’m so sorry about the suffering you’ve experienced in your life, and I certainly don’t want to add to it by negating all you have been through. There are no simple answers to the question of ADHD – it involves many different factors, and I agree that those who try to make it into a ”thing” are not helping matters. Regarding possible solutions, I believe that the more potential strategies there are to treat this condition, the more likely it will be that something will end up working, or at least will keep it from becoming worse. Thank you for your honest message. No, I don’t know what it’s like to have ADHD, although I do know about depression and anxiety since I have suffered from these conditions since I was twelve. I hope that you are able to find things that work for you so you don’t have to suffer so much. I know that medications, meditation, exercise, and therapy have worked for me.

  18. Thank you for enlightening us about ADHD. Some people may have this disorder and recognize it late . I believed these conditions affect the mental health of a person.

  19. Kitty

    In the past, if a student was easily bored and did not find their schoolwork challenging enough, they would have their IQ tested because it was likely they were simply smarter than their peers – or to put it another way, they learned easily and quickly, and their brains/intelligence level needed more challenging work for stimulation. Is this not something that is done anymore? It also seems that in many cases, environment plays a huge part. The old ways of teaching, with children sitting in neat rows and never allowed to speak until called upon, are finally dying out, and deservedly so. Learning is no longer a matter of memorization and listening to a teacher drone on, or copying things off the blackboard. Instead there is more interaction, more input, and learning is more active. I wonder if this might not serve to “correct” some of the behaviors associated with ADHD, such as boredeom and inability to focus. It also makes for interesting thought on why some children behave completely differently in one environment than in another, such as the child who “acts out” at home but never does at grandma’s house.

  20. Thanks for your comment Kitty. What you say is very true about the ”good” old days. These days, ADHD seems to serve as a mechanism that ”sucks in” all the cases of kids who don’t fit in. I was restless as a child, and they did exactly what you said, they gave me an IQ test, and I ended up skipping second grade. In today’s environment, it’s likely that I’d be labeled ADHD.

  21. Chris

    Hi Tom,
    Your title can be misleading and offensive. I am a 33 year old African male and was given the ADHD diagnosis a few months ago. Mental health is not something we discuss in my country. We use labels like cursed, lazy, unserious, stupid, reckless, foolish for people who don’t quite fit in but are capable of functioningto some degree. Those whose mental situation renders them incapable of functioning to any degree are called mad. I always felt a little off even as a very young child. My restlessness, over-sensitivity, angry outbursts, insomnia, forgetfulness, excessive daydreaming, chronic lateness, talkativeness, occasional hyperfocus, impulsiveness.. etc were always obvious to myself and others. I just always believed I wasn’t trying as hard as other people. Now an adult, nothing has changed but I did learn to act like other people when in public. It takes tremendous effort to bottle up the restlessness and monitor my emotions to mirror other people. My academic and professional life have been affected in the worst ways. Also my relationships. The ADHD label was not thrust upon me. I stumbled upon it after decades of wondering “what the fuck is wrong with Me?” My twin siblings, also in their 30s, have similar characteristics and have suffered in similar ways. I’m sure many “bored” kids have been misdiagnosed but maybe ADHD doubters should look into cases like mine before making statements such as “ADHD is fake”. I can’t wait for psychiatric diagnostic methods to improve in the near future. Currently there’s just too much guess work and assumptions.

    P.S. Reading opinions on ADHD from Psychology Today makes makes me want to stab someone. Very ignorant and hurtful nonsense.

  22. N M

    Just wanted to let you know that I had 65 out of 75 symptoms of ADD. I took up to 40 milligrams of Adderall for 22 years. In 2020, a doctor told me that even though my thyroid numbers were in the normal range, they could be made better. He says I was probably deficient in iodide. (Hypothyroidism). Miraculously, in less than a week after I started taking nature-thyroid all of my add symptoms had gone away. Now I can think clearly, stay awake, cook, clean, follow thru, etc.

  23. Thanks for sharing your story. The body is a complex organism, and so any easy explanations like ADHD, often obscure the medical reality. I’m so glad you got to the root of the problem and that you’re feeling much better. It’s great to hear success stories like yours! Much continued satisfaction!

  24. Dear Chris,

    Thanks for your response, and I’m so sorry if my use of the term ”myth” offended you in any way. I am certainly not saying the symptoms are imaginary – they most certainly are. The question is, what causes the symptoms – what sort of explanatory discourse best makes sense of them? I wish you had read more than just that one article, which was written earlier in my career – I still have the same viewpoint, but with I think greater sensitivity than before to the people who have suffered. . I’m sorry that things have been so difficult for you, and wish that in the future, you and your siblings bloom and prosper!

  25. […] it, and its “diagnosis” is completely based on the observer’s subjective judgments, as Dr. Thomas Armstrong thoroughly explains in his book, The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to […]

  26. Anonymous

    I have ADHD. Why did you post this? I thought this website was to “learn”. I am stuck living with it, and you are denying it exists. What is your problem?

  27. I’m not denying the symptoms of ADHD. They’re very real, and I don’t want to take away on bit from your experience. It’s the concept of ADHD that I take issue with – I think it’s in reality due to a complex interaction of genes with a rapidly changing environment (e.g. culture).

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