Symptoms and Diagnosis

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Deciding if a person has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a several step process. There is no single test to diagnose ADHD and many other problems, like anxiety and depression, can have similar symptoms. Thus, diagnosing ADHD should be done only by trained health care providers.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting both children and adults. It is described as a “persistent” or ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that gets in the way of daily life or typical development. Individuals with ADHD may also have difficulties with maintaining attention, executive function (or the brain’s ability to begin an activity, organize itself and manage tasks) and working memory.

There are three presentations of ADHD:

  • Inattentive
  • Hyperactive-impulsive
  • Combined inattentive & hyperactive-impulsive

What is the DSM-5?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association is the guide that lays out the criteria to be used by doctors, mental health professionals, and other qualified clinicians when making a diagnosis of ADHD.

What about ADHD changed with the DSM-5?

Adult ADHD: For many years, the diagnostic criteria for ADHD stated that it was children who were diagnosed with the disorder. That meant that teens and adults with symptoms of the disorder, and who may have been struggling for many years but didn’t know why, couldn’t officially be diagnosed with ADHD. The DSM-5 changed this; adults and teens can now be officially diagnosed with the disorder. The diagnostic criteria mentions and gives examples of how the disorder appears in adults and teens.

The criteria of symptoms for a diagnosis of ADHD:

Inattentive presentation:

  • Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes.
  • Has difficulty sustaining attention.
  • Does not appear to listen.
  • Struggles to follow through on instructions.
  • Has difficulty with organization.
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort.
  • Loses things.
  • Is easily distracted.
  • Is forgetful in daily activities.

Hyperactive-impulsive presentation:

  • Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in chair.
  • Has difficulty remaining seated.
  • Runs about or climbs excessively in children; extreme restlessness in adults.
  • Difficulty engaging in activities quietly.
  • Acts as if driven by a motor; adults will often feel inside like they were driven by a motor.
  • Talks excessively.
  • Blurts out answers before questions have been completed.
  • Difficulty waiting or taking turns.
  • Interrupts or intrudes upon others.

Combined inattentive & hyperactive-impulsive presentation:

  • Has symptoms from both of the above presentations.

Reference:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5), Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association

Prepared by the National Resource Center on ADHD: A Program of CHADD (NRC). The NRC is supported through Cooperative Agreement Number CDC-RFA-DD13-1302 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC.