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ADHD in Children Health Center

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Understanding ADHD and the Creative Child

Creativity and ADHD share similar traits; now, some experts weigh in on how frequently the two are confused.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Frankie was a daydreamer, so much so that he continually frustrated teachers when he just couldn't concentrate on what they said. Both Sam and Virginia were considered "problem" kids as well, talking so incessantly in school they frequently disrupted the class.

Little Tommy had so much energy he was often asked to actually leave the room, while Nicky gave both his teachers and his parents cause for great concern with impulsive, oftentimes dangerous behaviors.

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In many circles, these children would likely be diagnosed with ADHD -- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a neurologically based diagnosis hallmarked by a lack of attention, an abundance of misused energy and random, impulsive behavior, all of which can severely limit a child's ability to learn.

But that diagnosis might be a big mistake. The reason: The childhood behaviors described above were exhibited by some of the brightest, most creative minds of our time: architect Frank Lloyd Wright, writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf, and inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Indeed, while many experts automatically link overexcited, impulsive, and even disruptive behavior to ADHD, there are some who believe this same conduct may simply be the earmarks of profound creativity looking for a way to flourish.

"People who don't understand intelligence and giftedness and creativity think that if you're smart you ought to know how to behave, and if you don't behave you're not smart -- or you have something wrong with you -- but that couldn't be further from the truth," says Minnesota child psychologist Deborah Ruf, PhD, National Gifted Children's Coordinator for American Mensa and author of the book Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind.

Ruf tells WebMD that as a result, an alarming number of children who are simply creative, gifted individuals are mistakenly being diagnosed with ADHD.

"The numbers are just astounding -- you have to assume that something is amiss here," says Ruf.

Clearly, creativity and ADHD are not the same, but they do have some behaviors in common, derived mostly from what San Diego child development expert Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, calls a "common shared pathway," or similar neurological chemistry, within the brain itself.

"This means the behaviors can manifest with a similar appearance, but there are very different reasons behind their cause," says Palladino, author of Dreamers, Discovers, and Dynamos: How to Help the Child Who Is Bright, Bored and Having Problems in School.

As such, many experts say the potential to confuse the two is not only possible but probable, and that the probability rises when the diagnosis is made by someone not familiar with the creative mind.

"Really comprehensive evaluations of children with ADHD are rarely done. Many parents go to a pediatrician and describe their child's school behavior, and based on that, a diagnosis of ADHD is made," says Bonnie Cramond, PhD, associate professor and director of the Torrance Center for Creative Study at the University of Georgia. Most of the time, she says, the child is immediately put on medication without any further evaluation.

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