How is ADHD Diagnosed?

While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is becoming one of the most commonly recognised behavioural and neurological disorders in the UK, many people are unsure of how ADHD is diagnosed. Since ADHD is a complex disorder involving brain functionality, information must be gathered by professionals from a variety of sources in order to provide an accurate diagnosis. The information required to provide a diagnosis may include past medical history, results from behaviour examinations or even observations from teachers or loved ones.
Due to there being several information-gathering steps, tests and other requirements for a diagnosis, the process of how ADHD is diagnosed can feel lengthy and confusing, especially for parents trying to navigate the experience with their child. In this blog, we’ll cover the key presentations of ADHD, when to seek diagnosis and also break down some of the stages of diagnosing ADHD, helping you feel more prepared for the process.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is commonly characterised by, but not restricted to, persistent inattentiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity. The DSM-5 (diagnostic and statistical manual) lists three presentations of ADHD:

  • Predominantly Inattentive
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive
  • Combined

In the predominantly inattentive presentation (sometimes called Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD), you may see behaviours associated with having a short attention span such as daydreaming and procrastination. In the Hyperactive-Impulsive presentation you may notice the excessive movement and talking that is often associated with ADHD. In some cases, someone may display a combined presentation, where symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness are all prominent. You can find out more about specific ADHD symptoms here.

People with ADHD can also struggle with other mental health difficulties such as anxiety disorders, depression and sleep disorders, just like their neurotypical peers. If you are concerned about any of these conditions, either for yourself or a loved one, do not hesitate to contact our professionals for further information and support.

When to Seek Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of ADHD can help individuals to get access to support and services that will make it easier to navigate their condition. Fortunately, as ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, the symptoms usually become apparent early on in a child’s life; typically before the age of 6. However, it can be difficult to differentiate between signs of ADHD and neurotypical development as neurotypical children often exhibit behaviours that pertain to short attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity too. To help you differentiate between signs of ADHD and neurotypical behaviours, keep a diary of signs and symptoms over a period of time to present to a professional for further guidance.

If you have noted your child is showing signs of ADHD in more than one environment (i.e. at home and in school), this information can prove valuable to an ADHD specialist assessing your child, as ADHD doesn’t switch on and off in different settings. However, it might be that the ADHD is better managed in one situation than another, due to environmental factors. This seemingly inconsistent presentation may make it appear that there is no ADHD, when there is. In these cases, it may still be worth contacting a professional for some advice.

GPs themselves cannot diagnose ADHD, but can instead refer you to a specialist. They may ask you a series of questions to find out more about you or your child’s symptoms and experience, such as:

  • When did the symptoms start?
  • Where do they occur?
  • How do these symptoms interfere with your life, or your child’s life?
  • Have there been any significant events, such as a loss in the family or a recent divorce that may have had an impact on you or your child?

Your GP may also recommend a period of “watchful waiting” in order to monitor the symptoms for any improvements. If there are none, and they’re satisfied that you meet the diagnostic criteria, then you’ll likely be referred for a formal assessment.

It’s important to consult a medical professional as opposed to using social media to self-diagnose ADHD symptoms.

The Formal ADHD Assessment

A psychiatrist or other mental health professional will conduct your/your child’s ADHD assessment. They will begin by exploring your whole life’s experience of any ADHD signs and symptoms that concern you, going back to early life, up to present day experiences. This will allow them to gain an in-depth picture of yours or your child’s symptoms, the impact of the symptoms, and their frequency and severity. The specialist may also ask for a family history in case any other family members also have ADHD, as there is evidence to suggest that ADHD can be genetically inherited.

An ADHD assessment process takes approximately 2 hours overall. This usually includes the assessment as well as a discussion of the diagnosis, if one is appropriate. Following the assessment, the specialist will develop and discuss a holistic treatment plan with you. They can also include your family if you would like them to be present.

Criteria for Diagnosis

For a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, they should show six or more symptoms of inattentiveness and six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Other criteria includes:

  • Showing symptoms for at least 6 months
  • Symptoms beginning before the age of 12
  • Having displayed symptoms in more than one setting
  • Symptoms having a significant impairment on daily lives, whether in school, at home or in social settings
  • No other condition that would explain these symptoms

Diagnosis of ADHD in adults is slightly more complicated, as there is less consensus on the list of symptoms. The DSM-5 states that an adult might be diagnosed if they meet the following criteria:

  • Five or more symptoms of inattention
  • Five or more symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity
  • These symptoms having persisted for at least 6 months
  • The symptoms impacting social/academic activities in a negative way.

You can only receive an ADHD diagnosis as an adult if there were symptoms present when you were a child. As ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, it will have been present throughout your life, even though signs may have been missed for various reasons.

ADHD Diagnosis and Beyond

Following an ADHD diagnosis, your specialist will be able to provide helpful medical advice to help manage your symptoms better, and you’ll also have access to the treatment, support and services you require. Through medication, therapy/coaching, and accommodations made at school or work, you can manage many of the limitations of ADHD. and, the earlier you can get a diagnosis, the sooner you can learn to manage ADHD.

If you have noticed that you or your child is showing symptoms of ADHD, the best option is to start looking into an ADHD assessment. Speak to one of our experienced medical secretaries today to find out more about how the team Psymplicity Healthcare runs ADHD assessments and what you can expect.
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Mavish S

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity. Since beginning undergraduate studies 13 years ago, Mavish has worked in various mental health settings within the charity, NHS and private sector. Mavish’s passion for learning and professional growth has led to a vastness of experience and accelerated growth in her career while delivering one-to-one therapy, group workshops, training and supervision for professionals and senior team management. Mavish is a keen writer and writes many of the articles on our website, as well of our self-help resources.

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