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ADD / ADHD Tests and Diagnosis

Diagnosing Attention Deficit Disorder in Children and Adults

ADD / ADHD Diagnosis: Understanding the Process and the Difficulties

On their own, none of the symptoms of attention deficit disorder are abnormal. Most people feel scattered, unfocused, or distracted at times. Furthermore, the symptoms of ADD/ADHD are easy to confuse with other problems—including learning disabilities and emotional issues—that require totally different treatments. That’s why it’s important to see a mental health specialist to determine if the symptoms really point to ADD/ADHD.

Diagnosing ADD / ADHD: What you need to know

There is no single medical, physical, or other test for diagnosing ADD/ADHD. To determine if you or your child has ADD/ADHD, a doctor or other health professional will need to be involved, and you can expect him or her to use a number of different tools: a checklist of symptoms, answers to questions about past and present problems, or a medical exam to rule out other causes for symptoms.

Keep in mind that the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, such as concentration problems and hyperactivity, can be confused with other disorders and medical problems. Just because it looks like ADD/ADHD doesn’t mean it is, so getting a thorough assessment and diagnosis is important.

Making the ADD / ADHD diagnosis

ADD/ADHD looks different in every person, so there is a wide array of criteria—or measures for testing—to help health professionals reach a diagnosis. It is important to be open and honest with the specialist conducting your evaluation so that he or she can come to the most accurate conclusion.

Important factors in the diagnosis

To be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, you or your child must display a combination of strong ADD/ADHD hallmark symptoms, namely hyperactivity, impulsivity, or inattention. The mental health professional assessing the problem will also look at the following factors:

  • How severe are the symptoms? To be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, the symptoms must have a negative impact on you or your child’s life. In general, people who truly have ADD/ADHD have major problems in one or more areas of their life, such as their career, finances, or family responsibilities.
  • When did the symptoms start? Since ADD/ADHD starts in childhood, the doctor or therapist will look at how early the symptoms appeared. If you are an adult, can you trace the symptoms back to your childhood?
  • How long have the symptoms been bothering you or your child? Symptoms must have been going on for at least 6 months before ADD/ADHD can be diagnosed.
  • When and where do the symptoms appear? The symptoms of ADD/ADHD must be present in multiple settings, such as at home and school. If the symptoms only appear in one environment, it is unlikely that ADD/ADHD is to blame.

Finding a specialist who can diagnose ADD / ADHD

Qualified professionals trained in diagnosing ADD/ADHD can include clinical psychologists, physicians, or clinical social workers. Choosing a specialist can seem confusing at first. The following are steps you can take toward finding the right person to evaluate you or your child.

  • Get recommendations. Doctors, therapists, and friends you trust may like a particular specialist. Ask them questions about their choice and try out their recommendation.
  • Do your homework. Find out the professional certification and academic degrees of the specialists you are looking into. If possible, talk to former patients and clients, and find out what their experience was.
  • Feel at ease. Feeling comfortable with the specialist is an important part of picking someone right to evaluate you. Try to be yourself, ask questions, and be honest with the professional. You may need to speak with a few specialists before choosing the person that is best for you.
  • Check price and insurance. Find out how much the specialist will charge and if your health insurance will cover part or all of the ADD/ADHD evaluation. Some insurance policies cover evaluation for ADHD from one kind of specialist, but not from another.

Diagnosing ADD / ADHD in adults

Many people only learn that they have ADD/ADHD when they become adults. Some find out after their children receive the diagnosis; as they become educated about the condition, they realize that they also have it. For others, the symptoms finally outpace their coping skills, causing significant enough problems in their daily life that they seek help. If you recognize the signs and symptoms of ADD/ADHD in yourself, schedule a visit with a mental health professional for an assessment. Once you make that important appointment, being somewhat nervous about it is normal.

If you know what to expect, the process for evaluating ADD/ADHD isn’t confusing or scary. Many professionals will start by asking you to fill out and return questionnaires before an evaluation. You'll probably be asked to name someone close to you who will also take part in some of the evaluation. To determine if you have ADD/ADHD, you can expect the specialist conducting the evaluation to do any or all of the following:

  • Ask you about your symptoms, including how long they’ve been bothering you.
  • Administer ADD/ADHD tests, such as symptom checklists and attention-span tests.
  • Ask you about problems your symptoms are causing or have caused in the past.
  • Talk to family members or someone close to you about your symptoms.
  • Give you a medical exam to rule out other physical causes for the symptoms.

