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What Causes Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder?

Updated on September 1, 2017
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I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early 70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.

Usually Diagnosed in Childhood.

What is Attention Deficit Disorder?

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) is a condition of inattention and distraction, with or without accompanying hyperactivity. Its usually diagnosed in childhood, characterized by a persistent pattern of impulsiveness, short attention span, and hyperactivity. Adult symptoms may manifest themselves differently from children's.

In the not too distant past, various terms were used to describe this condition, including hyperactive syndrome, or "minimal brain dysfunction." It was probably best recognized by the term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). More recently, the term has evolved into ADHD.

Although the exact percentages in adults is unknown, studies reveal the condition is marked by inattentiveness, difficulty getting work done, procrastination, organizational difficulties, and probably exists in about 2-4% of adults.

Often the most prominent characteristic in ADHD adults is difficulty with executive functioning, which is brain activity monitoring a person's behavior by planning and organizing. Other symptoms observed in adults included inattention, impulsive reactions, and restlessness as well as regular accompanying behavioral, learning, and emotional difficulties.

Adults with hyperactive-impulsive symptoms feel restless and constantly "on the go" as they try to multi-task. They often appear as if they have performed without thinking before acting or speaking.

Many envision hyperactive children who fidget and can’t sit still when thinking of ADHD. However, symptoms of ADHD can persist into adulthood. In fact, many adults with ADHD don’t realize many problems they have are symptoms of adult ADHD.

ADHD is officially called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or simply impulsiveness. When people think of impulsiveness, they most often think about cognitive impulsiveness, which is acting without thinking. The impulsiveness of children with ADHD is slightly different. These children act before thinking, because they have difficulty waiting or delaying gratification. It leads them to speak out of turn, interrupt others, and engage in what looks like risk-taking behavior. The child may run across the street without looking or climb to the top of very tall trees. Although such behavior is risky, the child is not really a risk-taker but, rather, a child who has great difficulty controlling impulse. Often,the child is surprised to discover that he or she has gotten into a dangerous situation and has no idea of how to get out of it.

Symptoms of Impulsiveness:

  • often blurts out answers to questions before a question has been been completed.

  • often has difficulty awaiting their turn.

  • often interrupts others. For example, rudely joining in conversations or games without being invited.

It is important to note hyperactivity and impulsiveness are no longer considered as separate features. Together they form a pattern stemming from an overall difficulty in inhibiting behavior.

Depending on a child's age, low frustration levels and angry outbursts may occur. Other symptoms that may become noticeable can be:

  • Bossiness.

  • Difficulty in following rules.

  • Disorganization.

  • Social rejection.

  • Poor self esteem.

  • Academic underachievement.

  • Inadequate self-application.

Researchers have discovered evidence to support the position that ADHD isn't one specific disorder with different variations. It's now divided into three sub types, according to features associated with the disorder: inattentiveness, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. The three sub types are:

  • Predominantly Combined Type,

  • Predominantly Inattentive Type, and

  • Predominantly Hyperactive Impulsive Type.

These sub types take into account some children with ADHD have no problem sitting still or temporarily behaving themselves, but may be inattentive and have trouble, staying focused. Others may be able to pay attention to a task but lose focus by becoming hyperactive and impulsive. The most prevalent sub type is the Combined Type. These children have symptoms of all three characteristics.

The Reticular Formation

The reticular formation, is a part of the brain stem, centered roughly in the pons area connecting to areas such as the thalamus,hypothalamus and cortex. These are also attached to the descending reticular activating system connecting to the cerebellum and sensory nerves. It's essential in maintaining life.

It appears to control physical behaviors such as sleep, eating, walking, urination, defecation, sexual activity, alertness, fatigue, and motivation to perform various activities.

The reticular formation has also been found traced as one of the sources for introversion and extroversion character traits. Introverts have a more easily stimulated reticular formation, resulting in a lack of interest participating in stimulating activities.

Extroverts have a less easily stimulated reticular formation, resulting in the need for more stimulation to maintain brain activity. Studies have shown reticular formation may be responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome, and in ADHD.

What are Signs of ADHD?

