A Brief History of ADHD (& ADHD Awareness Week)

Sarah Wright

This week is ADHD Awareness week. In some sense, it actually finds its beginnings in 1902, the year that one of the first articles describing ADHD was published in the British medical journal, Lancet. Somewhat horrifically, but reflecting the mindset of the time, the title of the published study was “Morbid Defects of Moral Control.” A lot has changed in the last 110 years.

Slowly, slowly, over the years, with accumulating research, awareness of the disorder changed. From the 1940s through the 1960s, ADHD was thought to be the result of brain injury. It was referred to as minimal brain damage or minimal brain dysfunction. Additional research demonstrated that brain injuries were not associated with the behaviors, and the understanding of ADHD changed again. In the DSM-II (1968), it was renamed Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood. With more research, the issue of attention became the central organizing concept. The name Attention Deficit Disorder came into common usage with the publication of DSM-III (1980), and with the publication of DSM-IV (1994), it became known as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD Timeline: The Evolution of a Disorder

1902   “Morbid Defects of Moral Control

1940s through 1960s   minimal brain damage or minimal brain dysfunction

1968   Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood

1980   Attention Deficit Disorder

1994   Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

With the passing of time, our knowledge and understanding of ADHD, our awareness of what it really is, continues to grow. Arguably, we have learned as much about the causes and treatment of ADHD in the last dozen or so years, since the publication of the DSM-IV (1994), as we had in the previous century.

Like so many aspects of science, popular awareness lags far behind the research. There are still many people, even professionals in the medical community, who say they “don’t believe in” ADHD. Yet the evidence that ADHD is a real, genetically-related, neurologically-based, anything-but-benign condition is so compelling, that denying it is like declaring the world is flat.

This is where ADHD Awareness Week comes in.

In 2004, a confluence of events culminated in the passage of a US Senate Resolution that declared the 3rd Wednesday of September to be National ADHD Awareness Day. The passage of this resolution was a huge victory for our community. It gave federal recognition and national exposure, that acknowledged that ADHD exists, it is treatable, and there are many resources available to help people manage.

That was eight years ago. A one-day event declared by the US Senate has, in a relatively short span of time, evolved into ADHD Awareness Week, now held in mid-October and celebrated worldwide.

The mission of ADHD Awareness Week and its partners is to educate the public about ADHD by disseminating reliable information based on the evidence of science and peer-reviewed research. This mission is critical, as the general public remains poorly educated about ADHD. A highly treatable disorder, ADD/ADHD is too-often dismissed as fabricated, and goes undiagnosed and untreated in a vast majority of people. Dr. Russell Barkley estimates that up to 90% of adults with ADHD in the US, alone, are undiagnosed.

Because of the strong genetic link, when a child in the family is diagnosed, parents and siblings should be evaluated for ADHD as well. That is a good start to getting people and families the help they need.

Going through life with undiagnosed ADHD can have a significant negative impact on a person’s life. This is a tragedy for undiagnosed individuals, for those who love them and for our society as a whole.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some things that you can do to raise awareness about ADHD. It’s time for society’s understanding of ADHD to catch up with the science. The next stage in the advancement of ADHD history has to come from us!

  • Visit ADHD AwarenessWeek.org
  • This week, take the opportunity to start conversations and share your experiences with ADHD.
  • Educate your kids, your spouse, and your family members about what it’s like to live with ADHD.
  • Be honest with your friends and family about what it’s like to raise kids with ADHD.
  • Share links about ADHD Awareness Week or ImpactADHD.com with your family.

Sarah D. Wright is the Interim President of the ADHD Coaches Organization (ACO), a member of the ADHD Awareness Week Coalition and co-author of Fidget to Focus.


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