How ADHD Is Diagnosed

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults and Children

If you suspect that you, your child, or a loved one may have untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a helpful first step is learning how to receive a diagnosis. While there is no single medical or genetic test for ADHD, a qualified healthcare provider can confirm an ADHD diagnosis with a comprehensive assessment and physical exam.

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children. It’s often first identified due to classroom disruptions from characteristic symptoms of the condition like inattention (struggling to focus), hyperactivity (moving around in a way that’s considered excessive or inappropriate for the circumstances), and impulsivity (taking action without thinking through potential consequences). 

In adults, symptoms of ADHD that often drive someone to seek help include significant issues with job performance, trouble managing day-to-day responsibilities like household chores and paying bills, and stress and worry over an inability to “catch up” to peers. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an estimated 5% of children and 2.5% of adults are living with ADHD at any time. During COVID-19, many people living with ADHD are experiencing an uptick in distressing symptoms.

Although self-assessment tools online may be able to give you an idea of whether or not you’re dealing with ADHD-like symptoms, you’ll need to schedule an in-person appointment for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

In the meantime, learn more about what to expect during screening and how you can begin to move forward if you receive an ADHD diagnosis. 

Professional Screenings 

A healthcare provider can confirm an ADHD diagnosis with an in-depth interview and physical exam. However, diagnostic criteria vary slightly depending on whether the patient is an adult or a child.

If you’re an adult seeking an ADHD screening, you’ll need to find a licensed mental health professional or physician such as a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, primary care physician, or social worker.

To determine whether you have ADHD, they’ll complete a comprehensive assessment using the diagnostic criteria set out in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the national standard for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions in the United States.

For children and adolescents ages 4 to 18, healthcare providers such as pediatricians, psychiatrists, and child psychologists can screen for and diagnose ADHD, per guidelines from the DSM-5 and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

DSM-5 Criteria for an ADHD Diagnosis 

According to the DSM-5, people with ADHD have signs and symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that make it difficult to function on a day-to-day basis. 

Children up to age 16 must often experience six or more symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity, while adolescents 17 years and older and adults must have five or more symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity.

These must last for at least six months in a way that is life-disrupting and inappropriate for their developmental level. 

Symptoms of inattention include: 

  • Makes careless mistakes or fails to pay close attention to details in schoolwork, at work, or elsewhere 
  • Has trouble keeping attention on tasks or activities
  • Does not seem to listen when addressed directly
  • Does not follow instructions completely and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or tasks at work by losing focus or becoming distracted
  • Struggles organizing tasks and activities
  • Dislikes, avoids, or is reluctant to begin tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time, like a school project or homework
  • Loses important things such as school supplies, wallet, keys, or paperwork
  • Is easily distracted
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities

Symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity include: 

  • Fidgets or squirms in seat
  • Leaves seat in situations when they’re expected to remain seated
  • Feels restless (or, for children, runs around or climbs) when not appropriate
  • Is unable to play quietly
  • Is often restless and "on the go"
  • Talks excessively
  • Blurts out an answer before someone has finished asking a question 
  • Has trouble waiting their turn
  • Interrupts or intrudes into conversations or games

Additionally, the healthcare provider will also need to confirm the following for these symptoms for an official ADHD diagnosis:

  • Several of these symptoms were present before age 12.
  • They’re present in two or more settings (such as school, work, or social life).
  • They interfere with or reduce the ability to function in life.
  • They're not better explained by another health condition.

ADHD Diagnosis in Children 

To diagnose a child with ADHD, a healthcare provider will complete the following steps: 

  • Interview parents or guardians, school staff, and mental health practitioners involved with the child about their academic or behavioral problems (such as struggles with grades or maintaining friendships)
  • Assess the child’s symptoms using tools such as behavior rating scales or checklists to ensure DSM-5 criteria for an ADHD diagnosis are met
  • Complete a physical exam and order laboratory or other tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, such as a seizure disorder, thyroid disorder, sleep disorders, or lead poisoning
  • Run additional screening tests for co-occurring or other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, learning and language disorders, autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and tic disorders

Depending on the child’s symptoms, you may also need a referral to meet with a pediatric specialist for additional screenings for conditions like developmental disorders or learning disabilities. 

Diagnosis of ADHD

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

ADHD Diagnosis in Adults 

For adults, the process of receiving an ADHD diagnosis is similar. During your visit, a healthcare provider will complete the following steps: 

  • Interview you about your symptoms in the present and during your childhood 
  • Assess your symptoms per DSM-5 criteria using diagnostic tools such as behavioral rating scales and symptoms checklists  
  • In some cases, request additional interviews with your partner, parent, close friend, or others
  • Complete a physical exam to rule out other potential causes for symptoms 
  • Screen for co-occurring or other mental health disorders such as a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or personality disorder 

At the end of your appointment, your healthcare provider will share whether or not you have ADHD as well as other health conditions. After that, they’ll discuss treatment options with you and, if necessary, refer you to specialists for further screening and care.

Labs and Tests 

The gold-standard diagnostic procedure for ADHD is an interview and physical exam to identify ADHD symptoms and other potential mental and physical health conditions. 

Although you may have heard about various tests for ADHD, the condition cannot currently be diagnosed solely using brain imaging studies such as an MRI, PET, or CT scan. However, your physician may recommend blood tests, brain imaging studies, or an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out other health conditions.

Self/At-Home Testing 

While there are many self-assessments and questionnaires for symptoms of ADHD available online, most are not scientifically validated or standardized. As such, you shouldn’t use them to try to self-diagnose or diagnose others. Again, for a valid diagnosis, you must visit a qualified and licensed healthcare provider.

That said, if you’re feeling unsure about whether your symptoms are really those of ADHD, you can use the Adult Self-Report Scale (ASRS) Screener from the World Health Organization (WHO) to recognize the signs and symptoms of ADHD in adults.

While this can’t provide a definitive diagnosis, it can give you an idea of whether it’s time to seek help for a professional screening. Consider it a helpful starting point rather than a definitive diagnostic test, suggests the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). 

A Word From Verywell 

For children and adults alike, living with untreated ADHD can become a source of constant stress and anxiety. While receiving an ADHD diagnosis can be scary or disconcerting, for many it also provides new insight into past struggles, increased self-compassion, and hope for the future. 

Depending on your specific situation, treatment options such as medication, lifestyle changes, and coping skills can help you regain a sense of control and focus your attention. It’s also important to keep in mind that many people with ADHD celebrate benefits that come with the condition as well, and that it’s possible to lead a happy and fulfilling life after an ADHD diagnosis.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. What is ADHD?

  2. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. Arlington, VA., American Psychiatric Association

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. Supplemental information.

  4. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) National Resource Center on ADHD. Diagnosis of ADHD in Adults.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Diagnosing ADHD in children: Guidelines & information for parents.

By Lauren Krouse
Lauren Krouse is a journalist especially interested in covering women’s health, mental health, and social determinants of health. Her work appears in Women's Health, Prevention, and Self, among other publications.