ADHD as we know it today has changed over the years, but its understanding began as early as the late 1700s with the concept of children who struggled with abnormal inattention.

ADHD, short for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a mental health condition that involves symptoms such as having difficulty with organization, being easily distracted and struggling with forgetfulness. Individuals with ADHD may also display symptoms like talking excessively, fidgeting constantly and having difficulty staying seated. While ADHD is recognized today, it has not always been this way. A brief history of ADHD shows the development of the understanding of this disorder.

ADHD Timeline

An ADHD timeline shows that the understanding of this condition dates back to the late 1700s, when Sir Alexander Crichton described abnormal inattention, arguing that the condition could make education difficult. He also asserted that abnormal inattention generally did not impede all education and that it tends to diminish as a person grows older.

Early 1900s: ADHD Is First Identified

While Sir Alexander Crichton began to describe ADHD in the late 1700s, it wasn’t until much later that the condition was first officially identified. Researchers state that in 1902, Sir George Still, a British pediatrician, was responsible for the first scientific identification of ADHD. He described it as a deficit in moral control that occurred without any intellectual impairments and without physical disease. After Still’s contributions to the understanding of ADHD, the recognition of the condition continued to develop.

1930s: FDA Approval of Benzedrine

Dr. Charles Bradley discovered in 1937 that stimulants were effective for treating behavioral disorders in children. He accidentally discovered that benzedrine was useful for this purpose when attempting to treat children with headaches. While the benzedrine did not relieve headaches, it created a marked improvement in both behavior and academic performance and also seemed to subdue some children. With this discovery, benzedrine, while no longer in use today, became the first stimulant utilized in ADHD treatment.

1954: The Introduction of Ritalin

Ritalin for ADHD was introduced in the middle of the 1950s. Leandro Panizzon first created the drug in 1944, but it was not until 1954 that Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceutical Company marketed the drug as Ritalin. Known by its generic name, methylphenidate, Ritalin is often regarded as the most effective and popular ADHD medication on the market today.

1968: DSM-II Includes Hyperkinetic Impulse Disorder

In the late 1950s, experts regarded hyperactivity as an indication of brain damage and viewed it as being linked to a syndrome they referred to as hyperkinetic impulse disorder. The syndrome was said to involve a limited attention span, difficulty with concentration and displays of impulsivity. Building upon this theory, in 1968, the second publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) included a disorder called “Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood.” Symptoms like hyperactivity, distractibility and short attention span characterized this condition.

1980: DSM-III Changes Name to ADD

In 1980, the American Psychological Association published a third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which changed the name of the diagnosis to attention deficit disorder (ADD), based upon expert opinion that attentional difficulties were the most prominent feature of this condition. The DSM-III stipulated that ADD could occur either alongside hyperactivity or without it.

1987: Revised DSM-III Changes Name to ADHD

In 1987, the American Psychological Association altered its stance again with a revised publication of the DSM-III. This publication changed the diagnosis to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and included a list of symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. There was a cutoff in place to establish if diagnostic criteria were met.

1994: DSM-IV Established 3 Subtypes of ADHD

With the fourth publication of the DSM in 1994, the American Psychological Association created three subtypes of ADHD. These included the following: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive and combined. These subtypes did not change with the revised fourth edition in 2000.

1990s: Rise in Number of ADHD Diagnoses

Beginning in the late 1990s, there was an upsurge in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD. During this same period, the number of approved medications for the treatment of ADHD also began to climb.

2002: Strattera Approved for ADHD

Strattera, the first non-stimulant medication used to treat ADHD, was approved by the FDA in 2002. This medication, while useful for treating ADHD, is typically considered to be less effective than stimulants, but tends to produce fewer side effects.

ADHD Today

Today, ADHD tends to be a relatively common diagnosis among children. Current research on ADHD shows that about 5% of children are diagnosed with the condition. In addition, about 6.1 million children between the ages of 2 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives as of 2016, up from 4.4 million in 2003. The research also shows that about two-thirds of children with an ADHD diagnosis also have a co-occurring mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or Tourette Syndrome.

ADHD news also shows that:

  • 62% of children with ADHD take medication
  • 47% of children with ADHD receive behavioral treatment, such as therapy
  • Medication use is most common among children aged 6–11, of whom 69% take medication
  • Behavioral treatment is most common among children aged 2–5, at 60%

If you or a loved one is living with ADHD and a co-occurring substance use disorder, The Recovery Village has locations around the country and offers comprehensive treatment services to address both mental health concerns and addiction. Reach out to one of our admissions professionals today to begin the journey toward recovery.

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Editor – Rob Alston
Rob Alston has traveled around Australia, Japan, Europe, and America as a writer and editor for industries including personal wellness and recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “ADHD throughout the years.” August 27, 2019. Accessed September 29, 2019.

Cleveland Clinic. “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder[…]p; other ADHD drugs.” July 18, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Data and statistics about ADHD.” August 27, 2019. Accessed September 29, 2019.

Lange, Klaus, et at. “The history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, December 2010. Accessed October 25, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.