Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that begins in childhood and can persist into adulthood.
ADHD symptoms can significantly impact a person’s quality of life if left unmanaged. Getting an accurate diagnosis is an important first step in treating ADHD. With an official diagnosis from a mental health professional, individuals with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can better understand the source of their struggles. A diagnosis also opens doors to access evidence-based treatments, medication, academic accommodations, workplace support and more. Knowing one’s Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder subtype and specific symptom presentation can help guide appropriate treatment options as well. Moreover, an Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis can provide validation and reassurance for those who have coped with unexplained symptoms for years. Overall, getting properly diagnosed with ADHD provides the knowledge and tools needed to manage symptoms and thrive.
Symptoms of ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is defined by a continuous pattern of difficulty paying attention, excessive activity, and acting without thinking. This pattern negatively impacts normal day-to-day functioning and maturation. The key symptoms include:
- Difficulty focusing and staying on task
- Appearing forgetful or easily distracted
- Struggling to follow instructions and finish tasks
- Disorganization and problems managing time
- Avoiding tasks that require sustained focus
- Fidgeting, squirming or seeming restless
- Excessive talking
- Difficulty staying seated when expected
- Constantly in motion or “on the go”
- Impulsive physical actions
- Difficulty waiting for a turn or in lines
- Interrupting conversations or intruding on others
- Engaging in risk-taking behaviors
- Blurting out answers before questions are complete
- Difficulty thinking before acting
The symptoms must be chronic and persistent, not occasional, to warrant an Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. Additionally, the behaviors must significantly impact daily life and functioning.
Types of ADHD
There are three main types of ADHD:
People with predominantly inattentive Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder often have trouble focusing, paying attention, organizing, and completing tasks. They may appear forgetful or absent-minded and often get distracted easily. Hyperactivity is not a significant characteristic.
People with predominantly hyperactive/impulsive Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder tend to be very active and have trouble controlling impulses. They often fidget, talk excessively, interrupt others, and have a hard time sitting still. Paying attention is not their primary problem.
People with this type exhibit a combination of inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms. This is the most common type of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These individuals have significant difficulties with inattention, distraction, organization, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.
The official diagnostic criteria for ADHD are laid out in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
To receive a diagnosis of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the following criteria must be met:
There must have been multiple symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity present before the age of 12. These symptoms need to be more severe and persistent than is typically observed at the same developmental stage.
The symptoms need to be evident in at least two different environments, such as a school and a home setting. There must be clear evidence the symptoms interfere with or reduce the quality of functioning socially, academically, or occupationally.
The symptoms cannot occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, and are not better explained by another mental disorder.
So in summary, the core diagnostic criteria focus on onset of symptoms before age 12, presence of symptoms across multiple settings, and clear impairment in functioning due to the symptoms. The diagnosis needs to rule out other potential explanations as well. Meeting these criteria indicates a diagnosis of ADHD according to DSM-5 guidelines.
Getting an accurate diagnosis is an important first step in managing Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Here are some key steps in getting diagnosed:
See your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist
Your primary care physician can provide an initial assessment and refer you to a psychiatrist for a full evaluation if needed. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions like Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Make sure to choose a psychiatrist who has expertise with ADHD.
The psychiatrist will conduct detailed interviews with you and potentially also family members to learn about your symptoms and how long you’ve had them. They will ask about your childhood history as ADHD symptoms often appear at a young age. Be prepared to provide lots of details about how ADHD affects your daily life.
Fill out behavior checklists
You and your loved ones may be given standardized behavior checklists to gauge the severity of your symptoms and compare them to established diagnostic criteria. Examples include the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale and the Conners’ Adult ADHD Rating Scales. The psychiatrist reviews the checklists along with the interviews to inform the diagnosis.
Consider neuropsychological testing
The psychiatrist may recommend neuropsychological testing, which assesses attention span, memory, problem solving, and other thinking skills affected by ADHD. A neuropsychologist will administer tests and can provide supporting documentation for the diagnosis.
Review medical and school records
Providing past medical records, report cards, or other documentation of academic and behavioral issues can assist with diagnosing ADHD that has persisted since childhood.
The psychiatrist pieces together all of this information to determine if your symptoms match the criteria for ADHD specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). An accurate diagnosis is important before moving forward with treatment options for ADHD.
Getting an accurate diagnosis of ADHD in children requires a comprehensive evaluation by a licensed mental health professional, such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist. There are several key components to diagnosing ADHD in kids:
Interviews with parents, teachers, etc. – The doctor will conduct interviews with the child’s parents, teachers and other important adults in their life. These interviews are crucial to understand how the symptoms impact the child’s behavior at home and school. The doctor will ask about the child’s symptoms, when they started, severity, impact on daily life, etc.
Behavior checklists – Rating scales such as the Conners 3 and Vanderbilt ADHD Diagnostic Teacher Rating Scale are used. Parents, teachers, and the child (if old enough) fill out checklists based on the child’s behavior over the previous 6 months. This provides objective data to complement the interviews.
