The term hyperactivity refers to a behavioral disorder that psychiatrists have labeled attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. It is characterized by distractibility, accompanied by disruptiveness, impulsiveness, and excessive physical activity. Some individuals exhibit attention-deficit disorder, or ADD, without the hyperactive displays. ADD has in fact become a rapidly growing diagnostic category for adults.
ADHD appears in children before the age of four, but its signs may be missed until the child attends school. Such children are then often said to be "out of control." Perhaps up to 3% of all children manifest significant symptoms of ADHD; boys greatly outnumber girls. A low frustration threshold predisposes such children to uncontrollable tantrums. A short attention span and inability to concentrate may result in school failure even if the child displays high intelligence. Poor judgment and lack of "common sense" are often observed. They become especially troublesome as the child grows older.
Diagnoses of ADHD can be difficult, since every child's pattern of symptoms is unique. In addition, the pattern may vary daily and even hourly. The combined signs may range from mild, not unlike the behavior of a normally exuberant child, to severe. Sometimes a single symptom or only a few symptoms may be present, and thus the child may not be labeled as exhibiting ADHD or may be labeled as exhibiting ADD.
There are many causes of ADHD, only some of which are known. In addition to genetic influences, various factors affecting the pregnant mother have been implicated, including the use of prescription or illicit drugs and the use of alcohol and nicotine. There is mounting evidence that the overprocessing of foodsÑincluding artificial colorings, flavorings, preservatives, and other additivesÑmay be a factor, coupled with the depletion of various vitamins and minerals from the processed foods. Allergylike intolerances to certain foods, especially milk, wheat, and corn, produce ADHD in some children. Pollutants such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, insecticides, and herbicides may also be causative. Most children appear to outgrow their hyperactive displays, although ADD may still be observed in the adult. Hyperactivity that persists into adulthood may sometimes lead to social maladjustment, but increasingly active support groups such as ChADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders) emphasize the potentially positive aspects of the condition.
ADHD has been treated by behavior modification and psychotherapy, with mixed results. Two drugs, methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine, are most frequently prescribed. Drug therapy, however, is controversial, in part because ADHD is frequently hard to differentiate from the effects of other problems children may be experiencing. The drugs can also have side effects such as weight loss, irritability, insomnia, and nervousness. A mounting number of physicians are treating ADHD with an improved diet from which junk foods are eliminated, along with the elimination of foods and drinks to which the child has an allergic-type sensitivity.