Help your child by understanding the different types of ADHD

Posted on 30 August 2017

It’s vital that parents know the difference between the three types of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and that they don’t jump to conclusions when it comes to their child’s behaviour. Learn more about this complex condition so you can make informed decisions.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioural disorder in children, and its prevalence is increasing.

‘The prevalence is estimated at 8 to 11% in the child/adolescent population,’ says Dr Hannelie Potgieter, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Potchefstroom. ‘The increase in prevalence is due to increased awareness, leading to increased identification. At the same time though, over-diagnosis of children who don’t fit the criteria of ADHD also skews the reported prevalence.’

As ADHD is such a complex condition, it can confuse concerned parents. For example, did you know your child can have ADHD with hyperactivity, but also without hyperactivity? And did you know that even if your child is hyperactive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ADHD?

‘It’s crucial that parents are aware of the symptoms of ADHD but that they always seek an expert’s opinion before labelling their child,’ cautions Dr Potgieter.

The 3 different types of ADHD

  1. Hyperactivity/impulsivity: The main symptoms are hyperactivity and impulsivity. Hyperactivity means to be abnormally active. Impulsivity means acting with little thought about the consequences of your actions. ‘Examples of symptoms include talking excessively, fidgeting with hands and feet, and difficulty awaiting his/her turn,’ explains Dr Potgieter.
  2. Inattentive type: Here the child has a reduced ability to focus his/her attention and is slower in their processing of information. They don’t display signs of hyperactivity. ‘These kids are often referred to as dreamers. They are easily distracted, forgetful, make careless mistakes and seem not to pay attention,’ says Dr Potgieter.
  3. Combined type: Here the child’s symptoms don’t fit one of the other categories but the symptoms overlap.

ADHD has been broken down into three types because all patients don’t fit into the same box, explains Dr Potgieter. ‘It’s diagnostically better to differentiate between the types, and although there might be minor differences in managing the different types, the overall approach is the same.’

The importance of a correct diagnosis

Depending on the neurodevelopmental stage of a child, a symptom such as hyperactivity can, in fact, be an age-appropriate symptom and doesn’t mean your child has ADHD, says Dr Potgieter.

‘Other medical ailments can also cause some of the symptoms seen in ADHD,’ she explains. ‘For example, a child can have a primary mood disorder like anxiety that leads to hyperactivity. Some endocrine disorders like hypothyroidism can make a child appear “slow” or have poor concentration.’

Due to the wide variety of health problems that can affect a child’s behaviour, it’s important to go through a thorough diagnostic process with a doctor before coming to any conclusions. ‘It can be beneficial to get assessments from speech and occupational therapists, and psychologists too,’ adds Dr Potgieter.

The symptoms need to fulfill the below criteria before a diagnosis can be made:

  • Occur often
  • Be present in more than one setting (school and home, for example)
  • Persist for at least six months
  • Be present before the age of 12 years
  • Impair the child’s function in academic, social or occupational activities
  • Be abnormal for the developmental level of the child.

Once a child is diagnosed as having ADHD, the treatment will be individualised to fit the child’s specific needs.


  • UpToDate (evidence-based, physician-authored clinical decision support resource)
  • Rudolph’s Pediatrics, 22nd Edition: by Colin D. Rudolph, Abraham M. Rudolph, George E. Lister, Lewis First and Anne A. Gershon, 2011 (McGraw-Hill Education)

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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