How Is ADHD Diagnosed?

In This Article

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can't be diagnosed with a physical test, like a blood test or an X-ray. Instead, a health professional uses an evaluation process to diagnose ADHD.

During the evaluation, a professional gathers information about you or your child to determine if the criteria for ADHD are met. The criteria come from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the official diagnostic guide used in the United States.

ADHD diagnostic criteria
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Diagnostic Criteria

Regardless of the specific presentation of ADHD—inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or combined—several conditions must be met in order to arrive at an official diagnosis:

  • Several symptoms present before age 12
  • Symptoms are present in multiple settings (home, school, work)
  • Symptoms interfere with or reduce daily functioning
  • Symptoms are not better explained by another mental health condition

Inattentive Type

For children up to 16 years old, six or more symptoms of inattention must be present, while people 17 and older must exhibit five or more symptoms. These symptoms must be present for at least six months to suggest a diagnosis of ADHD:

  • Often makes careless mistakes or disregards details
  • Has difficulty staying attuned to specific tasks or activities
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to
  • Fails to finish tasks or follow through on instructions
  • Difficulty organizing
  • Avoids or dislikes long-term tasks
  • Often loses track of important items (wallets, school materials, etc)
  • Easily distracted
  • Often forgetful

Hyperactive/Impulsive Type

The same age- and time-based criteria as above are necessary for an ADHD diagnosis based on symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity:

  • Regular fidgeting or squirming
  • Ignores instructions to remain seated or stay in one place
  • Moves about or feels restless in situations where such movement is inappropriate
  • Cannot participate in leisure activities quietly
  • Excessive talking
  • Blurts out answers before a question is finished
  • Trouble waiting for their turn
  • Often interrupts or intrudes in conversation

In the process of diagnosing someone with ADHD, a doctor will also indicate severity:

  • Mild: You or your child exhibit minor impairment in functioning while having enough symptoms to meet the criteria for diagnosis.
  • Moderate: Impairment is more significant
  • Severe: Many more symptoms are present than would be minimally required for an ADHD diagnosis, along with significant impairment as a result of symptoms.

The Importance of an Accurate Diagnosis

You might be tempted to avoid getting an official diagnosis for yourself or your child. After all, what's the point if you don't plan to take medication? Or, perhaps you're concerned that being labeled with ADHD might hurt more than it helps.

But, there are many advantages to getting an ADHD diagnosis.

Getting diagnosed can be the key to getting help—even if you don't plan to use medication as part of your treatment.

There is also an emotional benefit. The symptoms associated with ADHD can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment about underachieving. Or, it can lead to a lot of frustration over the amount of time it takes to complete tasks. A diagnosis may help reduce those emotions.

Accommodations at school or in the workplace can be granted when you show written evidence of a diagnosis. Small changes, like moving your work space to a quiet area or being granted more time on tests can make a big difference.

Once you've been tested for ADHD, you can begin a course of treatment that will help make life more manageable.

Professionals Who Diagnose ADHD

There are several different professionals who are qualified to diagnose ADHD. A psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, neurologist, and some physicians can diagnose ADHD. Before booking an appointment, ask specifically if the care provider has experience diagnosing ADHD.

If you're interested in being assessed for ADHD, you might start by talking to your doctor. Your family doctor might not carry out the detailed evaluation but can give you a referral to a professional who can adequately assess you.

Some pediatricians and general practitioners do diagnose ADHD. If your physician suspects you or your child has ADHD, you might ask for a referral to a specialist to conduct further assessment.

ADHD cannot be diagnosed online. However, there are many ADHD quizzes and questionnaires available online that act as a helpful self-screening process. Taking a quiz can give you the confidence to reach out to a health professional for a formal diagnosis.

What to Share With Your Treatment Provider

If possible, bring copies of any appropriate records such as medical, psychological, school/employment records to the appointment. Be prepared to give a detailed social and family history.

Many healthcare providers will send you a questionnaire to complete the appointment. Be sure to bring the completed forms with you to the appointment.

They may also send the questionnaire to other people with your consent, such as your child's teacher or daycare provider.

ADHD Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Mind Doc Guide

The Assessment Process

Though it varies, a typical assessment for adult ADHD may last about three hours. Every practitioner conducts the assessment in their own way, but you can expect to have an in-person interview that covers topics such as development, health, family, and lifestyle history.

The clinician may request to interview other people, like a partner or family member. In the case of children, the clinician may want to talk to a teacher, coach, or daycare provider.

Questionnaires, rating scales, intellectual screenings, and measures of sustained attention and distractibility all may be part of the assessment. You may be asked to elaborate on things such as:

  • How often do you quit a task before you're done?
  • How often do you misplace things?
  • How often do you forget appointments or other important matters?
  • Do you have trouble sitting still?
  • Do you struggle to relax?
  • How often are you distracted by things around you?

Your medical history is an important part of the evaluation. If you have not had a medical exam recently, one might be recommended to rule out medical causes for your symptoms.

While psychological testing is not used as the sole basis for diagnosing ADHD, it may be recommended to support conclusions and provide a more comprehensive assessment. You may also be screened for learning disabilities.

A Word From Verywell

An ADHD diagnosis can cause you to feel a flood of emotions. You might feel relieved to have an explanation for your symptoms. Or, you may feel overwhelmed by what to do next.

Don't feel rushed to make decisions about treatment; allow yourself a little time to process the new information before moving on to the next steps.

Once you're ready, you can meet with your doctor to determine what course of treatment is best for you, which may include therapy, medication, and/or lifestyle changes.

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Article Sources

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. 
  • Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

  • Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment (Fourth Edition). The Guildford Press. New York. 2014.