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Finding Out What the Public Really Thinks About ADHD

ADHDers tend to be well aware that public understanding of ADHD is far from where we’d like it to be. That fact is inescapable if you try to talk to people about ADHD, or sometimes even if you just open a newspaper and find a story questioning ADHD as a diagnosis.

But how big exactly is the gap between the modern, evidence-based view of ADHD and what the wider population thinks about the disorder? It would be nice to be able to put a number on that ignorance, and to an extent that’s what a recent survey has done.

In the survey, researchers in Germany interviewed 1,008 people. These people were presented short descriptions of children or adults displaying symptoms of ADHD, and asked questions about the behaviors in those descriptions. They were also asked some questions about their familiarity with ADHD.

SurveyI’ll start with the good news. Awareness around ADHD could be worse. Ninety percent of the survey participants had heard of ADHD, and about three-quarters considered it a “real disorder.” That’s not ideal, but like I said, it’s not as bad as it could be.

OK, done celebrating? The good news pretty much stops there.

When it came to actually spotting ADHD symptoms, people didn’t do very well. In the descriptions of children and adults with ADHD, about half of the survey takers said the behaviors were symptomatic of a mental illness, and fewer still were able to identify that mental illness as ADHD.

People were then asked what the cause of the behaviors described might be. For children, the causes endorsed by the most people were “too much TV or internet” and “lack of parental affection,” each chosen by 58 percent of respondents. For adults, “stressful life event” was the most commonly selected cause, at 56 percent.

“Chemical imbalance of the brain” was only the tenth most endorsed cause for children (39 percent), and “brain disease” was one of the least endorsed reasons that children might display these symptoms.

When people were asked about adults with ADHD, the picture was a little better. “Chemical imbalance of the brain” was tied in second place, along with “pressure to perform” and “problems with parents or friends / partner or family” (49 percent).

It’s worth thinking about what these results mean practically. If you have a child with ADHD, the average adult will tend to assume that your child’s symptoms come from watching too much TV and having unaffectionate parents.

If you’re an adult with ADHD, you’ll get a little more sympathy, with people chalking your symptoms up to stressful life events. But many people still won’t recognize these symptoms for what they are, and actually, it turns out that 48 percent of people will still assume that you didn’t get enough “parental affection” or that you came from a “broken home.”

At this point, it likely won’t come as a shock that people tended to be clueless about how to treat ADHD. Only about one in every 20 people thought stimulants were an appropriate treatment for the ADHD symptoms described, either for children or adults.

Approximately two-thirds recommended psychotherapy, which isn’t wrong – psychotherapy is helpful for people with ADHD, although not because it’ll magically make ADHD symptoms go away. But the most commonly recommended treatment was “concentration and memory training.”

My guess is that most people answering this survey didn’t have a specific idea of what that training would entail. Basically, choosing this answer was the closest they could get to just telling people with ADHD “you need to concentrate more.”

It’s worth pointing out that while the survey participants were selected to be representative of the wider population, these answers are still specific to the people who took this survey. Public awareness around ADHD might be better or worse in other countries, or in specific groups of people.

Generally, though, these results show what kind of environment ADHDers are dealing with. When we go out into the world, we have to cope not only with our symptoms themselves but with widespread ignorance about what those symptoms represent.

None of that will come as a shock to people with ADHD. And I don’t find the results of this survey overly dispiriting because they’re basically telling me what I already know. But I do think it’s good to have some concrete numbers that tell us just how much work in raising ADHD awareness we have left to do.

Image: Flickr/Reputation Tempe

Finding Out What the Public Really Thinks About ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Finding Out What the Public Really Thinks About ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Jul 2019
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