Adult Mental WellnessChild and Adolescent Mental Wellness


Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are terms that are often confusing to people, as the phrases are frequently used interchangeably. What do they mean, and is there a difference between them?

The term "Attention Deficit" refers to the wandering of the mind from the intended point of focus, onto other surrounding stimuli. There is an inability to innately regulate attention. (Ironically, while at times there is a deficit (shortage) of attention on the intended subject matter, at other times you may observe an unexpected hyper (over) focus on a subject matter.)

Hyperactivity can either be present or not in any given child with ADD. Moreover, it can be present sometimes, and then not observable at others. A very high-strung, super active ADD child would be a little more accurately defined if you used the term (ADHD) to describe them.

(An aside: While it may seem cruel or unkind to use "labels" in referring to people’s condition, the label serves as a quick means of defining a cluster of symptoms. It would be difficult to have to spell out the behaviours every time you wanted to refer to the child, in an attempt to not label. Labeling for clarity is beneficial when it is used for the right purposes, such as securing services or help for an individual. I do not typically go around defining myself to others as an ADD-er, but if I were to require some special services I would qualify for at a college or university, I would certainly make it known that I am an ADD-er, complete with official diagnosis.)

The best way to explain ADD and (ADHD) is to perhaps take a peek at some illustrations.

The setting: The Classroom

It is a grade 3 class, and the students, arranged in groups of 4, are tasked with looking through resources (picture books, story cards, etc.) to locate, discuss and record answers to the questions they’ve been given on a certain topic. Three of the students dig into the task immediately, flipping open and scavenging through the items on their table in search of answers.

The fourth student looks out the window at nothing in particular, then reaches in his desk for his pencil so he can continue picking the loose pieces of rubber off the end of his pencil eraser that he began to pull off earlier. While the other three students reveal to one another their academic discoveries, this child is unengaged in their topic. He gets up from his seat, and wonders over to the area where yesterday’s leaf projects lies on display. The teacher notices and directs him back to his group. By the end of the allotted time, this student has contributed little or nothing to the group’s experience, and perhaps has been, at times, an annoyance to the teacher with his continued trips around the classroom and his digging around in his desk to pull out this and that to play with. Because he has left himself out of the dynamic shared by the other three students in his group, he has failed to bond with the others and remains a bit of an outsider.

Over in the other corner of the room, a similar scenario is playing out, only the rogue student there is a little more vocal, pestering and poking at his classmates to pull their attention toward him. He gets up from his seat and meanders around, asking questions unrelated to the task at hand, and visibly annoying the other students who are trying to be attentive to their group.

Both of these students might have Attention Deficit Disorder, and they both may be exhibiting some hyperactivity as well. Because ADD is a spectrum disorder (there are varying degrees of severity of it), it is difficult to say whether just one of the two ADD children has the hyperactive component, or whether they both do. During group discussions in the classroom, they might both tend to blurt out answers the teacher asks, instead of raising their hand and waiting to be chosen to answer. They interrupt other classmates, correct others’ answers out loud, and have various other unexpected and often unwelcomed behaviours. In their distractedness, they have missed the cues the others have picked up on which teach a child when a certain behaviour is appropriate or not.

Not all ADD children exhibit the same symptoms, and not all in the same circumstances. A child may be unruly at home, but something in the structure at school may keep him or her in check, or vice versa. Moreover, the child’s attention may wax and wane from one day to the next, such that one day the student is perfectly attentive to the lesson, but the next day, during a similar lesson, is wildly distracted.

When I was a child, I was so excited to answer the questions the teacher posed, that I was constantly shooting out the answers even before all the words had left her tongue. I found it difficult to do silent reading at my seat, because every time another student would move or get up or make a gesture, my attention was pulled from the text, onto them. Yet when I was at my Grandmother’s house, I would sit and stitch buttons on a piece of cloth until every button was sewn on, with an uncanny length to my attention span.

Regulating attention is not natural for the ADD or the (ADHD) child, but the one with the hyperactivity component is more visibly distracting to others because of his or her constant movement, visibly impulsive actions, and incessant demand for attention.

As the child moves through adolescence and on into adulthood, the hyperactivity component is often tamed or disappears. Hence, adults are generally referred to as having ADD rather than (ADHD). ADD adults will often throw themselves into tasks in which they take an interest, while procrastinating on others that they find difficult to engage or connect with (that same attention dysregulation that was seen in the ADD child).

For some really high energy ADD adults, you would best describe them as having (ADHD), however. A great deal of energy my be visible in this person, and you may observe them participating in all kinds of activities and interactions, sometimes very risky, exuding a real zeal for life. They tend to be very impulsive, and will often suffer consequences for poorly thought out choices. This is the reason that ADD-ers, and in particular ADHD-ers, are at higher risk for addiction and crime.

In summary, it is no sin to use the terms interchangeably, though for a greater defining of an apparent hyperactive component, you may do well to describe the person as having (ADHD). All ADD and (ADHD) persons have difficulty regulating their attention, but not all have a visible hyperactivity component.

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