Psychologist shares how to spot ADHD in children as report claims NHS ‘can’t meet’ demand

By Staff 9 Min Read

It’s important for parents to know the common signs of ADHD in children. Here experts show the some common traits, as the NHS struggles to meet the demands for assessments in the UK

A damning report by the Nuffield Trust has claimed an “extraordinary” rise in the demand for Autism and ADHD assessments in the UK – and says the NHS is struggling to meet the huge increases.

With an estimated 2.6 million people living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the UK, the NHS is struggling to meet the assessment demand and since 2019 has seen five times the number of people waiting to see specialists and a 51 per cent increase in prescriptions, according to the report.

ADHD affects certain behaviours – typically attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. As it was previously stereotyped as something “naughty” or “disruptive” children have, it’s a much more complex disorder. There are a few patterns that can show up in a child’s behaviour, and two psychologists have revealed the key signs for all parents to look out for.

It’s becoming easier to spot the symptoms in children, so it’s important that parents know what to look out for, but the Nuffield Trust has slammed the NHS and claimed it needs a “radical rethink” and that “pumping more money” into the current system won’t work.

According to the BBC, Nuffield Trust chief executive Thea Stein said it’s “frankly impossible” to imagine how the current system can grow fast enough to help “fulfil this demand”. It was also found that 24% of patients referred for ADHD in England were having to wait one to two years for an assessment.

“We’re at a really critical point as a society, where we’re actually understanding neurodiversity and the fact that it’s a much greater spectrum for the whole of society than we’ve ever had before. It’s a really complicated issue for us to all collectively understand as a society,” she told BBC News.

A Department of Health official said: “We know it’s vital to have a timely diagnosis of autism or ADHD and we are taking action to reduce assessment delays. NHS England has published a national framework to help speed up autism assessments and is establishing a new ADHD taskforce alongside the government, to improve care for people living with the condition. In addition, our £13m partnership with NHS England will help improve specialist support for neurodiverse children in primary schools.”

How to spot signs of ADHD

“Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts someone’s attention, their levels of hyperactivity and impulsivity,” Dr Deb Thompson, consultant clinical psychologist at Cygnet Health Care, explained. “Typically when someone has ADHD, they tend to struggle with their attention, with hyperactivity and with impulsivity – although it is possible to just struggle with symptoms from one of those.”

ADHD patterns don’t always look the same in every child, but “every child with ADHD will probably struggle with a unique set of difficulties,” explained Georgia Chronaki, senior lecturer in developmental neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire. “[For example] one child might struggle with paying attention in class, another may struggle with managing their emotions.”

It’s important to note that if one child has similar behavioural traits to your child and has had an ADHD diagnosis, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child has ADHD too. Children could have very different behavioural traits, yet both have an ADHD diagnosis.

Dr Thompson further explained: “The hyperactivity and impulsivity difficulties associated with ADHD could include being unable to sit still without fidgeting, excessive restlessness, finding the quiet to be uncomfortable, difficulty engaging in tasks quietly, difficulties in turn-taking, impulsively saying or doing things without thinking through consequences, as well as a tendency not to consider the risks of behaviour.”

Another sign is forgetfulness and if your child “frequently misplaces items” as well as “having difficulties remembering to do tasks” it seems as if they are easily distracted and appear to be daydreaming instead. “Imagine really wanting to pay attention to a conversation that is happening but your brain is not letting you,” shared Dr Thompson.

“Imagine really wanting to focus on your homework, but your brain is not letting you. Imagine really wanting to sit and watch a TV programme, or sit and eat a meal, or sit and relax and your brain is not letting you. The world can be a very frustrating place for young people with ADHD, particularly if they do not understand why their brain works in the way it does.” Because of this, it might take its toll on your child, leaving them suffering with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

If you think any of these signs are impacting your child, or if you’re concerned they are showing symptoms of ADHD, it’s worth seeking professional support. Diagnoses are typically given by specialist ADHD assessment teams, and referrals tend to be made via schools or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

An earlier version of this story was published in October 2023.

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