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Study Finds Nearly 1 Million Kids Misdiagnosed with ADHD

By carolyncastiglia |

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 4.5 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2006.  Diagnostic rates increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006, so one can only imagine they have increased a bit since then.  The pharmaceutical industry stands to profit immensely off ADHD treatments; Healthline says in 2008, the ADHD pharmaceutical market was worth four billion dollars.

So what if I told you a new study out of Michigan State University suggests that nearly one million kids have been misdiagnosed with ADHD?  That fact alone might not surprise you, but I bet the reason will. 

Todd Elder, economist at MSU says, “Nearly 1 million children in the United States are potentially misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder simply because they are the youngest – and most immature – in their kindergarten class.”  He says the youngest members of a kindergarten class are “significantly more likely than their older classmates to be prescribed behavior-modifying stimulants such as Ritalin.”

Now I don’t feel so bad about wanting to hold my four-year-old daughter back.  But boys are diagnosed with ADHD much more frequently than girls.  And, curiously, the CDC reports that “ADHD diagnosis is significantly higher among non-Hispanic, primarily English-speaking, and insured children.”

Elder says that up to 500 million dollars are wasted annually on unnecessary medications, with at least 80 million of that amount covered by Medicaid.  More importantly, though, children are being fed drugs they don’t really need.  Elder stresses that the impact of long-term stimulant use in children is yet unknown.

But let’s get back to kindergarten kids, the focus of Elder’s study, to be published in the Journal of Health Economics.  Elder says, “ADHD diagnoses depend on a child’s age relative to classmates and the teacher’s perceptions of whether the child has symptoms.”  Meaning, “If a child is behaving poorly, if he’s inattentive, if he can’t sit still, it may simply be because he’s 5 and the other kids are 6.”

Is it wrong to simply say, “Duh?”  It strikes me as so troubling that teachers might have trouble taking that into account.  But that’s precisely why so many parents hold their children – especially boys – back from kindergarten until they’re 6 turning 7.  It’s a process called red-shirting, and it’s meant to give their children an advantage over the other smaller, younger kids.  Obviously, it’s working.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m reticent to send my 4-year-old to kindergarten, despite the fact that she’ll be 5 in October – well before New York State’s December 1 cutoff date.  But Elder found that “students born December 1 had much higher rates of ADHD than children born December 2.”  That’s because the students born on the 1st were the youngest in their grade and those on the 2nd the oldest.

Elder notes that a teacher’s assessment is not enough to diagnose a child with ADHD, but “their opinions are instrumental in decisions to send a child to be evaluated by a mental health professional.”  Kindergartners aren’t the only ones affected by this age gap; Elder found that when that same group of classmates reached the fifth and eighth grades, “the youngest were more than twice as likely to be prescribed stimulants.”

Photo: woodleywonderworks via Flickr

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About carolyncastiglia



Carolyn Castiglia is a New York-based comedian/writer wowing audiences with her stand-up and freestyle rap. She’s appeared in TONY, The NY Post, The Idiot’s Guide to Jokes and Life & Style. You can find Carolyn’s writing elsewhere online at and The Huffington Post. Read bio and latest posts → Read Carolyn's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Study Finds Nearly 1 Million Kids Misdiagnosed with ADHD

  1. goddess says:

    Not surprised – the dog [pharma] wags the tail [human guinea pigs] in the US on all sorts of drugs now.

  2. g8grl says:

    cool, I went to grad school with Todd Elder…good to see he’s doing good work.

  3. Brianne from Speakaboos says:

    Wow, today must be the day where everyone writes about ADHD. I think I’ve been reading similar articles here on StrollerDerby and other sites all day. ADHD is definitely one of those things that we all misdiagnose – whenever we see a hyper kid on the street we assume they must have ADD/ADHD. Ridiculous!

  4. Rosana says:

    Another consequence kids have to face from lazy parenting.

