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Your guide to ADHD misdiagnosis

Frustrated boy

If your child was prescribed medication following a diagnosis of ADHD by your doctor but the medication doesn’t seem to have worked, the reason may be that their inattentive, restless or disruptive behaviour is caused by anxiety and not ADHD.

A misdiagnosis of ADHD may happen when the symptoms presented by a patient, who is almost always a young child, may not be fully understood or are not examined more thoroughly.

ADHD includes a group of behaviours that may individually be diagnosed as belonging to another type of disorder or be caused by a different reason entirely.  Common childhood phases of behaviour, such as being restless or inattentive, are often completely normal and do not necessarily indicate symptoms of ADHD.

The methods by which ADHD is diagnosed and treated, including the use of particular types of medications prescribed for children, can lead to over-diagnosis, misdiagnosis and a failure to identify and treat the real underlying causes.  Meanwhile, genuine cases of unidentified and untreated ADHD can often continue into adulthood.

You may have good reason to believe that “something was not quite right, somehow” with a doctor’s assessment or strongly feel that your child was incorrectly diagnosed and has not been provided with an expected level of appropriate care.

To demonstrate that your child’s care was negligent, you will need to show evidence that:

  • Medication was prescribed without a thorough examination
  • Suffering was caused from the side-effects of medication
  • The undiagnosed, underlying condition remains untreated
  • Referral to a specialist failed to take place

Our dedicated clinical negligence team at Your Legal Friend has many years of experience in successfully resolving complex negligence cases.

We can help you:

  • Find out whether you have not been given the duty of care you were owed
  • Obtain access to make your complaint heard
  • Obtain legal compensation for the injury or harm suffered.

How common is ADHD?

  • An estimated 1.7 million people are thought to suffer from ADHD – it’s the most common behavioural disorder in the UK 
  • More than 850,000 prescriptions were dispensed for medicines to treat ADHD in England and Wales in 2010.
  • The use of drugs to treat ADHD, such as Ritalin, increased by 50% over a six year period in the UK
  • Between 2–7% of school children and young people are believed to have ADHD
  • Childhood ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls.

What is ADHD?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and can occur in people of any intellectual ability.

It is completely normal for children, especially those who are very young, to have shorter attention spans than adults, although some children can have greater difficulty in focusing than others. 

The symptom of inattention is often first observed at school as daydreaming, being easily distracted or having difficulty following directions and completing tasks or assignments.

However, there can be many other explanations for a child’s inattention, such as not getting on with the teacher, worry or anxiety over something that’s happening at home, or being bullied in the playground.

Girls often have a form of ADHD with less noticeable symptoms relating to problems of paying attention rather than hyperactivity.

Main symptoms of ADHD are:

  • Restlessness
  • Constant fidgeting
  • Being easily distracted
  • A short attention span
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Impulsiveness
  • Overactivity

Other common symptoms:

  • Non-compliant behaviour such as:

- Mood swings

- Aggression

- Temper tantrums

  • Unpopularity with others
  • Anxiety - motor tics
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Clumsiness
  • Immature language
  • Literacy and other learning problems

What causes ADHD?

Runs in the family

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but the condition can be hereditary. Both parents, brothers or sisters of a child with ADHD are four to five times more likely to have suffered ADHD themselves.

Brain function

Certain areas of the brain may either be smaller or larger and may take an average of two to three years longer to mature in children with ADHD.

An imbalance in the level of chemicals in the brain can mean that the brand does not function properly.

Other potential factors could include

  • Premature birth (before 37 weeks)
  • Low birth weight
  • Smoking, alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy

Stages of ADHD

Most cases of ADHD are diagnosed in children between the ages of 6 and 12 but the condition can appear in different ways at different ages as the child grows and the need to develop ‘social’ self-control increases, for example, when starting school.

The symptom of inattention may reduce and the attention span usually increases with age but the condition may still be apparent in varying degrees throughout adult life.

Pre-school - incessant and demanding extremes of ‘hyper’ activity

School years - excessive movements in response to every situation

Adolescence - excessive fidgeting rather than ‘whole body’ movement’

Adult life - a sustained inner sense of restlessness.

Treating ADHD

There is no cure for ADHD nor any laboratory tests that can positively confirm a diagnosis.

ADHD caused by an altered brain function and structure may be detected by scanning technology accompanied by an appropriate diagnosis.

The condition can be managed with appropriate long term therapies, educational support, advice and support for parents and affected children, alongside medication, if necessary.

Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis of ADHD can often be traced to the following causes:

A wider definition of the condition in doctor’s guidelines leading to misinterpreted symptoms

  • The term ADHD has been applied to an expanding collection of behavioural problems linked to poor attention span, including impulsiveness, restlessness and hyperactivity.

Born either just before or after the cut-off date for the first year of school

  • Being up to 12 months younger than the oldest children in the class can mean that a child’s inattention or misbehaviour can be mistaken for hyperactivity by teaching staff.

Other common misdiagnoses

  • Autism - behaviours may be identical to the hyperactivity and social development issues common in ADHD children.
  • Sensory Processing Disorders - can produce symptoms similar to ADHD, such as a difficulty in paying attention, especially if the child feels overwhelmed, sensory oversensitivity, fluctuating from one activity to the next.
  • Hearing problems - young children unable to fully express themselves and with hearing impairments find it difficult to pay attention because of their inability to hear properly.
  • Low blood sugar levels – identical to the symptoms of ADHD - may cause aggression, hyperactivity, the inability to sit still or concentrate.

Differences between ADHD and Bipolar Disorder

Differentiating between the shared symptoms of ADHD and bipolar mood disorder can be extremely difficult and could also lead to a misdiagnosis.

ADHD affects attention and behaviour - inattention, distractibility, impulsiveness, and/or physical restlessness.

  • lifelong condition beginning before age 7
  • a chronic condition
  • affected by sensory overstimulation
  • moods quickly come and go, often within 20 to 30 minutes
  • behaviour is accidental

Bipolar disorder primarily affects mood - exaggerated shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behaviour—from manic highs to extreme, depressive lows.

  • bipolar disorder tends to develop after age 18
  • occurs in episodes
  • affected by disciplinary actions and conflict with authority figures
  • unexplained mood shifts can last for hours or days
  • behaviour is used to cause conflict

How Your Legal Friend can help you

The causes of behaviour in young children can be complicated.  Often they display phases where they are restless or inattentive, which is completely normal and does not necessarily mean your child has ADHD.

Where there have been concerns raised over behaviour that appears to be different to most children of their age, a doctor may have not made a thorough enoughassessment. A misdiagnosis may have also led to a wrongly prescribed medication.

As experienced clinical negligence specialists, we know that if you feel you have been let down and your child has not received the appropriate standard of care required to properly diagnose and treat ADHD, you expect to be given an explanation.

We are committed to ensuring you are able to make your case, obtain answers, and receive the compensation your child deserves to secure their present and future care needs.