There is no single test that can be used to diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adults. ADHD is diagnosed after a person has shown some or all of symptoms of ADHD on a regular basis for more than six months. In addition, symptoms must be present in more than one setting. Depending on the number and type of symptoms, a person will be diagnosed with one of three subtypes of ADHD: Primarily Inattentive, Primarily Hyperactive or Combined subtype.
Diagnosing ADHD in Children
Health care providers, such as pediatricians and child psychologists, can diagnose ADHD with the help of standard guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The diagnosis involves gathering information from several sources, including schools, caregivers, and parents. The health care provider will consider how a child's behavior compares with that of other children the same age, and he or she may use standardized rating scales to document these behaviors.
Some symptoms that suggest ADHD in children include inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity. Many children with ADHD:
- Are in constant motion
- Squirm and fidget
- Make careless mistakes
- Often lose things
- Do not seem to listen
- Are easily distracted
- Do not finish tasks
To diagnose ADHD, your child should receive a full physical exam, including vision and hearing screenings. Also, the FDA has approved the use of the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System, a noninvasive scan that measures theta and beta brain waves. The theta/beta ratio has been shown to be higher in children and adolescents with ADHD than in children without it. The scan, approved for use in those aged 6 to 17 years, is meant to be used as a part of a complete medical and psychological exam.
In addition, the health care provider should take a complete medical history to screen for other conditions that may affect a child's behavior. Certain conditions that could mimic ADHD or cause the ADHD-like behaviors are:
- Recent major life changes (such as divorce, a death in the family, or a recent move)
- Undetected seizures
- Thyroid problems
- Sleep problems
- Lead toxicity
Diagnosing ADHD in Adults
It is not easy for a health care provider to diagnose ADHD in an adult. Sometimes, an adult will recognize the symptoms of ADHD in himself or herself when a son or daughter is diagnosed. Other times, they will seek professional help for themselves and find that their depression, anxiety, or other symptoms are related to ADHD.
In addition to symptoms of inattention and/or impulsiveness, adults with ADHD may have other problems, including:
- Chronic lateness and forgetfulness
- Poor organizational skills
- Low self-esteem
- Employment problems
- Short temper
- Difficulty finishing a task
- Unthinking and immediate response; difficulty controlling behavior
If these difficulties are not managed appropriately, they can cause emotional, social, occupational and academic problems in adults.
In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, an adult must have persistent, current symptoms that date to childhood. ADHD symptoms continue as problems into adulthood for up to half of children with ADHD. For an accurate diagnosis, the following are recommended:
- A history of the adult's behavior as a child
- An interview with the adult's life partner, parent, close friend, or other close associate
- A thorough physical exam that may include neurological testing
- Psychological testing