UK children less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than US youngsters

Children are less likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the UK than in the US, according to research using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

Researchers at the University of Exeter found that 1.5 per cent of children in the UK were diagnosed with ADHD between ages 6 and 8. In the US the figure is thought to be closer to 6 per cent.

Dr Ginny Russell, from the University of Exeter, said the findings could indicate that doctors in the UK are less likely to use the ADHD label than their US counterparts.

She said: “This difference may be a result of cultural factors, for example more stringent criteria for diagnosing ADHD are used in the UK, or it may be that parental concerns over using drugs such as Ritalin to treat younger patients mean that they resist diagnosis for their children.”

“It is important to identify diagnostic trends and the reasons behind them, as various criteria in different cultural contexts may mean that children are missing out on health services – the diagnostic label may determine the support families receive. Equally, it is important that children are not over-diagnosed.”

Although ADHD is thought to be the most common childhood disorder, the Exeter study suggests that autism diagnosis is increasing. The researchers found that almost 2 per cent of MCS children aged 6 to 8 had been identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Dr Russell notes that questions remain over whether the rise in ASD diagnoses is due to changing diagnostic criteria and increased awareness.

She said: “Increasing awareness of autism, the de-stigmatisation of ASD, and diagnosis of children at a younger age may all be contributing towards the label of ASD being used increasingly in the UK.”

Dr Russell is currently examining data from two UK birth cohort studies to establish whether there has been an increase in symptoms, or simply a rise in reporting and diagnosis. “It is important to establish if there is a real increase in children with symptoms because we can then try to discover the environmental or social factors behind the rise in order to take preventive measures,” she said.

‘Prevalence of Parent-Reported ASD and ADHD in the UK: Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study’, by Ginny Russell, Lauren R. Rodgers, Obioha C. Ukoumunne and Tamsin Ford, was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in May 2013.