A new study shows that roughly 1 in 10 kids are now diagnosed with ADHD in the United States. That’s a 67 percent increase over the last 20 years. A big reason for the rise is higher rates of ADHD diagnosis among girls and kids of color.
The data for the study comes from the National Health Interview Survey. From 1997 to 2016, the nationwide survey interviewed parents and guardians of more than 186,000 children, ages 4 to 17. The kids varied in gender, race, ethnicity and family income. Results were published in JAMA Network Open.
According to the study, the percentage of girls diagnosed with ADHD doubled from 3.1 to 6.3 percent over two decades. (That’s still lower than the rate for boys.)
Similarly, the rate of ADHD diagnosis among Hispanic children went from 3.6 to 6.1 percent. Among Black children, it more than doubled from 4.7 to 12.8 percent. That’s now higher than the 12 percent of white children with ADHD.
There were also big differences based on where kids lived. The Midwest saw a huge jump in ADHD rates, up to 12 percent. But the West saw a smaller rise, reaching 7 percent.
Should parents be concerned that more kids are being diagnosed with ADHD? According to the study authors, the answer is no.
“There is a common perception that ADHD is overdiagnosed in the United States,” they wrote. However, citing previous research on ADHD, they wrote that “this perception was not supported by scientific evidence.”
The researchers analyzed why rates among girls might be rising. Because of changes in the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, they wrote, many girls who wouldn’t have been diagnosed in the past are now being diagnosed. As to Blacks and Hispanics, the authors said that increased access to health care could be driving the rise in diagnoses. Reduced stigma around ADHD might also be a factor.
The authors suggested that more research is needed to better understand the rise in ADHD.
Understood expert Bob Cunningham largely agrees with the researchers’ conclusions. “Public awareness. Better knowledge on the part of doctors. Changes in diagnostic criteria and in health care. All these could be contributing to the increase in ADHD diagnoses,” says Cunningham.
As ADHD diagnoses becomes more common, he notes, there’s also more opportunity for parent advocacy.
“Parents can reasonably expect schools and others who work with kids to make sure their staff are knowledgeable about ADHD,” said Cunningham. “They have to be prepared to help these kids.”
Watch as an expert explains how ADHD is diagnosed. Discover how ADHD can look different in boys and girls. And dive into a 28-minute primer video on ADHD.
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Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.