The History of ADHD: A Timeline

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  • What Is ADHD?

    What Is ADHD?

    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurobehavioral disorder most commonly diagnosed in children. Although seven is the average age of diagnosis, adults can develop symptoms and receive a diagnosis too. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD compared to girls.

    Learning as much as scientists know about ADHD today took time. First called hyperkinetic impulse disorder, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) formally recognized ADHD as a mental disorder in the late 1960s. Click through the slideshow for a timeline of the history of ADHD.

  • Early 1900s

    Early 1900s

    ADHD was first mentioned in 1902. British pediatrician Sir George Still described “an abnormal defect of moral control in children.” He found that some “mentally retarded” children could not control their behavior the way a typical child would. However, they were still intelligent.

  • The Introduction of Benzedrine

    The Introduction of Benzedrine

    In 1936, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Benzedrine as a medicine. The next year, Dr. Charles Bradley stumbled across some unexpected side effects of this medicine. When he gave it to young patients, their behavior and performance in school improved.

    However, Bradley’s contemporaries largely ignored his findings. Many years later, doctors and researchers began to recognize the benefit of what Bradley had discovered.

  • No Recognition

    No Recognition

    In 1952, the APA issued the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual listed all of the recognized mental disorders. It also included known causes, risk factors, and treatments for each condition. (Doctors still use an updated version today.) In the first edition, the APA did not recognize ADHD. In 1968, a second DSM was published, which included “hyperkinetic impulse disorder” for the first time.

  • The Introduction of Ritalin

    The Introduction of Ritalin

    In 1955, the FDA approved the psychostimulant Ritalin. It became more popular as a treatment for ADHD as the disease became better understood and more frequently diagnosed. The medicine is still used to treat ADHD today.

  • A Changing Definition

    A Changing Definition

    The APA released a third edition of the DSM (DSM-III) in 1980. They changed the name of the disorder from “hyperkinetic impulse disorder” to attention deficit disorder (ADD). Scientists believed hyperactivity was not a common symptom of the disorder. This listing created two subtypes of ADD: ADD with hyperactivity, and ADD without hyperactivity.

  • Finally, a Name That Fits

    Finally, a Name That Fits

    The APA released a revised version of the DSM-III in 1987. They removed the hyperactivity distinction and changed the name to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The APA combined the three symptoms (inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity) into a single type and did not identify subtypes of the disorder.

    In 2000, the APA released the fourth edition of the DSM, and established the three subtypes used by health care professionals today:

    • combined type ADHD
    • predominantly inattentive type ADHD
    • predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD
  • A Climb in Diagnoses

    A Climb in Diagnoses

    In the 1990s, the cases of ADHD began to climb significantly. This may be due to a few factors:

    • doctors are able to diagnose ADHD more efficiently today
    • more parents are aware of ADHD and reporting their children’s symptoms
    • more children are actually developing ADHD

    As the number of ADHD cases rose, so did the number of medications—and their effectiveness—to treat the disorder. Many have long-acting benefits for patients who need relief from symptoms for longer periods.

  • Where We Are Today

    Where We Are Today

    Today, scientists are trying to identify the causes of ADHD as well as possible treatments. Research points to a very strong genetic link. Children with parents or siblings with the disorder are more likely to have it. 

    Currently, it’s not clear what role environmental factors play in determining who develops ADHD. Researchers are dedicated to finding the underlying cause of the disorder so treatments can better address the causes and find cures.