Neuropsych testing – Many clinicians will conduct tests to assess neurocognitive functioning like memory, attention, problem-solving, etc. These tests can help pinpoint deficits related to ADHD vs. other conditions.
Medical exam – A medical exam may be done to rule out any underlying physical conditions causing symptoms.
Observation – The doctor will likely want to directly observe the child’s behavior in the office to look for hyperactivity, impulsivity, or other ADHD signs.
Getting an accurate diagnosis requires collaborating with parents and teachers who know the child well in different settings over time. While costly and time-consuming, a thorough evaluation is important to ensure the right treatment plan for the child’s needs.
Diagnosing ADHD in adults can be challenging, as symptoms may present differently than in childhood. The diagnostic process focuses on identifying current symptoms that impair functioning.
Adults seeking an evaluation will be asked to describe their symptoms in detail. This includes any problems with attention, concentration, organization, restlessness or hyperactivity they experience. Adults may complain of chronic lateness, forgetfulness, poor time management, impulsiveness or difficulty completing tasks. The doctor will inquire about the onset and duration of symptoms.
Interviews with Loved Ones
Input from spouses, partners and close family members can provide critical insight. Oftentimes loved ones are more aware of the ADHD symptoms than the patient themselves. They may describe behaviors like constantly losing things, difficulty listening, mood swings or temper outbursts. This collateral data helps doctors assess impairment in everyday functional domains.
Formal assessment involves a battery of tests measuring attention, impulse control, memory and problem solving. There are no physical or biological tests that can diagnose ADHD definitively. However, testing can compare the patient’s executive functioning against established benchmarks to detect any deficits. This quantitative data combined with clinical evaluation leads to a diagnostic determination.
Importance of Diagnosis
Getting properly diagnosed with ADHD is crucial for several reasons:
Access to treatment. Once diagnosed, you become eligible for medications and therapies that can help manage ADHD symptoms. Medications like stimulants and SNRIs have been shown effective for many patients. Behavioral therapies help develop coping skills. Without a diagnosis, these treatments are difficult if not impossible to obtain.
Better understanding. An accurate diagnosis provides validation and explanation for behaviors you may have struggled with for years. Understanding the root causes of these behaviors allows you to be kinder to yourself. You can also educate family and friends to foster acceptance and support.
Accommodations at school/work. With an official diagnosis, you can request special accommodations to help you succeed in academics or your career. These may include extra time on tests, reduced distractions, or more frequent breaks. Accommodations level the playing field and remove barriers to achievement.
Getting a thorough evaluation and professional diagnosis is essential for anyone experiencing the symptoms and struggles of ADHD. It provides clarity, hope, and access to the tools needed to manage challenges. You deserve to get the help that allows you to thrive.
There are several evidence-based treatment options for managing ADHD symptoms and improving daily functioning. The most common treatments include:
- Stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall) are commonly prescribed medications for ADHD. They help increase focus and concentration in the brain.
- Non-stimulants like atomoxetine (Strattera), clonidine, and guanfacine are alternatives for those who can’t tolerate stimulants or need additional treatment.
- Medication should be carefully monitored by a doctor to find the optimal dosage with minimal side effects.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients identify negative thought and behavior patterns and develop coping strategies. CBT can teach time management, organization, and planning skills.
- Family therapy provides support and psychoeducation for family members. It teaches effective communication strategies and ways to assist their loved one with ADHD.
- ADHD coaches help clients develop life skills like planning, prioritizing, time management, and organization. Coaching provides structure, guidance, and accountability.
- Coaching is personalized to each client’s challenges to improve productivity and reach goals. It can be especially useful for adults with ADHD.
- Workplace accommodations like noise-cancelling headphones, frequent breaks, or working in a private office can help minimize distractions.
- Students can get accommodations like extended time for assignments, seating near the teacher, and reduced workload.
- Assistive technology like digital calendars, apps, voice recorders and text readers can also be helpful.
After being diagnosed with ADHD, it is important to seek out support resources to help manage symptoms and thrive with ADHD. There are many excellent organizations, online forums, therapies, and coaching services available.
Some key support resources to consider include:
CHADD – This is a national nonprofit organization providing education, advocacy and support for individuals with ADHD. They offer information, resources, and help connecting with others affected by ADHD through local chapters and support groups. Their website has a wealth of information at chadd.org.
Online Forums – Connecting with others through online forums can provide great support. Psych Central’s ADHD peer support forum at forums.psychcentral.com is an excellent option with an active community.
Therapy – Working with a therapist who specializes in ADHD can help develop coping skills and strategies. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to address ADHD symptoms. Finding a therapist experienced in ADHD treatment is recommended.
Coaching – ADHD coaches can provide personalized support with areas like managing time, organization, achieving goals and more. Coaching is solution-focused and helps identify practical strategies tailored to an individual’s needs. The ADDCA and ADD Coaching Academy are resources for finding certified ADHD coaches.
Reaching out for support and connecting with others makes a big difference in successfully managing ADHD. These resources provide specialized support and empower those diagnosed with ADHD.