ADD/ADHD Factsheet

Always see a doctor if you're concerned about any aspects of your health or wellbeing while pregnant.
Always see a doctor if you're concerned about any aspects of your health or wellbeing while pregnant. 

What are they?

Attention deficit disorders, known as either ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can cause behavioural, emotional and learning problems for children. They are characterised by an abnormal inability to concentrate (inattention) and for some children this is combined with an abnormal inability to stay still (hyperactivity). If these inabilities are severe enough, children may be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

These disorders can have a significant academic and social impact on children when they begin school as they make it far more challenging for children to absorb their lessons and also to interact properly with their peers.

Are they common?

They are not common, but diagnosis of ADD/ADHD has been increasing over the past two decades and can receive quite a lot of attention. The peak time for children to be diagnosed is in the primary school years; the most recent figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicate there are approximately 34,800 primary-aged children and 27,900 secondary-aged children with diagnosed ADD or ADHD. This represents approximately 1.2% of school-aged children.

These disorders can have a significant academic and social impact on children when they begin school as they make it far more challenging for children to absorb their lessons and also to interact properly with their peers.

What are the causes?

The causes of ADD/ADHD are unknown, however there appears to be a strong hereditary link. Research has also indicated other possible contributing factors including genetics, family dysfunction, drug use by a mother during pregnancy and environmental triggers. It is an area of health that is still undergoing significant research.

What are the symptoms?

Last year, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released a draft of new clinical guidelines for the diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. You can access the draft report here.

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Essentially, children will be assessed against criteria for symptoms of hyperactivity (such as fidgeting, inability to stay in their seat, excessive climbing and running about), impulsiveness (such as continual interrupting and excessive talking) and inattentiveness (such as difficulty in staying “on task”, failure to finish task or attend to details, not following instructions). Exactly how the criteria are applied will depend in part on the age of the child and their cultural and social background. As such there is no “one-size-fits-all” set of guidelines and ADD/ADHD can only be diagnosed after appropriate assessment by a specialist clinician.

In their draft guidelines, the National Health and Medical Research Council offers the following summary:

“To meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD the symptoms of hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive behaviour must be deemed by a specialist clinician to:

  • have their onset in early childhood (before age seven)
  • be maladaptive and excessive for the child/adolescent’s age;
  • have persisted over time (at least six months);
  • persist across more than one domain of the child or adolescent’s life (e.g. at home, at school, socially);
  • have caused significant functional impairment; and
  • not have a better explanation, such as another mental disorder.”
Source:National Health and Medical Research Council (www.nhmrc.gov.au)

What are the treatments?

Treatments for ADD/ADHD tend to be multidisciplinary. This means that treatment will usually be a combination of training for parents and caregivers, additional education assistance at school, management programs for the child and in some instances medication.

If your child is diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, he/she will need an individualized management plan, drawn up in conjunction with you, your medical specialist and your child’s teachers. The management plan should be reviewed regularly as your child develops and improves.

Other Resources

Australian Psychological Society

NSW Department of Health

National Health and Medical Research Council