Undiagnosed and unmedicated: Children being left untreated for ADHD

Victorian children with ADHD are being under-diagnosed and under-treated.
Victorian children with ADHD are being under-diagnosed and under-treated. Photo: Stock image

Katya Stooke started noticing abnormal behaviour in her son during kindergarten.

It escalated in prep when he began behaving aggressively and would lash out and have tantrums when he was told "no". Those same social problems continued into grade two where he was disruptive in class, however he was academically strong.

Halfway through grade two, Ms Stooke and her husband took their son to a paediatrician after his teacher told them about some of his more extreme behaviour.

In prep a school psychologist had said the boy may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but Ms Stooke wasn't sure about seeking an official diagnosis given his son was succeeding academically.

They were also concerned an ADHD diagnosis might stigmatise their son, and worried about the possible impacts of medication used to treat it.

As a result, their child went undiagnosed and untreated for nearly three years.

"We had our suspicions but it is kind of one of those things where you don't want your kid to be diagnosed with ADHD," Ms Stooke said. "We still live in that society where ADHD is a label that stays with the child.

"That's something which is there for most families. Do we really want to have to medicate? We held off as long as possible because he was doing fine academically but socially there were problems. He was lacking empathy."

Ms Stooke wants parents to know medication and the care a diagnosis brought changed her family's life.


Her nine-year-old son takes Ritalin, sees a paediatrician every six months and is thriving at school. He will likely be on medication until age 24 and will one day be a functioning, adult member of society.

"After having the prescription for four months deciding if we should give him the medication, we started him on a low dose of Ritalin and within three days the effects were obvious," she said. "He was calm and there was a lot less noise coming from him. Others could see it too.

"That was a big win for us, we instantly saw the benefit. His teacher said he isn't the naughty kid who is disrupting everyone. He can sit and listen and do his work. It's completely changed the classroom dynamic."

He sometimes sleeps an hour or two less than he should and his appetite can be surpressed but these side-effects pale into comparison with the improvement in his life, she said.

A recent Murdoch Children's Research Institute a study shows Victorian children are being under-diagnosed with ADHD and under-treated.

The study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology in December, screened 3700 seven year olds from 43 schools across Melbourne for ADHD.

It found 179 children who could be diagnosed with ADHD, but that only 17 per cent of them had been clinically diagnosed with the condition and only 14 per cent of those were taking medication.

By age 10, 38 per cent of those children had been clinically diagnosed and 26 per cent of those were taking medication.

Lead author and clinician scientist Associate Professor Daryl Efron said ADHD medication was safe, effective and backed by a large body of scientific evidence. Its use must be monitored, he said, butr stressed there was no evidence it is over-prescribed in Australia, as it had been in the United States.

"Some kids are not taken for assessment because some people are worried they will be put on medication without valid reasons. It is an emotional response. In fact when used appropriately for the right children and when monitored appropriately there is high quality evidence that medication is the best treatment."

Associate Professor Efron said children with ADHD would have a better life if properly treated.

"It's not a trivial problem," he said. "It is a problem that should be identified as early as possible and these kids deserve to be identified early and helped early.

"Our findings suggest more children should be referred for assessment. It's important for those kids to get that to get them help as early as possible."