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What Causes ADHD?

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Eileen S. Marzola, Ed.D.

Q: My 16-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 4. He also has diabetes and stutters. His sister has no health problems. He's very angry and wants to know "why me?" What is the current thinking about the origin of ADHD? He was a first baby. I had a normal pregnancy, and a prolonged labor. He suspects his father's marijuana use before he was born caused his problems.

A: Unfortunately, no one has determined a specific cause for ADHD. Most research suggests that in the majority of cases, something influenced the person's developing brain during the mother's early pregnancy. In about 50 percent of children with ADHD, the problems appear to run in the family. For the other half, the causes are much less clear. Studies of substance abuse during pregnancy indicate that as many as half of all babies of mothers who used crack cocaine during pregnancy show later evidence of ADHD, as well as other learning disabilities.

Although data on other drug use during pregnancy is not as complete, the pattern is similar. In addition, current evidence now shows that if the father was using drugs or alcohol at the time of conception, the genetic patterns of the sperm might be affected. This can also lead to later difficulties with the child. At this time, there is no known direct correlation between ADHD and long labor, but low APGAR scores that persist over minutes after birth appear to suggest a higher likelihood of learning problems later in life.

One thing we do know is that the brain of a child with ADHD is wired differently. ADHD is related to a neurochemical deficit and a specific neurotransmitter in specific areas of the brain. None of this, however, indicates that someone with ADHD cannot be a successful, productive adult. The anger that your son is feeling needs to be addressed, preferably by a professional psychologist or counselor who is very familiar with the needs of children with ADHD. It might also be helpful for your son to join a support group for teens. For example, some local CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders, 1-800-233-4050), LDA (Learning Disabilities Association, 1-888-300-6710) or IDA (International Dyslexia Association, 1-800-ABCD123) branches have groups just for teens.

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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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