Should I be evaluated for adult ADD / ADHD?

If you have significant problems with any of the following categories, you may want to get evaluated for ADD/ADHD:

  • Job or career: losing or quitting jobs frequently
  • Work or school: not performing up to your capacity or ability
  • Day-to-day tasks: inability to do household chores, pay bills on time, organize things
  • Relationships: forgetting important things, being unable finish tasks, getting upset over little things
  • Emotions: having ongoing stress and worry because you don't meet goals and responsibilities

Diagnosing ADD / ADHD in children

When seeking a diagnosis for your child, it can be helpful to have a team mentality; you are not alone and with the help of others, you can get to the bottom of your child’s struggles. Together with specialists trained in diagnosing ADD/ADHD, you can help bring about a swift and accurate assessment that leads to treatment.

Your role as a parent

When seeking a diagnosis for your child, you are your child’s best advocate and most important source of support. As a parent in this process, your roles are both emotional and practical. You can provide or ensure:

  • emotional support for your child during the diagnostic process
  • the right choice of specialist for your child
  • unique and helpful information for doctors/specialists
  • open and honest answers to questions about your child’s history and current adjustment
  • speed and accuracy of evaluation, and a second opinion if necessary

The doctor’s or specialist’s role

The doctors’ or specialists’ roleUsually, more than one professional is typically involved in the assessment process for ADD/ADHD in children. Physicians, clinical psychologists, school psychologists, clinical social workers, speech-language pathologists, learning specialists, and educators may each play an important role in the ADD/ADHD evaluation.

As with adults, there are no laboratory or imaging tests available to determine a diagnosis; instead, clinicians base their conclusions on the observable symptoms and by ruling out other disorders. The specialist who conducts your child’s evaluation will ask you a range of questions that you should open honestly and openly. He or she may also:

  • obtain a thorough medical and family history
  • order or conduct a general physical and/or neurological exam
  • lead a comprehensive interview with you, your child, and the child’s teacher(s)
  • use standardized screening tools for ADD / ADHD
  • observe your child at play or school
  • use psychological tests in order to measure IQ and social and emotional adjustment

Simple steps, big difference: getting your child evaluated for ADD/ADHD

Doctors, specialists, testing—it may all feel a little overwhelming to figure out a diagnosis for your child. You can take a lot of the chaos out of the process with the following practical steps.

  • Make an appointment with a specialist.  As the parent, you can initiate testing for ADD/ADHD on behalf of your child. The earlier you schedule this appointment, the more quickly you can get help for his or her ADD/ADHD.
  • Speak to your child’s school. Call you child’s principal and speak directly and openly about your pursuit for a diagnosis. Public schools are required by law to assist you, and in most cases want to do what they can to make school life better for your child.
  • Give professionals the full picture. When you are asked the tough questions about your child’s behavior, be sure to answer honestly. Your perspective is very important to the evaluation process.
  • Keep things moving. You are your child’s advocate, and have the power to prevent delays in getting a diagnosis. Trying not to be pushy, check in with doctors or specialists often to see where you are in the process.
  • If necessary, get a second opinion. If there is any doubt that your child has received a thorough or appropriate evaluation, you can seek another specialist’s help.

Understanding an ADD / ADHD diagnosis

It’s normal to feel upset or intimidated by a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. But keep in mind that getting a diagnosis can be the first step toward making life better. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can start getting treatment—and that means taking control of symptoms and feeling more confident in every area of life.

What does an ADD / ADHD diagnosis mean?

An ADD/ADHD diagnosis may feel like a label, but it may be more helpful to think of it as an explanation. The diagnosis explains why you may have struggled with things like paying attention, following directions, listening closely, organization—things that seem to come easily to other people.

In this sense, getting a diagnosis can be a relief. You can rest easier knowing that it wasn’t laziness or a lack of intelligence standing in your or your child’s way, but rather a disorder that you can do something about.

Also keep in mind that an ADD/ADHD diagnosis does not mean you are in for a lifetime of suffering. Some people have only mild symptoms, while others experience more pervasive problems. But regardless of where you or your child land on this spectrum, there are many things you can do to manage your symptoms.

