Do ADHD Kids Have “Dimmer Prospects” in Life?


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between three and seven percent of school-aged children in the U.S. have ADHD. Child prescriptions for ADHD have climbed 50 percent in the last ten years. Many parents wonder, “If my child has this diagnosis today, will it affect him negatively as an adult?” While a new study points to the difficulties kids with ADHD might face in life, it doesn’t acknowledge the good news about treatment. I believe that the way we’re learning to manage our ADHD kids’ behavior — and teach them how to deal with their “brain difference” — will help them  be more successful in the future.

The study, conducted by Professor Rachel Klein of NYU Langone Medical Center, followed the lives of 135 middle class white males who were designated as “hyperactive”  by their school teachers in the 1970s, and who, according to Klein and her colleagues, would have been diagnosed with ADHD today. (Worth noting: none of the boys displayed aggressive or antisocial behaviors.) The study found that, in comparison to their non-ADHD peers, the boys (now middle aged men) on average have less education and lower incomes as adults and higher rates of divorce and substance abuse. About a third of the group had spent time in jail — three times the number of their peers who did not have ADHD.

While ADHD itself may not be the cause of their problems, Klein said it’s likely a “slippery slope.” The impulsivity shown by many ADHD teens has been linked to drug use and other risky behaviors, for example.

So is the diagnosis of ADHD a prescription for failure?

Not according to Dr. Bob Myers, an ADHD expert who has worked with kids with the disorder for nearly 30 years, and who is also the father of an ADHD son. He believes that ADHD is a “brain difference” — a different way of learning and experiencing the world. “If we think of it as a brain difference, we could then say that a child with ADHD has some significant differences in his cognitive ability, emotional sensitivity and activity level when compared to other children.  His skill set is different from 95% of the children in his class. Unfortunately, the environment in which he spends most of his time is geared toward the other 95%.  However, we then could look at helping him to adapt successfully to this environment, using his own set of strengths rather than helping him to cope with this environment due to his weaknesses.”

Not better or worse — just different. While kids whose ADHD is not addressed have a harder time getting through school and feeling successful, those who are given the help they need achieve the same level of success — if not at times even greater success — than their peers.

“It’s true that ADHD left untreated leads to a higher likelihood of depression and substance abuse later in life,” says Myers. “But ADHD appropriately treated leads to a higher likelihood of success in life because it can help a child properly channel his increased sensitivity, creativity and high energy.”

Dr. Myers encourages parents not to be afraid of the diagnosis. “I believe we need to accept it as the first step in turning a difficult situation around to a positive direction. Helping your child with ADHD succeed requires a team approach that often needs to continue over many years.  That team includes your family, health professionals, teachers — and, of course, your child.”
I also can’t help but be reminded of all the high profile people who have ADHD and who are enormously successful, people like the late Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, David Neelemen, founder of Jetblue (who considers his ADHD to be an “asset”), Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Karina Smirnoff, and on and on. I think it’s time we stop letting ADHD define our kids, and instead start thinking of how we can work with them to bring out the positive aspects of  that “brain difference” to help them achieve success in life.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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