Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most extensively studied behavior disorders that begin in childhood. Thousands of articles and books have been published on the subject. There are a number of reasons this disorder is of such interest to researchers and clinicians. The two primary reasons are, first, that ADHD is a relatively common disorder of childhood, and second, that there are numerous problems associated with ADHD, including lower levels of intellectual and academic performance and higher levels of aggressive and defiant behavior. (Although ADHD usually persists into adulthood, it is most commonly regarded as a childhood disorder.)

In national and international studies of childhood emotional and behavioral disorders, ADHD has been found to be relatively common among children. Although prevalence estimates range from 1 percent to 20 percent, most researchers agree that between 3 percent and 7 percent of children could be diagnosed as having ADHD. The revised fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000, describes the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. In order to receive the diagnosis of ADHD according to DSM-IV-TR, a child must show abnormally high levels of inattention, hyper-activity-impulsivity, or both when compared with peers of the same age. The DSM-IV-TR lists two sets of behavioral symptoms characteristic of ADHD. The first list contains nine symptoms of inattention such as "often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities," while the second list contains nine symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity such as "often talks excessively" and "often has difficulty awaiting turn." In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, a child must exhibit six to nine symptoms from at least one of the lists. Although many of these behaviors are quite common for most children at some point in their lives, the important point to consider in the diag nosis of ADHD is that these behaviors must be in excess of the levels of behaviors most frequently exhibited by children of that age and that the behaviors must cause functional impairment in at least two settings (for instance, at home and at school). Additionally, it is expected that these behaviors have been excessive for at least six months and that some of the problem behaviors were present by the time the child was seven years old.

Boys tend to outnumber girls in the diagnosis of ADHD, with the male: female ratio estimated at 2:1 to 9:1, depending on the source. ADHD boys tend to be more aggressive and antisocial than ADHD girls, while girls are more likely to display inattentive symptoms of ADHD than boys.

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