Co-existing conditions and ADD / ADHD

It is important to understand that an ADD/ADHD diagnosis does not rule out other mental health conditions. The following disorders are not part of an ADD/ADHD diagnosis but sometimes co-occur with ADD/ADHD, or get confused with it:

  • Anxiety – Excessive worry that occurs frequently and is difficult to control. Symptoms include feeling restless or on edge, easily fatigued, panic attacks, irritability, muscle tension, and insomnia.
  • Depression – Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, helpless, and self-loathing, as well as changes in sleep and eating habits and a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Learning disabilities – Problems with reading, writing, or mathematics. When given standardized tests, the student's ability or intelligence is substantially higher than his or her achievement.
  • Substance abuse – The impulsivity and behavioral issues that often go along with ADD/ADHD can lead to alcohol and drug problems.

After an ADD / ADHD diagnosis: Getting help

A diagnosis of ADD/ADHD can be a great wake up call—it can give you the extra push you need to seek help for the symptoms that are getting in the way of your happiness and success. If you or your child is diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, don’t wait to start treatment. The earlier you begin treating the symptoms, the better.

Managing ADD/ADHD takes work. Finding the right treatments for you or your child is a process—one that takes time, persistence, and trial and error. But you can help yourself along the way by keeping the following concepts in mind: much as you can about ADD/ADHD, getting plenty of support, and adopting healthy lifestyle habits.

  • ADD/ADHD is treatable. Don’t give up hope. With the right treatment and support, you or your child will be able to get the symptoms of ADD/ADHD under control and build the life that you want.
  • Treatment is your own responsibility. It’s up to you to take action to manage the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Health professionals can help, but ultimately, the responsibility lies in your own hands.
  • Learning all you can about ADD/ADHD is key. Understanding the disorder will help you make informed decisions about all aspects of your or your child’s life and treatment.
  • Support makes all the difference. While treatment is up to you, support from others can help you stay motivated and get you through tough times.

Related Articles

ADD / ADHD Treatment

ADHD TreatmentADD / ADHD Treatment in Children – There are many effective treatments that can help you or your child manage the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, improve organizational skills, and develop better relationships.

ADHD TreatmentTreatment for Adult ADD/ADHD – There are many safe and effective treatments that can help improve the symptoms of ADD, boost your job performance, and improve your organizational and relationship skills.

ADHD MedicationADD / ADHD Medications – Medication can help reduce symptoms of ADD but there are side effects and other treatment options you also need to know about.

ADD / ADHD in Adults

Adult ADD / ADHDAdult ADD / ADHD – ADD is not just a problem in children. The more you know about the effects and symptoms of adult ADD, the more you can do to stop it holding you back.

Self–Help for Adult ADHD Help for Adult ADD / ADHD – While ADD can create many challenges in adults, it is possible to find ways to get focused, turn chaos into calm, and overcome the symptoms.

ADHD Medication

Adult ADHD and Relationships – Is ADD causing problems in your relationship? Learn how you can work together as a couple to deal with symptoms and and strengthen your partnership.

ADD / ADHD in Children

ADD / ADHD in ChildrenADD / ADHD in Children – If you suspect your child has ADD/ADHD, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms and get the right help for your child.

 ADHD Parenting TipsADD / ADHD Parenting Tips – Life with a child with ADD/ADHD can be overwhelming, but as a parent there is a lot you can do to help control and reduce your child’s symptoms.

ADHD & SchoolADD / ADHD & School – By creating an effective plan to overcome the obstacles of attention deficit disorder, your child with ADD/ADHD can thrive in the classroom.

Resources & References

Diagnosing ADD / ADHD

Identifying and Treating ADHD: A Resource for School and Home (PDF) – In-depth guide to the diagnosis and treatment of ADD / ADHD in children. (U.S. Department of Education)

ADHD: Diagnosis Dilemma – Explore the complexities of diagnosing ADD / ADHD in adults. (Psychology Today)

Defining and Diagnosing ADHD – Offers several brief, informative articles describing the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, how children are diagnosed, and the challenges of diagnosing and treating ADD / ADHD. (PBS.org)

Getting a Diagnosis– See “AAP Guidelines,” “Getting a diagnosis through the school system,” and “Specialists for diagnosing ADHD.” (MyADHD.com)

Finding professional help for ADD / ADHD

CHADD Professional Directory – Once you accept the CHADD agreement, choose a type of professional from the dropdown menu beginning with Any Category. (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)

Attention Deficit Disorder Resources – A directory of providers for professional help with ADD / ADHD. Broaden your search if you don’t get enough providers in your initial search. (Attention Deficit Disorder Resources)

Authors: Melinda Smith M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: February 2014.

©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. This reprint is for information only and NOT a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Helpguide.org is an ad-free non-profit resource for supporting better mental health and lifestyle choices for adults and children.

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