The primary signs are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.


A child with ADHD usually has a short attention span and is easily distracted. However, distraction and inattentiveness are not synonymous. Distraction refers to a short attention span and how easily some children's focus can become focused on something else. Being inattentive, is a multi-process. They focus on something needing attention at the moment and sustain it as long only as long as required. They avoid things removing their attention from where it's needed. They shift focus only when something more important takes precedence.

When we refer to someone as being distracted, we mean a part of that person's attention process is disrupted. Children with ADHD can have difficulty with one or all parts of the attention process. Some children may have difficulty concentrating on routine or boring tasks. Others may have trouble knowing where to start one, or become confused following directions on how to accomplish it. A careful observer can watch and see where the attention process breaks down for a particular child.

Symptoms of Inattention:

  • often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes.
  • often has difficulty staying attentive.
  • often does not seem to listen.
  • often does not follow through on instructions, not because of behavioral resistance or failure to understand.
  • often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities;
  • often dislikes participating in chores requiring sustained mental effort.
  • often loses things like toys, pencils, books, or tools.
  • Is often forgetful.


Excessive activity is the most visible sign of ADHD. The hyperactive child is generally described as "always on the go." With age, activity levels may diminish. By adolescence and adulthood, their over activity may appear as restlessness, or simply fidgety behavior

Symptoms of Hyperactivity:

  • often fidgets and squirms when seated.

  • often leaves seat in situations in where remaining seated is expected.

  • often runs or climbs excessively due restlessness.

  • often has difficulty remaining quiet and talks incessantly.

  • is often continuously "on the go."

    Impulsiveness.When people think of impulsiveness, they define it as acting without thinking. However, the impulsiveness of children with ADHD is slightly different. They act before thinking, because they have difficulty waiting for gratification. Impulsiveness leads them to speak out of turn, interrupt others, and engage in risk-taking behavior. The child may run across a street without looking, or climb to the top of a tall tree. Although such behavior is risky, the child isn't a true risk-taker. Rather, It's a child having difficulty controlling impulses. Often, the child is surprised to discover they have gotten into a dangerous situation.

What is it?

ADHD is a neurological based developmental disability affecting between 3-5 percent of the school age population, according to the Professional Group for Attention and Related Disorders. It's not known exactly what causes it. Some scientific findings suggest it might be genetically related resulting from a deficiency in certain neurotransmitters, chemicals that help regulate behavior.

While experts aren't certain what causes ADHD, they believe genes may play an important part. It's believed environmental issues such as exposure to cigarettes, alcohol, or other toxins while in the womb, may also play a role.Unlike some psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and depression, ADHD doesn't begin in adulthood. So symptoms must have been present since childhood for a diagnosis to be made.

The most common criteria for ADHD were developed on how it displayed itself in youngsters. These symptoms included:

  • Forgetfulness.

  • Excessive daydreaming.

  • Inability to sit still.

  • Constant fidgeting.

Yet, numerous experts believe ADHD symptoms can be manifested itself in a variety of ways. This makes it tough to diagnose. The diagnosis must be made carefully. Not all “hyperactive” children have it, which is a biologically based problem. In some cases, hyperactivity, which may include behavior such as tantrums, disobedience, ignoring instructions, hitting, kicking, and other forms of acting out, may actually be the result of a combination of learned behavior and poor discipline techniques.

Hyperactive behavior may be caused by medical factors, psychological factors, or a combination of both. If biological factors are the problem, it might be a dopamine imbalance and medication is needed. Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter If learning is the problem, new child management skills are required. If both learning and biology are involved, medication and management techniques must be used in combination. The causes of ADHD aren't completely understood, but researchers have identified some likely sources.

Dopamine Imbalance.

Another potential cause for ADHD is an imbalance of a brain chemical, the neurotransmitter dopamine. Over the past several years, ADHD) has received a tremendous amount of attention. So much in fact, nearly everyone heard about it.

While helpful to those with this disability, such widespread recognition creates the possibility of improper diagnostic practice and inappropriate treatment. Parents of children with the disorder need to evaluate information, products, and practitioners carefully.


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