Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect a person’s behavior. Certain qualified professionals, such as psychiatrists and pediatricians, can formally diagnose ADHD.

Typically, a healthcare expert will diagnose ADHD when a person is young, but some people may not receive a diagnosis until they are an adult.

Usually, a qualified professional will perform a diagnostic evaluation to see whether or not a person exhibits certain behaviors.

As well as diagnosing ADHD, some professionals — such as psychiatrists and pediatricians — can also prescribe medications to help treat ADHD.

This article will discuss who can diagnose ADHD, where to find a healthcare professional, and the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

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A doctor or licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, who has experience in diagnosing ADHD can provide an evaluation and diagnosis.

However, a diagnosis will sometimes involve multiple evaluations and an interprofessional team of healthcare experts.

Some examples of professionals who are capable of diagnosing ADHD include:

  • pediatricians
  • psychiatrists
  • family physicians
  • nurse practitioners
  • psychologists
  • psychotherapists

To diagnose ADHD, a professional may use:

  • symptom checklists
  • behavior rating scales
  • descriptions of the person’s past and current functioning
  • information from those who know the person well
  • cognitive ability tests

They will also try to rule out other possible conditions or consider the presence of co-occurring conditions.

They will be aware that a person may not exhibit any symptoms during a visit and that a brief observation or conversation is not sufficient for an accurate diagnosis.

The process of diagnosing ADHD often begins with a person’s doctor. If they are not able to perform a formal diagnosis, they can still discuss any concerns and refer the person to a qualified specialist.

If the doctor is a pediatrician or family physician, they may be able to diagnose the condition. However, they may also refer the person to another clinician, such as a psychiatrist, for further evaluation.

In addition to referrals, a person may be able to find a specialist through their insurance provider or a therapist directory.

A person may need an ADHD evaluation if they exhibit certain symptoms.

Healthcare professionals diagnose ADHD in one of three ways: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or combined.

Inattentive

With this type, a person may:

  • have difficulty concentrating
  • have difficulty with organization
  • struggle to follow instructions
  • appear not to listen
  • lose things

Hyperactive-impulsive

With this type, a person may:

  • fidget with their hands or feet or squirm in a chair
  • talk excessively
  • have difficulty waiting or taking turns
  • have difficulty remaining seated
  • have difficulty engaging in activities quietly

Combined

With this type, a person may exhibit a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms.

Learn more about ADHD presentation here.

ADHD is not a personal failing, nor is it due to a lack of discipline at home. Instead, people develop ADHD because of a complex interaction between genes and the environment.

Seeking treatment can help prevent ADHD from affecting a person’s academic or career success. So, there is no need for a person to feel afraid or ashamed of their diagnosis.

If a doctor or another healthcare professional behaves in a judgmental way, it is a signal that they do not understand and may not be able to accurately diagnose or properly treat ADHD.

When approaching a healthcare professional about ADHD, people should discuss their specific concerns and their reasons for these concerns.

If a doctor is unwilling to perform an evaluation, the person may wish to consider switching to someone who will, if possible.

It is also important that the person a specialist is evaluating receives appropriate treatment. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 6 years of age receive parent training and classroom support before trying medications.

Treatment for adults and children may be similar. It can involve a combination of medications, therapy, accommodations at work or school, and forms of psychosocial support, such as parent training, family education, and time management training.

Only a medical doctor, such as a psychiatrist or pediatrician, can prescribe medications for ADHD. People who see a therapist first, however, may be able to get a referral to a medical doctor.

Some therapists also work directly with psychiatrists who can meet with the person and prescribe medications to them.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition says that a person must show persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, or both to qualify for an ADHD diagnosis.

Children under 16 years of age must have six or more of the following symptoms, while adults over 17 years of age must have five or more. The symptoms must have been present for at least 6 months and be inappropriate for the person’s development level.

Symptoms of inattention may include:

  • not paying close attention to details and making careless mistakes
  • having difficulty paying attention to activities
  • struggling to listen when someone talks to the person
  • frequently experiencing distraction and not following instructions or completing tasks
  • struggling to organize tasks and activities
  • avoiding and disliking challenging mental tasks
  • losing the things the person needs for daily tasks, such as school materials, wallets, or keys
  • being easy to distract
  • being forgetful

Symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity include:

  • frequently moving or fidgeting
  • having difficulty remaining seated
  • feeling restless or moving or climbing at times when doing so is not appropriate
  • not being able to play or perform tasks quietly
  • obsessively talking
  • blurting out answers to questions
  • having difficulty taking turns
  • interrupting others or intruding on their space
  • often feeling as though they are “on the go”

It is important for healthcare professionals to conduct a full evaluation to screen for ADHD, other mental health conditions, and physical symptoms that might cause inattention.

For example, an adult who drinks a lot of caffeine may be both hyperactive and inattentive but may not have ADHD.

Some other factors and conditions that might share symptoms with ADHD include:

Some aspects of ADHD can also be signs of normal development or of reactions to stress.

For example, stressed or overworked adults may struggle with attention or deadlines. Toddlers are often inattentive, and young children may need help to organize their schoolwork and meet deadlines.

Learn more about ADHD misdiagnosis here.

ADHD is a complex condition that may require a team of healthcare professionals to achieve a formal diagnosis. The evaluation and diagnosis process will typically involve a licensed mental health professional or doctor.

ADHD is not a personal failing nor a failure of discipline. It is a sign that a person’s brain works differently and that they may need support. People should feel comfortable and able to discuss their concerns and symptoms of ADHD with a doctor.

With the right treatment, symptoms can improve and not interfere with a person’s academic or career success.