The History of ADHD: A Timeline

Written by Kimberly Holland and Valencia Higuera | Published on February 26, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on February 26, 2015

ADHD has not always been a recognized disorder. Learn how researchers identified it.

What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurobehavioral disorder most commonly diagnosed in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age at diagnosis is 7. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. Adults can develop symptoms and be diagnosed as well.

It was originally called hyperkinetic impulse disorder. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) formally recognized ADHD as a mental disorder. Read more for a timeline of ADHD.

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 affected children could not control their behavior the way a typical child would, but they were still intelligent. 

The Introduction of Benzedrine

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

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

No Recognition

The APA issued the first “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) in 1952. 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.

The APA did not recognize ADHD in the first edition. A second DSM was published in 1968. This edition included hyperkinetic impulse disorder for the first time.

The Introduction of Ritalin

The FDA approved the psychostimulant Ritalin (methylphenidate) in 1955. It became more popular as an ADHD treatment as the disease became better understood and diagnoses increased. The medicine is still used to treat ADHD today.

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

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. 

The APA released the fourth edition of the DSM in 2000. The fourth edition established the three subtypes used by healthcare professionals today:

  • combined type ADHD
  • predominantly inattentive type ADHD
  • predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD

A Climb in Diagnoses

ADHD cases began to climb significantly in the 1990s. There may be a few factors behind the rise in diagnoses:

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

More and more medications to treat the disorder became available as the number of ADHD cases rose. The medications also became more effective at treating ADHD. Many have long-acting benefits for patients who need relief from symptoms for longer periods.

Where We Are Today

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

It’s not currently clear what role environmental factors play in determining who develops ADHD. Researchers are dedicated to finding the underlying cause of the disorder. They’re aiming to make treatments more effective and to help find cures.

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