A growing number of young children are being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and increasingly parents are on the front lines of identifying early symptoms, according to a new study.
A third of children with ADHD are diagnosed under the age of 6, and in the vast majority of ADHD diagnoses, family members are the first to identify signs of the disorder, according to the study, published in the National Health Statistics Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers released the findings after examining information from 2,976 families who had children with ADHD.
The number of diagnosed cases of the disorder have shot up in recent years, rising 42 percent from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012, according to the study.
Researchers found that as rates of ADHD went up, those close to the children, including parents, teachers and other caretakers, played a key role in diagnosis.
“We did see that in the vast majority of cases a family member of some kind was the first to express concern for behavior or performance,” explained Susanna Visser, the lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. She said family members who saw signs of ADHD could then, “really [communicate] that to doctors.”
In approximately 64 percent of cases, a family member was the first to show concern about a child’s behavior.
Visser and her team also found that a third of children were under the age of 6 when diagnosed and she told ABC News that new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 may have helped spur those new diagnoses.
“In general, once the symptoms start to cause impairment, the child and family can benefit from treatment,” Visser said on the benefits of early diagnosis. “For kids under 6, behavior therapy can benefit.”
Dr. Francisco Castellanos, a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, said he was gratified to hear about the new numbers and thought that the study showed progress in appropriately diagnosing children with the disorder.
Castellanos, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were “fair” and that it was clear doctors are taking pains to accurately diagnose patients.
Castellanos said the study showed parents are talking to their pediatricians and that those doctors are taking the ADHD symptoms seriously. He said he was especially happy to see that children getting diagnosed under the age of 6 are generally seeing more specialists before their diagnosis.
“The clinicians are being more judicious, more deliberate and [referring] them to child psychiatrist,” he said.
Castellanos said he suspects the sharp increase seen in recent years is a reflection of increased awareness and will level off soon.
“There used to be a real sense of ‘Let's wait it out, it’s going to go away,’” Castellano said of children with ADHD behaviors. “I think that’s pretty much no longer around. That’s why we see a large increase in overall prevalence. I can’t imagine there’s going to continue to be the same increase" in the future.