Ask An Expert / ADHD

Is ADHD really a psychiatric disorder?

Yes, though it defies some stereotypes

Natalie Weder, MD
Natalie Weder, MD

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Child Mind Institute

Is ADHD really a psychiatric disorder?

Sometimes people tell me ADHD can’t be a psychiatric disorder because they have a stereotype of what that means — perhaps that someone is delusional or out of touch with reality. But ADHD is classified as a psychiatric disorder, which simply means that it’s a condition that involves mental functioning that causes significant impairment.

ADHD is one of the most researched of psychiatric disorders; neuroimaging and neuropsychological studies point to brain differences in ADHD, so there’s very strong evidence of it being a biological disorder. What we know about it is that children with ADHD show differences in the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain, which are responsible for motivation and executive functioning such as planning, inhibiting responses and impulses, paying attention, keeping track of time, evaluating ideas and reflecting on our own work, and blocking distractions. And kids with ADHD can’t do those things as well. We also have very solid research showing that stimulant medications, which affect the way the brain transmits information, have a direct impact on the symptoms of ADHD.

Some people think of ADHD as a learning disorder, like dyslexia, because it does affect how kids perform in school when they have trouble paying attention, sitting still, or finishing tasks. But the symptoms of ADHD affect a child’s functioning much more broadly than a learning disorder, which involves difficulty with a very specific aspect of learning.