One of the questions I wonder about as a parent is whether or not symptoms of ADHD ever just go away as a child matures. In other words, is it possible for a child to grow out of ADHD? In order to answer this question we are going to call upon some experts to provide their professional perspective on this topic. We are also going to be taking a look at research which reveals that the process of brain development and maturation in children with ADHD may have an effect on whether or not they will continue to experience ADHD symptoms into adulthood.
If you look at the stats on how many children are diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S. you will see some fairly high numbers. For example, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are at least 5.3 million children with ADHD living in this country who are between the ages of 3-17 years of age. Another way to look at this data is that 8.6% of the children living in the U.S. will have received a diagnosis of ADHD during their childhood years. The statistics for the number of adults having ADHD is a little less clear because ADHD has traditionally been considered a disorder of childhood. Now that we know adults can have ADHD too, there are more people who are being diagnosed with this disorder and successfully treated. Yet experts speculate that there are many adults who go undiagnosed as they do not recognize the symptoms of ADHD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health an estimated 4.4 percent of adults ages 18-44 in the United States experience symptoms and even some disability due to ADHD. The difference in the percentages of children having ADHD vs. the percentage of adults diagnosed with ADHD makes one wonder about what happens to the ADHD children as they become adults. Will some children lose their diagnosis as they grow into adulthood? If so, how does this happen? Or is this simply a matter where some children learn how to better manage their ADHD so that by the time they become an adult, they no longer meet the criteria for diagnosis? We have called upon two experts to give their thoughts on whether or not it is possible for a child to outgrow their ADHD.
Doctor Deborah Serani is a mental health blogger, an author of a book entitled Living with Depression: Why Biology and Biography Matter- Along the Path to Hope and Healing, and is a practicing psychoanalyst. She has written about both ADHD and autism on her blog, Psychological Perspectives.
Question: Why do some kids with ADHD lose their diagnosis as an adult?
Dr. Deb: ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that continues throughout life. There are many children who learn how to manage it so that as adults it is hard to detect. However, there are many adults who continue to need treatment, medication and psychotherapy, to mitigate ADHD. So the simple answer to this complex question is not that children outgrow ADHD... they learn to manage it better.
Question: Do the symptoms of ADHD ever go away and if so how does this happen?
Dr. Deb: Research indicates that symptoms don't go away. What likely happens is that treatment from medication and/or cognitive behavioral techniques work successfully for many adults.
Here are some links to scientific studies which examine the continuation of ADHD symptoms into adulthood.
Question: For children who lose their diagnosis of ADHD when they become adults vs. those children who continue to experience ADHD symptoms into adulthood, are we talking about two different types of ADHD or is it merely a matter of…by adulthood some of the symptoms of ADHD are diminished due to treatment?
Dr. Deb: I don't believe we're talking about different kinds of ADHD. The clinical findings are that some children can find success living with their diagnosis of ADHD while others may continue to need intervention as teens and adults. I see this often not only in ADHD but also in many other neurobiological disorders. For example, with anxiety and mood disorders, some patients learn to live better with their conditions than do others. They do this via medication and/or the talk therapy strategies they've learned, but there are also other contributing factors.
I think living successfully with a chronic illness is a very complex phenomenon, involving a myriad of issues including a person's resiliency, the kind of family and social support available, financial security and physical health, just to name a few.
Question: Do you think that children with ADHD can grow out of it?
David Giwerc: ADHD is a bio-neurological challenge of the brain which means it is part of the brain wiring you are born with and use to function every day. You can’t just totally change all of the genes which make up your human map. I do believe that children, as their brain develops and partially expands with a more sophisticated neural network, that they can outgrow some of the challenges of ADHD but not all. I do believe they all can learn how to successfully manage their inattention, impulsivity or hyperactivity.
My experience with some children who have exhibited physical hyperactivity is they can outgrow the hyperactive elements as they get older. The hyperactivity seems to settle down and show up in a calmer demeanor as they reach adulthood.
Regarding the other symptoms of inattention and impulsivity, I think if a child can learn to identify the situations that exacerbate their ADHD they can side step the challenges that still tend to get in their way. This can allow them to gain momentum by identifying the situations where they are successful and sustain the momentum necessary to move forward in many areas of their life. If they can integrate more of the successful situations and associated strengths into their life, and manage those that are challenging, the negative challenges of ADHD would manifest less frequently.
Thank you Doctor Deb and David for contributing your expertise in answering this question.
So to summarize, it seems that many children will go on to have ADHD into adulthood but for some, they will be better able to manage and cope with their symptoms.
There is some science to show why some children may have a better time of it as they get older. In 2007 there was a story on NPR which discussed the findings of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers of this study attempted to explain why approximately half the children diagnosed with ADHD seem to grow out of it by the time they reach their twenties. They took a look at multiple images of a child’s brain over regular time intervals so that they could create a visible chronology of brain development.
What they found was that certain parts of the brains of children with ADHD lag behind in development. The last areas of the brain to mature for the children with ADHD are the brain regions responsible for the control of action and attention. What was especially hopeful about this study was that they found that for some of these children, the brain did catch up in development, usually by adolescence or the early adult years.
What remains a mystery is why some children with ADHD continue to experience symptoms into adulthood. The researchers speculate that it may be that for these children, brain development stalls and does not catch up.
It is sometimes the case that attempting to answer a question will create more unanswered questions. In this case the question remains of how to determine which children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to experience symptoms into adulthood. One thing that is for sure is that ADHD is not just a children’s disorder. Some point to the need for long-term assessments of ADHD children to determine if their symptoms persist into adulthood so that they can be monitored for treatment. Long term planning may be essential for some individuals so that they can manage their condition as adults.
We would love to hear your point of view on this. Tell us what you think in the form of a comment or you can also take our poll. We look forward to hearing from you.