Ann Marie Morrison suspected that her son had ADHD when he was three.
"John's temper tantrums were more intense than those of other three-year-olds, and they came out of nowhere," says Morrison, of Absecon, New Jersey. "It took forever to get him out the door. He had to dress in the hallway, where there were no pictures or toys to distract him. He couldn’t sit still, and he tore apart every toy. I carried gift cards in my purse, so that when he destroyed a toy at a friend's house, I could hand the mom a gift card to replace it."
When Morrison discussed John's hyperactivity and impulsive behavior with his doctors, her concerns were dismissed. "He's just an active boy," they said. "One pediatrician said, 'Even if he has ADHD, there's nothing we can do until he's at least five years old,'" recalls Morrison. "That's like saying, 'Your son has a serious illness, but we can't treat it for another two years.' What was I supposed to do in the meantime?" The family moved to another part of the state when John was five years old, and, by chance, their new pediatrician was an expert in ADHD. She had been diagnosed with ADHD herself and had raised a son with the condition.
"At John's checkup, she was taking a medical history and John was, as always, unable to sit still. She stopped and asked, 'Have you had him tested for ADHD?' I started to cry. I thought, 'Oh, thank God. Someone else sees it,'" says Morrison. "After years of being told by relatives that I needed to discipline him more, after years of feeling physically and mentally exhausted, and thinking I was a horrible parent, someone realized what we were dealing with."
A thorough evaluation of John, which included input from John's teachers and family, led to a diagnosis of ADHD. Soon afterward, he was put on medication, which has helped him focus and improved his impulse control. Treatment has changed John’s and his family's life. "If John had been diagnosed earlier, it would have helped a lot," says Morrison. "I don't know if we would have given him medication when he was three or four, but I would have learned techniques for getting him organized, disciplining him, and helping him establish a routine, without having to figure it out by myself. If I had known earlier that he had ADHD, I would have taken better care of myself, too. I wasn't prepared. It's not just the child who's affected by ADHD. It's the whole family."
Today, it's likely that children like John will be diagnosed and helped earlier in life, thanks to new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The findings include recommendations for evaluating and treating preschool children and adolescents ages 4 through 18 years. Earlier guidelines, released in 2001, covered children ages six through 12.
"The AAP committee reviewed the research on ADHD done over the last 10 years, and concluded that there are benefits to diagnosing and treating ADHD in children younger than age six," says Michael Reiff, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, who served on the committee that developed the new guidelines.