  5. Emily says:

    I have real ADHD and I cannot function adequately in a classroom environment without my medicine. My parents are very good and nice people and are not lazy or stupid or anything. ADHD is not a parenting disorder. It’s been around for a very long time and it’s just as real as Down’s Syndrome. Yes, there are probably some kids that were misdiagnosed with ADHD. But not every kid who has it is medicated in the first place, and not every kid who is diagnosed is misdiagnosed. And teachers in my opinion should be trained more thourghouly to recognize symptoms so this doesn’t happen as much. But you know what? Humans are human, and there has been, is, and always will be such a thing as human error. And if a kid is misdiagnosed, it will turn up when he or she takes medicine that will not help her. And if the doctor is good enough, like most doctors are, they will recognize it and take the kid off the medicine before any real (permanant) damage is done. And Rosana, It’s not always the parents. And it bothers me when you say that because you probably have no idea what it’s like to have a kid with ADHD, to parent a kid with ADHD, or to BE a kid with ADHD. And let me tell you, it’s hard. But it can be fixed. And to give you the benefit of the doubt, it can be the parents. But not often enough to make a generalization about it.

  6. Colleen says:

    I have an 8 year old that absolutely can not function at all, on any given day, with out the meds he takes. He was very hard since birth, escaped or was kicked out of every day care he went to(I have some stories here!), but we did not get a diagnosis for him until 2nd grade, age 7. When he takes his medicine, it is like magic. He becomes calm, smart and loving. He can control his body. He can focus his mind, raise his hand in class, and say something slowly and intelligently. I have spent the last year, observing this remarkable change in my son, despite the fact that I never wanted to have to put him on medication. The hope always is that the medicine is not needed when they are older, and have learned how to behave, and possibly control their own illness by learning techniques to manage their behavior. This is only a decision that can be properly made and diagnosed by many doctors, teachers, and parents over many years. It was not until 4 years after my son entered a school for kids with learning disabilities that he was finally diagnosed with ADHD. It usually starts out looking like autism or any type of spectrum disorder when the kids are very young, but as they mature, doctors, teachers and parents can come to see better what a child requires to function. In some cases, kids can grow out of behaviors by age 7, but when they don’t, and they can’t function in school with out the meds., what would you choose for your child? When your child must attend public schools, wouldn’t you want to give your child the chance to be normal, instead of being kicked out of the classroom daily? Modern medication for ADHD is truly wonderful and blessed in our family.

  7. Jen says:

    Emily, that was a really great comment – you said all of that with much more grace and thoughtfulness than I ever could.

  8. Rosana says:

    Emily, lazy parenting in many cases is the culprit of misdiagnosis, it does not mean that ADHD does not exist but I have seen parents take hyper kids to the doctor, looking for a medicine in the first place and purposely omitting information (of events at home) that will help the doctor determined if the kid has ADHD or if she/he is only reacting to her/his environment. At the same time, even if parents are completely honest with the doctor and the doctor diagnoses them with ADHD, as a parent looking out for your kid, it will be a lot more helpful to get a second or third opinion without disclosing the diagnosis already made by the other doctors. The fact that you have ADHD does not mean that misdiagnoses do not ocurr and the recurrence of misdiagnosis does not mean that ADHD is not real.

