ADHD Myths & Facts

Reflections on the Dark Ages of ADHD Misconceptions

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of ADHD, and as a mother and a former teacher, I am grateful for the enlightened future ahead.

A lone woman walks with confidence up stairs coming out from dark tunnel into bright light, Yazd, Iran
A lone woman walks with confidence up stairs coming out from dark tunnel into bright light, Yazd, Iran

My son, Alex, and I were blissfully ignorant when he started kindergarten in 1980. As a former teacher who loved school, I looked forward to seeing my gifted son excel academically. When he entered first grade, we had high expectations. That all ended when he came home with his first-grade report card, tears rolling down his cheeks. He said, “Mom, please don’t read my report card. My teacher thinks I’m bad.” Then we both cried.

As a young student, he had trouble paying attention and was very slow finishing his work. But he wasn’t hyperactive so it never occurred to me that he might have ADHD. As I later wrote in my books, “Thus began 12 years of academic agony for us.”

Unbeknownst to me, Alex had not only ADHD — his two greatest challenges were executive function deficits and slow processing speed — but significant coexisting challenges as well. In later years, we learned that his deficits in executive functioning also caused difficulty with written expression, memorization of math facts, organization, and task initiation and completion. With all these untreated challenges, anxiety also became a problem.

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ADHD was not included in any of the federal education or civil rights protections when Alex was struggling in middle and high school. Consequently, teachers had no obligation to provide extra supports or accommodations. In fact, many teachers doubted that ADHD existed and believed it was an excuse made up by parents to cover up for a child’s laziness, poor academic work, or behavioral problems. One teacher humiliated Alex in front of his algebra class by saying, “Your mother may baby you, but I’m not going to do that.”

A Minefield of ADHD Myths

Back then, misinformation about ADHD was rampant. Trying to understand ADHD behaviors and learning challenges was confusing to us as parents. Here are a few ADHD myths we were told that have been disproven.

  • ADHD occurs only in boys.
  • A child must be hyperactive to be diagnosed with ADHD.
  • ADHD is a behavior problem.
  • Poor parenting causes ADHD.
  • Parents need to punish children with ADHD more often.
  • Students with ADHD can do better if they try harder.
  • Children outgrow ADHD during the teen years and no longer need medication.
  • Children with ADHD should have weekends and summers free of medication.
  • Taking ADHD medication leads to drug abuse.

ADHD Facts: Greater Understanding – and More to Learn

Today, parents, teachers, and treatment professionals are grateful for our expanded knowledge about ADHD. We are thankful for the field’s pioneering researchers — Russell Barkley, Ph.D., Lily Hechtman, M.D., Alan J. Zametkin, M.D., Martha Denckla , M.D., Peter Jensen, M.D., Patricia Quinn, M.D., Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., and the late Joseph Biederman, M.D., among so many others — who greatly improved our understanding of ADHD in children, teens, and adults. As we move forward in our understanding of ADHD, we hope to see more research on underdiagnosed populations, including girls, women, and minorities.

[Read: Why We Must Achieve Equitable ADHD Care for African American and Latinx Children]

We are grateful for the organizations like Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) that have provided the educational training that has unlocked better learning for today’s students with ADHD. We also know more about managing ADHD in school thanks to experts like Beverley Holden Johns, Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., and Rick Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed., also among many others.

We’ve come a long way from the dark ages to a more enlightened present day. As a mother and a former teacher, I am grateful.

ADHD Misconceptions: Next Steps

Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S., passed away unexpectedly in July 2023. She will be remembered for her outstanding contributions to improve ADHD understanding in education. This article is part of our “25 Years of ADDitude” collection, which reflects on the past, present, and future of ADHD and ADDitude since the publication’s founding in 1998.

Since 1998, ADDitude has worked to provide ADHD education and guidance through webinars, newsletters, community engagement, and its groundbreaking magazine. To support ADDitude’s mission, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.