The youngest children in a school class are more likely to be prescribed medication to control symptoms ofattention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than older children of their peer group, a new study suggests.
Children with ADHD typically have trouble staying focused, are easily distracted and have difficulty paying attention and following instructions. It is thought to affect around 3% to 7% of school age children.
Diagnosing ADHD can be challenging and time-consuming because there is no simple test to determine whether someone has it or not.
Symptoms must be seen in 2 different areas of life, such as home and school, before a healthcare professional can made an ADHD diagnosis.
It can also co-exist with other conditions, including Asperger syndrome, dyspraxia, language difficulties and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which can mask symptoms.
Researchers in Australia claim their findings add to previous international research from North America and Taiwan which suggests that immaturity could be misdiagnosed as a psychiatric disorder.
The Australian study found that children aged between 6 and 10 born in June – the cut-off for school admissions in Australia – were almost twice as likely to receive ADHD medication as those around 11 months older who were eligible for the same year group.
They found the differences were still significant, although less marked, for children aged 11 to 15.
The research team, led by Curtin University, speculates that some of the children may have been misdiagnosed and may not have ADHD.
Is ADHD being misdiagnosed?
Martin Whitely, who led the study, says in a statement: “The most plausible explanation is that teachers provide the evidence for the diagnosis of ADHD, they assess the behaviour of these kids against their peers and they are mistaking age-related immaturity for a psychiatric disorder.”
The researchers looked at data involving 311,384 children in Western Australia. A higher proportion of boys were taking medication for ADHD than girls – 2.9%, compared with 0.8%.
The brief report has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Martin Whitely says the results mirror those in some studies overseas. “The two US studies, the one in Canada and the one in Taiwan all came up with very similar patterns,” he says.
“It’s interesting because the diagnosis and prescribing rates in The US and Canada are much higher than they are in Taiwan and Australia and yet the relative effect seems to be as strong.
“So this indicates that there’s significant misdiagnosis.”
ADHD campaigners say studies linking immaturity to ADHD are unhelpful because they undermine what is a very real condition to some children and their parents. One ADHD charity declined to comment to us specifically on the latest research, saying it was a ‘rechurning’ of pervious findings.
Last year, Sinead Rhodes, who blogs on ADHD issues for the website The Research Headlines, commented on the Taiwanese research into ADHD and immaturity. She wrote: “What families really don’t need is to read headlines that suggest their children are just immature, based on a study conducted in a very different country, where diagnosis cannot readily or easily be compared to the UK.”
An analysis by the NHS says none of the studies to date have included UK children. “It would be a big assumption to say ADHD is being overdiagnosed and overtreated on the grounds of this study alone,” it says.
It adds: “It’s possible the youngest children in a school year may find it harder to keep up with lessons than children almost a year older than them, and so could be more likely to be distracted – though this is clearly a big generalisation and is not always going to be the case.”
Taken from webmd