  9. Jacque says:

    I have to address the ‘redshirting’ remark. I am a kindergarten teacher and every year I face the task of trying to get parents who have very young kindergarten children (boys and girls) to wait a year. This has NOTHING to do with sports, but EVERYTHING to do with trying to help a child be as successful at school as they possibly can. Some summer birthday children will do fine because they’ve had all kinds of advantages, i.e., been read to nearly every day of their lives, taken to zoos, museums, parks, had play dates, have parents who truly work hard to be the best parents they can be (perhaps they don’t have to worry about just surviving and paying the rent). Kindergarten is no longer what most remember. It now has many standards to meet just like upper grades and for half-day programs half the time to do it in. There is little time in the day for recess or Choice (free play) Time. Most kindergartners these days will leave reading emergent to higher text. They will know 75-100 sight words. They will know math facts fluently to 5 or 6. In our attempt at higher and higher test scores, curriculum is pushed down to the very youngest and it is very possible that these misdiagnoses of ADHD are due to the constraints of NCLB and all that comes with it. When you tie federal money to test scores, we lose sight of what’s most important and it is the children who suffer the consequences. Many people do not recognize that little boys (and some girls) need to move, forcing them to sit still for long periods of time is not productive and invites misbehavior….hence that mistaken ADHD label.

  10. M says:

    Amazing! We teach our children at a young age that in order for you to be “happy”, “productive”, “accepted” you need to take a pill. And we wonder why there are so many drug addicts…

  11. Susan says:

    Although I support early testing to late testing in order to hopefully adequately address the fact that the later testing occurs (I was tested in diagnosed in my first year of college because I slipped through the cracks of smaller schools), I also don’t support testing between 5 and 7 because at that age, it can be a combination of factors. Parents should really wait until their child has been in school a couple of years and hold them back a year even if need be to make sure that the child is not only adequately to handle their first real grade, but to also be able to rule out as many other factors as possible. At that point, test them and try to rule out other conditions or find other comorbid conditions. But also realize that if a child can do well on an IQ test but not on other tests and is not achieving what they’re capable of, they are more likely to have ADHD than to not. However, these are not issues that have anything to do with whether a child will have ADHD: lazy parents (common misconception), television (another common misconception). Factors that DO contribute: genetics – if even just one parent has it, the child has a 75 percent chance of having it, food allergies/intolerances – including high fructose corn syrup, red dye 40, other food/drug/seasonal allergies, fast pacing now now now of television and other media. Here’s one obvious sign: The child can hyperfocus on something he/she is interested in, but if it’s something he/she isn’t interested in, they’re all over the place and inattentive. In some children, medication will be one of the biggest helps, the best one right now being Vyvanse since it doesn’t lead to addiction. In others behavior modication and dietary modifications. In still others, a combination of all the above. But parents, teachers, doctors, and students should all be cooperating in any testing and treatment.

  12. Babaloo says:

    It’s about time! I have known that ADHD was a fake diagnosis since the 1970′s when it was first talked about and called “hyperactivity”. What it should really be called is “Lazy Parents and Teachers Syndrome”.

    Instead of working with children, helping them, teaching them, understanding them, etc – lets give them powerful drugs that we don’t know the long term effects of, and childrens brains are still developing. What are the drugs really doing to them? After YEARS of research there is still nothing that suggests putting these kids on these powerful drugs affects them any differently than “normal” children – no evidence at all that these drugs improve intellectual ability. But we do know these drugs are sometimes deadly and addictive. And as stated in this blog, we know the pharmaceutical industry is making $4 billion from this diagnosis.

    Does no one find it strange that this “diagnosis” was unheard of before the 1980′s? Remember these are CHILDREN we are talking about. “Normal” adults will get restless when they are bored, will have trouble concentrating when they are tired or hungry, will lose interest in whatever they are doing if they can’t see any purpose in it. This is not rocket science. DUH, indeed! Anyone with half a brain knows it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect grade school kids to behave like college students – to sit still in close little rooms for hours at a time! When I was in school we had 2 half hours of recess and an hour of phys-ed every day. No “hyperactivity” problems – gee, I wonder why?

    Again, after 30-40 years of research there are still no real answers. There is no diagnostic test for ADHD, and no diagnostic standard within the mental health profession. It’s really not a diagnosis at all, it’s a label, a fad. It’s a way of identifying the problems of parents and teachers, not kids.

    I truly hope the University of Michigan study will lead to more studies, and this “diagnosis” will finally be proven a fake, a fad, and a label that is causing real children real harm.

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