Heidi Bernhardt’s mission is to cut through the stigma that surrounds ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a condition that can cause kids to be impulsive, inattentive or overly active. The president and executive director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada says many parents avoid taking their children for an assessment because they fear they will forever be seen differently by their teachers and peers. This is partly why she says Canadian children are being seriously underdiagnosed — and undertreated.

“It’s a kneejerk reaction: ‘There’s no way my kid is one of those kids,’” she says. “But if your child is struggling at school, every child in that class, that teacher, every parent has probably already labelled your kid. Why don’t we choose the correct medical label to help your child?”

Bernhardt says parents should think of the neurological condition as something that can be helped, like getting glasses for a child who has trouble seeing: “The symptoms of ADHD can be very manageable.”

ADHD very common

Up to three kids in every classroom have ADHD, says Bernhardt; worldwide, about 5% of children have it.

These are typical signs of ADHD:

  • Inattention, impulsive behaviour, or hyperactivity – or a combination of two or all three
  • Inappropriate, impulsive behaviour such as hitting other kids, leading teachers to suggest that the child be assessed by a doctor or mental health professional
  • Inability to focus, complete tasks, read, complete schoolwork or do well at school
  • Forgetfulness, seeming “out of it”
  • Inability to alter behaviour when disciplined
  • Showing signs of low self-esteem, crying frequently or appearing anxious
  • Being picked on or bullied by other children

“It’s very hard to identify ADHD in very young children,” says Dr. Alice Charach, Neuropsychiatry Team Head at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. She adds that ADHD is most commonly identified in the early grade-school years, but if parents have noticed long-standing behaviour such as high levels of activity, inattention and distractibility — not just short-term behavioural changes — at any age, they should consult their child’s doctor.

Get a proper assessment

Charach says that because two-thirds of children who have ADHD have another kind of difficulty — such as anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, or a learning disability — a developmental paediatrician, a family doctor with special ADHD training or a child and adolescent psychiatrist should carry out a proper medical assessment. Done properly, it should ideally factor in parental and school assessments to paint the clearest picture possible. While medication may be prescribed after a diagnosis, “most families would prefer to try something else first,” says Charach. She says that although unproven, certain dietary changes and therapies may help. They include:

  • Omega 3 supplements
  • Excluding foods containing artificial food colouring
  • Cognitive training, which may help in controlling impulses
  • Behaviour interventions: building in both structure and downtime at home and at school.

Patience is key, says Charach: “Allow the brain to grow up.” And Bernhardt says parents should see ADHD as very treatable. “A diagnosis of ADHD does not mean your child won’t complete post-secondary education and have a career of his or her choice.”

Suspect your child has ADHD? Here’s what to do:

  • Be an ADHD advocate. Talk to your child’s teacher and know your child’s rights.
  • Make sure the doctor who assesses your child has ADHD training. It may be a long wait, but it’s worth it.
  • Be positive when you talk about ADHD with your child: focus on your child’s strengths.