Do people have ADD from birth?

ADD Basics FamilyAs we continue laying out the truth about ADD/ADHD, we turn to some of the most common, burning questions my patients, friends, family, and colleagues most commonly ask me.  The answers to these questions form a critical foundation to understanding the truth about Attention Deficit Disorder.

If people are born with ADD, why don’t problems show up right after birth?

ADD becomes apparent only when the inborn attentional differences interfere with the individual’s ability to meet expectations in the environment. Depending upon the severity of a person’s attentional differences, his temperament, the status of other skills and abilities, and the specific nature of environmental expectations, ADD can crop up at any point along the life span from infancy to old age. Let’s take a look at how this can happen.

Typically, individuals with ADD appear to be normal at birth. As children, they are minimally, if at all, delayed in meeting major milestones of accomplishment such as walking and talking. They generally reach school age with only minor problems in controlling their behavior and interacting with peers. The first grade classroom is often the first place where specific expectations for paying attention occur. As a result, the entry into school is one of the more common times when ADD first shows up. Other key transition points in the individual’s life where expectations for increased efficiency of attention can lead to the emergence of ADD include the following:

  • Movement to the upper elementary grades where time constraints are imposed and increased demands are placed on children to function independently
  • Movement to junior/senior high school where more refined organizational and study skills are required
  • Movement to college where fewer supports are available and the ability to function independently is essential
  • Movement into a new home away from parents where there are no supports and the ability to function independently is even more critical
  • Marrying or cohabiting with a partner where functioning impacts upon the quality of life of another person and demands for efficient problem-solving are high
  • Becoming a parent where responsibilities for keeping it all together, all the time is essential

Individuals with ADD who have strengths in other areas (e.g., strong language skills, a charming personality, intellectual giftedness) can go a long time in life without being identified as having a problem. I have seen many children go through elementary school with A’s and B’s only to have the bottom fall out upon entry to middle school or junior high school. In these circumstances, careful probing of the educational history of these children often reveals evidence of attentional weaknesses that have either been overcome with sheer brain power or been overlooked by parents and teachers because these subtle weaknesses hadn’t really led to failure.

While failure to meet increasing school demands is a very common way for ADD to be uncovered, it can also happen as a result of failure to meet increasing demands for independent functioning, social interaction, or problem-solving at home, in childcare, in the neighborhood, or on the job.

Meet Michael

Michael is a good example of this. He is a 10-year-old boy who has always done very well, academically and socially. He has learned new concepts quickly, has shown a gift for memorizing facts, has been easy to get along with, and has always been a great conversationalist.

Until two months ago, he had also functioned very well at home. At that time, however, his mother got a new job that meant she was no longer able to be with Michael after school. And, despite all of her attempts, she had been unable to find someone who would stay with Michael until her new workday ended. So, for the first time, Michael was on his own everyday from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

The new expectation for him was “keep yourself busy and stay out of trouble for three unsupervised, unstructured hours.” This new demand uncovered Michael’s impulsivity, distractibility, and lack of ability to think through the ramifications of his behavior. He broke a living room lamp by rough housing in “off-limits territory”; he burned a hole in the new family room couch while “fooling around” with a butane lighter; and he soaked the bathroom carpet when he ran to answer the telephone, forgetting to first turn off the faucet.

Without his mom around to help him structure his time, to remind him of the house rules, and to watch over his activities, Michael had become dysfunctional.

Meet Emma

Emma’s story is similar. She is a 22-year first year elementary school teacher who has just married. Emma is gifted, kind, funny, sensitive, and very hardworking. Until now she has done well in almost every sphere of her life, but she has never been asked to establish her own home, to share finances, nights, and laundry with someone else, to complete daily lesson plans for five subjects, to effectively manage thirty fifth-grade children for six hours every day, and to negotiate unclear work politics all at the same time.

Emma is a mess. Despite her intelligence, her hard work, her sense of humor and her likeability, she is not experiencing success anywhere in her life.

Catch up on previous posts in the Pay Attention series.

Patients of all shapes, ages, and sizes come to The Being Well Center and Dr. Craig Liden for diagnoses and treatment plans they can trust. Can we help you too? Visit The Being Well Center for more information about Dr. Liden’s services.

Our current blog series is excerpted from Dr. Liden’s best-selling book, Pay Attention!: Answers to Common Questions About the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder.

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About cblmd

medical director of the being well center, ADHD expert, speaker, and author

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