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How to Recognize ADHD Symptoms at Every Age

Children with ADHD often show symptoms early in life. Here are some signs.
By Mary Anne Dunkin
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Although Carol Stevenson didn’t suspect attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when her son, Jacob, was very young, she still knew at an early age that there was something different about her child. As a toddler, Jacob was slow to talk and often resorted to hitting out of frustration. By the time he started kindergarten, he was speaking well, but his behavior was sometimes troublesome and disruptive at school.

“He was always playing with things, dropping his pencil, or using one pencil to flick another off the desk,” says Stevenson, who lives in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif. “He didn’t pay attention in class and would get up and walk around.” As a result, she says, he was always being redirected, reprimanded, and sent to the principal’s office.

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Shortly after Jacob started first grade, Stevenson received a call from his teacher that ultimately led to a diagnosis of ADHD (previously known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD). “She said in her 30 years of teaching, he was only the second or third child she had so quickly recognized as having ADHD,” recalls Stevenson. “Essentially, she was sending out the message that it was something she doesn’t throw out frequently or lightly.”

Early Symptoms of ADHD in Children

Like Jacob, many children who are later diagnosed with ADHD show signs of hyperactivity or other red flags from the time they are very young, experts say. Parents may recall the symptoms of ADHD to be excessive for the developmental age of their child.

Some mothers say they remember their hyperactive children kicking in the womb more vigorously than their other children, says Walt Karniski, MD, a developmental pediatrician and executive director at Tampa Day School, which specializes in educational services for children with ADHD. Although the fetal kicker and colicky baby theories have never been substantiated, it is clear that children with ADHD often show signs early in life.

To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child must have displayed symptoms for at least six months and those symptoms must have started prior to age five. “If a child had ADHD at age five, he also had it at age four, and anyone who has ADHD at four had it age three, though it may not have been manifested,” says Karniski. Often the first suspicions of ADHD arise when children begin preschool and have to be in a structured environment for the first time, he says. As they progresses through school, other signs of the disorder may become evident. The diagnosis also requires that the symptoms be present in several settings.

ADHD in the Toddler and Preschool Years

No one knows what causes ADHD but structural and functional imbalances in the brain are believed to play a role. Children may show signs of this imbalance early in life. They may be slow to walk and have poor balance because their eyes don’t work well together, says Robert J. Melillo, author of Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders (Perigee Trade, 2009).

Toddlers and preschoolers may be unable to sit still, follow even simple directions, or control impulses. They may become angry for no reason and hit their peers or siblings. They tend to be impatient, breaking in line on the playground, or interrupting others when they are talking or playing. They may move constantly, jump from one activity to another, and have a high level of energy and a low sense of danger (and perhaps a high threshold for pain). When shopping, they may refuse to sit in the shopping cart or stroller; they may take items from the shelves and open them or throw tantrums if you don’t buy something they want.

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