ADHD Diagnosis

Diagnosing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adults and children is a complex process involving multiple assessments in various settings. If you suspect that you or your child has ADHD, consult a mental health specialist or your primary care physician.

Last Modified: January 18, 2023
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How Is ADHD Diagnosed?

Medical providers rely on a specific list of criteria to diagnose attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Most follow the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, known as DSM-5. The DSM-5 attempts to provide an inclusive set of guidelines to diagnose disorders across a wide range of demographics.

DSM-5 helps detect the minimum ADHD symptoms required for diagnosis. Physicians note the hallmark symptoms of ADHD, which are inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity. They also give a comprehensive evaluation to rule out any mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, that can cause issues similar to ADHD.

In addition to assessing behavioral symptoms of the patient, health care providers often interview people who interact with or care for someone who may have ADHD, including teachers, parents and other adults. These subjective observations can be an essential part of an ADHD diagnosis. Adults and children are evaluated based on different criteria.

Diagnosing ADHD in Children

In one study, the American Academy of Pediatricians observed that limited access to mental health services nationwide prevents many children from receiving an accurate ADHD diagnosis and proper treatment. It recommends a diagnostic procedure that involves practitioners spending enough time with the child, parents and stakeholders, such as teachers and other medical specialists. But it isn’t always easy to satisfy this requirement.

The APP recommends the following evidence-based approach for diagnosing ADHD in children and adolescents:
  • Visit a pediatrician or mental health specialist so they may examine your child for key ADHD symptoms, namely attention deficiency, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
  • Have a physician ascertain that your child’s symptoms satisfy the ADHD DSM-5 criteria in multiple major environments, such as home (social) and school.
  • Have a physician interview or receive reports from you, the parent or guardian, teachers or other mental health clinicians who have previously seen your child.
  • Allow the physician to run tests to rule out or detect any co-occurring (comorbid) behavioral or emotional conditions.

You must continuously monitor your child because ADHD is chronic, and symptoms often persist into adulthood.

Diagnosing ADHD in Adults

Making an accurate ADHD diagnosis for an adult can be challenging. ADHD is difficult to detect in adults with mild symptoms or those who compensate and excel in other areas. About 2.5% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD, but 60% of children diagnosed with the condition carry symptoms into adulthood.

Unfortunately, doctors don’t always detect the condition when someone is younger or may misdiagnose them with another issue with similar characteristics. Overdiagnosis, however, can occur in both adults and children. Men have higher rates of ADHD diagnosis. Gender differences in both prevalence and symptom profile are a continuing topic of research.

There are several ADHD diagnostic tests for adults. These include the adult ADHD self-rating scale, the Wender Utah Rating Scale (for diagnosing ADHD that could have been present in childhood) and the ADHD DSM-5 criteria.

As part of a typical ADHD test for adults, doctors interview family members for background on their loved one and their everyday life. They also gather as much information as possible about their condition in multiple settings — at work, at home and in social settings with friends and family.

DSM Criteria for Diagnosing ADHD

The DSM criteria addresses inattentiveness, hyperactivity/impulsiveness or both. You must have experienced these symptoms for the previous six months or longer in at least two settings, such as school or work and church or with family, to receive a positive ADHD diagnosis.

At least five ADHD symptoms are necessary to satisfy the DSM diagnostic method for those ages 17 and older. Younger people must display at least six symptoms for diagnosis. Most would have experienced several attention/hyperactivity problems before age 12.

To avoid a misdiagnosis, your doctor must determine that no other disorder can better explain the emotional or behavioral issues.

Inattentive ADHD

To meet the criteria for inattentive ADHD, you (or your child) must not be able to maintain focus in some aspects of everyday life.

Symptoms include:
  • Difficulty listening.
  • Easily distracted with trivial factors from tasks at hand.
  • Forgetting daily tasks.
  • Frequently not completing schoolwork or homework.
  • Inability to focus on details/consistently making careless mistakes on tests and assignments.
  • Short attention span.
  • Misplacing essential items.
  • Procrastinating activities requiring a high level of attention.

However, patients with inattentive ADHD don’t have predominantly hyperactive or impulsive tendencies.

Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD

Hyperactive-impulsive ADHD causes uncontrollable restlessness that can inhibit your ability to learn, develop and succeed.

Hyperactivity symptoms include:
  • Excessively talking.
  • Fidgeting with hands or feet.
  • Inability to remain seated in a classroom setting.
  • Being noisy or shouting during otherwise calm or quiet play or leisure activities.
  • “On-the-go” actions.
  • Wriggling when seated.
Impulsive ADHD patients often have the following behavioral tendencies:
  • Blurting out responses before questions are completed.
  • Impulsively interrupting or intruding into conversations/social activities.
  • Lack of patience in lines or waiting rooms.

This type of ADHD diagnosis doesn’t include strong outward signs of inattentiveness.

Combined ADHD

No two people have the same severity and combination of ADHD symptoms. Under the DSM criteria, you will only receive a combined ADHD diagnosis if you show sufficient inattentiveness and hyperactivity/impulsivity characteristics.

For example, assume your behavior meets the criteria for inattentive ADHD but not a hyperactive/impulsive classification. Despite having mild impulsive tendencies, your doctor likely would categorize you as predominantly inattentive (rather than a combined ADHD patient). The reverse may also be true.

Treatment After an ADHD Diagnosis

Symptoms of attention deficit, hyperactivity and impulsivity are treatable in patients across all age groups. If an ADHD assessment returns a positive diagnosis, your doctor may recommend a stimulant such as Adderall or methylphenidate (Ritalin).

Nonstimulants, including Strattera and guanfacine, may provide moderate symptom improvements and are excellent for children with ADHD and adults looking to minimize the risk of drug dependence. Besides ADHD medication, pediatricians may prescribe parent training in behavior management and other behavioral/mental health therapy for children.

When to Seek an ADHD Evaluation

Clinicians suggest that it’s important to consider whether behaviors actually cause distress or decrease desired performance levels. Forgetting appointments, misplacing pens or keys and finding your mind wandering in class or during Zoom meetings can happen to most people. When disorganization, fidgeting or other ADHD symptoms inhibit functioning or impede objectives, it can help to speak with a clinician.

An ADHD assessment with a clinician can help determine whether some behaviors are simply variants on the continuum or in fact are signs of ADHD.

If you do receive an ADHD diagnosis, discuss your best and safest ADHD treatment options with your doctor. Ask about resources available to help you or your child, including parent training, therapy and accommodations at school or work.

Challenges of Diagnosing ADHD

ADHD symptoms can be subjective, making it harder to diagnose accurately, especially when using ambiguous or incomplete diagnostic approaches. Unfortunately, these challenges may lead to ADHD overdiagnoses.

However, ADHD test results are becoming more reliable as more practitioners adopt current diagnostic guidelines. Additionally, doctors spend more time evaluating patients and increasingly involve parents, family members, teachers and peers in the evaluation process.

Greater use of the recommended ADHD screening tools and multimodal tests helps minimize the subjectivity of test results.

Finding an ADHD Specialist

Start with your primary care provider or pediatrician when seeking an ADHD diagnosis. You can request a referral to a mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, for comprehensive testing.

Getting your child proper evaluation and treatment for ADHD often entails finding a therapist certified in parent training. While you don’t need a neurologist to test for ADHD, you can see one to rule out other issues, such as seizures and sleep problems. A visit to an optometrist or ophthalmologist can rule out vision problems that can produce behaviors that mimic ADHD.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.