In this article, Dr. Paul White, a child psychologist in Kansas,
deals with readers’ questions about Attention Deficit
Q: What is Attention Deficit
A: Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is the title
given to a cluster of symptoms which are observed in children and
that can create significant problems for the child, both at home
and at school.
The hallmark symptoms of ADD are a short attention span or
inability to stay on task, problems maintaining one’s
concentration, being easily distracted by noises or others in the
room, being extremely impulsive-responding quickly, talking
incessantly or making numerous careless errors, and hyperactivity.
This hyperactivity may either be demonstrated as always being “on
the go” or may look more like fidgetiness-always having some part
of the body moving nervously.
Not all ADD children are hyperactive. Therefore, a child may have
extreme problems with attention, concentration, and impulsivity yet
not seem exceedingly active or fidgety. This is known as an
attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity.
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Q: What causes ADD?
A: Children who’ve had a head injury (usually
severe, possibly from a bicycle or car accident) or children who’ve
had a shortage of oxygen (either at birth or during a seizure or
choking incident) may later demonstrate ADD symptoms.
Some children may have ADD as a result of severe problems with
allergies or allergic reactions to medicine. Also, diet has been
shown to contribute to ADD symptoms in some children. These
children are highly reactive to sugar, caffeine, preservatives, and
food coloring. Once taken off these foods, their behavior improves
Other sources of ADD include the presence of a seizure disorder
(where the child “blanks out” for a few seconds), thyroid problems,
blood sugar disorders such as diabetes or hypoglycemia, and visual
tracking problems (where the eyes don’t work together well and the
student has a hard time reading).
Probably the most well-known cause of ADD has to do with the
child’s nervous system. Many of these children’s bodies have a
deficiency in the chemicals of their brain and neurological system
that are needed to function properly. These chemicals, called
neurotransmitters (“neuro” meaning nerve, “transmitter” meaning
communicator), help our nervous system communicate messages to the
brain. If these chemicals are lacking, the system doesn’t function
well and results in a short attention span, distractibility, and
Q: How can I help children with
A: The specific problem that’s causing the ADD
needs to be addressed. For many of the causes, appropriate medical
treatment is the key to reducing the child’s symptoms and improving
behavior. Physicians and psychologists can aid the child, parents,
and teacher in coping with the child’s behavior.
Q: How often does ADD occur and at what age does it
A: ADD is estimated to occur in 3 to 5 percent of
all children. But it’s found up to eight times as often in boys as
in girls. A caution, however: Many girls who have ADD without
hyperactivity go unnoticed because they are quiet, compliant, and
not a behavior problem.
The age at which ADD symptoms “show up” varies considerably. Many
extremely hyperactive boys are noticed as early as 3 years old.
Most ADD children with hyperactivity are identified by the second
grade. But a large number of children with ADD without
hyperactivity may go unnoticed until late elementary or middle
school years, at which time they begin to struggle considerably
with getting their schoolwork completed and handed in.