What if My Child Was Misdiagnosed With ADHD?


If your child has been misdiagnosed with ADHD, don't blame yourself. Instead, continue supporting your child's health and well-being, and share your story with other parents to help raise awareness of a growing concern - that too many children are receiving false ADHD diagnoses.

Misdiagnosing ADHD

If you've recently discovered that your ADHD-diagnosed child doesn't actually have ADHD, you're not alone. More and more parents are finding out that their child's ADHD symptoms are actually symptoms of other illnesses. When a misdiagnosis occurs, it's important to understand that it's not your fault. In this article, we'll explore possible reasons for misdiagnoses and even read about a doctor who experienced an ADHD misdiagnosis in her own child. You'll also see how parents and the medical community are pushing for stronger guidelines when diagnosing children with ADHD.

Is It Really ADHD?

Did you know that there are numerous illnesses and health conditions that present the same symptoms as ADHD? ADDitude Magazine published an editorial listing 10 symptoms commonly misdiagnosed for ADHD, from the inability to focus to persistent repetitious actions.

For instance, mood swings are a common symptom of ADHD. They are also a common symptom of bipolar disorder. The main difference is that children with ADHD usually switch moods due to an outside trigger, while children who are bipolar often change moods quickly, drastically, and without reason. Another example is the inability to sleep at night. Kids with ADHD may have difficulty sleeping because their mind is racing in numerous directions all at once. Meanwhile, kids without ADHD may have difficulty sleeping because of health conditions such as sleep apnea, a breathing issue that can interfere with sleep and lead to fatigue during the day.

Note that neither the presence of mood swings nor lack of sleep are exclusive to ADHD. They're not even exclusive symptoms of bipolar disorder or sleep apnea. They merely signal the presence of a health condition that may require medical attention. But what about other situations in which teachers have reported to parents their concern over a student's inability to focus, sit still, and complete assignments? Let's take a look at research for school-aged children.

ADHD Diagnosis

The Rise in ADHD Diagnoses

According to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration, approximately 11% (or 6.4 million) of school age children between the ages of 4 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD by a healthcare professional by 2011. In reviewing the data, the CDC found that ADHD diagnoses had increased by 42% since 2003. That's a lot of ADHD diagnoses among children, but one has to wonder if all of those diagnoses are correct. Could any of those children be suffering from an illness or disorder other than ADHD?

According to Todd Elder, assistant professor of economics at Michigan State University, it's quite possible. In a May 2010 study, 'The Importance of Relative Standards in ADHD Diagnoses: Evidence Based on Exact Birthdates,' Elder examined data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten cohort to determine the role a child's age played in an ADHD diagnosis. Elder discovered that the younger children in a kindergarten class were 60% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the older children. The younger children in the class exhibiting signs of immaturity due to their age may have been mistakenly classified as early signs of ADHD. As the children advanced through school, Elder discovered that they were also ''more than twice as likely to be prescribed stimulants.''

At the time of Elder's study, the CDC determined that 4.5 million school-aged children had been diagnosed with ADHD. Elder's overall findings concluded that 20% of those children may have been misdiagnosed. ''For many of these 900,000 children, transient deficiencies in maturity led to comparatively long-lasting use of stimulants intended to treat ADHD symptoms.''

Misdiagnosis Is Not Your Fault

It's quite easy to assume the presence of ADHD when, in reality, it's a different illness or health condition altogether. Don't blame yourself for the mix-up and don't dwell on it for too long, either. Instead, take action to treat your child's actual illness so that he can return to a normal, active, childhood. That's what Dr. Daniela Drake did.

In an article for, Drake shares that, as a medical professional, she herself mistakenly thought her son had ADHD. She saw the signs, took her son to an ADHD specialist, accepted the diagnosis, and started her son on medication. She believed that was how things should work. For Drake, it was cut and dry. If your child is sick, take him to the doctor, get a diagnosis, receive treatment, and move forward. ''No one in the healthcare system - not the pediatrician, the social worker, the psychiatrist, the self-styled ADHD specialist - ever suggested any other diagnosis but ADHD,'' says Drake. However, her son's condition was not improving with ADHD medication.

ADHD medicines ''temporarily give all kids more energy and focus, not just ADHD kids as the drug companies claim,'' writes Drake. ''If your child doesn't have ADHD, they can cause more harm than good.'' When Drake realized the treatment wasn't working, she asked for more tests and soon discovered that her son actually has auditory processing disorder (ADP), in which case the brain can't process sound correctly. Her son was also diagnosed with a severe milk allergy that caused him to be tired and often unfocused during the day.

Father and Son

What Can I Do?

Drake's story is proof that an ADHD diagnosis can happen to anyone. What you can't do is blame yourself. What you can do is push for further testing, which Drake believes should have happened before doctors came to an ADHD conclusion. ''The diagnostic guidelines for pediatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists…should include screening for these other problems first,'' says Drake. ''These other disorders cannot be fixed with pills. Only the appropriate therapy can do that.'' When additional testing was conducted and Drake discovered her son had ADP, she was able to get him the treatment he needed, which was listening therapy.

Be an Advocate for your Child

In the Child Mind Institute article 'The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children,' psychologist Linda Spiro writes, ''It's crucial to understand what's really behind a given behavior because, just as in medicine, the diagnosis your child receives can drastically change the appropriate treatment.'' As a parent, you need to be an advocate for your child and push for the right diagnosis and the right treatment.

When you first notice your child is having difficult sitting still, paying attention, or focusing on a task, don't assume it's ADHD. ADDitude Magazine offers a free ADHD evaluation test that you can take with your child to determine if the symptoms are actually in line with ADHD. This test is not meant to be a diagnosing tool, but instead a guideline for you and your healthcare team. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a standard set of guidelines to assist physicians and healthcare providers in diagnosing ADHD. ''A good mental health professional will give your child a thorough evaluation based on a broad range of information before coming up with a diagnosis,'' says Spiro.

Educate Others

If your child is misdiagnosed with ADHD, don't keep it to yourself. Parents need to know that just because their child has symptoms of ADHD doesn't mean it is ADHD. Help educate other parents about the many health conditions that have symptoms similar to ADHD. Because ADHD is a hot topic, parents don't realize that their child's lack of sleep, inability to complete schoolwork or at-home tasks, and constant need to burn off energy are not automatic clues that their child has ADHD. Encourage parents to take a closer look at the symptoms and to have their child evaluated by more than one medical professional.

Caution parents about the use of stimulants and other ADHD medications. When thinking about her own son being misdiagnosed, Dr. Daniela Drake realized the need to remind everyone that ''it's well known that stimulant drugs can be abused, and we don't know what the long-term consequences are in terms of addiction and depression and disability.'' If your child's ADHD stimulants aren't working, then question the diagnosis - don't automatically go for a higher dosage or an alternative brand.

Drake also reminds parents that once your child is ''labeled and medicated for ADHD, finding the true cause of a child's difficulties may never happen…If left unchecked, their ability to function in the world could be permanently compromised.''


Misdiagnosis Isn't Permanent

In the end, remember that a misdiagnosis isn't permanent. A misdiagnosis is actually an opportunity to leave the ADHD realm and discover the real root of your child's mental, physical, or even social and behavioral problem. Discovering the real problem opens the doorway to discovering a real solution. Never settle. If you have a gut feeling that your child's ADHD diagnosis seems a little off, then take a look at the entire picture of your child's health and response to medication, and bring it to the attention of your healthcare team. Move forward and don't stop until you find the right diagnoses with treatment your child responds to.

By Amanda Johnson
February 2018
k-12 parenting tips & tricks

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