Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - Diagnosis 

Diagnosing ADHD 

If you think you or your child may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you might want to consider speaking to your GP about it.

If you are worried about your child, it may help to speak to their teachers before seeing your GP, to find out if they have any concerns about your child's behaviour.

Your GP can't formally diagnose ADHD, but they can discuss your concerns with you and refer you for a specialist assessment, if necessary.

When you see your GP, they may ask you:

  • about your symptoms or those of your child
  • when these symptoms started
  • where the symptoms occur  for example, at home or in school
  • whether the symptoms affect your or your child’s day-to-day life  for example, if they make socialising difficult
  • if there have been any recent significant events in your or your child's life, such as a death or divorce in the family
  • if there is a family history of ADHD
  • about any other problems or symptoms of different health conditions you or your child may have

Next steps

If your GP thinks your child may have ADHD, they may first suggest a period of "watchful waiting" lasting around 10 weeks  to see if your child's symptoms improve, stay the same or get worse. They may also suggest starting a parent training or education programme to teach you ways of helping your child (see treating ADHD for more information).

If your child's behaviour doesn't improve, and both you and your GP thinks it is seriously affecting their day-to-day life, your GP should refer you and your child to a specialist for a formal assessment (see below).

For adults with possible ADHD, your GP will assess your symptoms and may refer you for an assessment if:

  • you were not diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but your symptoms began during childhood and have been ongoing since then
  • your symptoms cannot be explained by a mental health condition
  • your symptoms have a significant impact on your day-to-day life  for example, if you are underachieving at work or find intimate relationships difficult

You may also be referred to a specialist if you had ADHD as a child or young person, and your symptoms are now causing moderate or severe functional impairment.

Assessment

There are a number of different specialists you or your child may be referred to for a formal assessment, including:

  • a child or adult psychiatrist
  • a paediatrician (a specialist in children's health)
  • a learning disability specialist, social worker or occupational therapist with expertise in ADHD

Who you are referred to will depend on your age and what is available in your local area.

There is no simple test to determine whether you or your child have ADHD, but your specialist can make an accurate diagnosis after a detailed assessment that may include:

  • a physical examination, which can help rule out other possible causes for the symptoms
  • a series of interviews with you or your child
  • interviews or reports from other significant people, such as partners, parents and teachers

The criteria for making a diagnosis of ADHD in children, teenagers and adults are outlined below.

Diagnosis in children and teenagers

Diagnosing ADHD in children depends on a set of strict criteria. To be diagnosed with ADHD, your child must have six or more symptoms of inattentiveness, or six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Read more about the symptoms of ADHD.

To be diagnosed with ADHD, your child must also have:

  • been displaying symptoms continuously for at least six months
  • started to show symptoms before the age of 12
  • been showing symptoms in at least two different settings  for example, at home and at school, to rule out the possibility that the behaviour is just a reaction to certain teachers or parental control
  • symptoms that make their lives considerably more difficult on a social, academic or occupational level
  • symptoms that are not just part of a developmental disorder or difficult phase, and are not better accounted for by another condition

Diagnosis in adults

Diagnosing ADHD in adults is more difficult because there is some disagreement about whether the list of symptoms used to diagnose children and teenagers also applies to adults.

In some cases, an adult may be diagnosed with ADHD if they have five or more symptoms of inattentiveness, or five or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness, that are listed in diagnostic criteria for children with ADHD.

As part of your assessment, the specialist will ask about your present symptoms although, under current diagnostic guidelines, a diagnosis of ADHD in adults cannot be confirmed unless your symptoms have been present from childhood.

If you find it difficult to remember whether you had problems as a child, or you were not diagnosed with ADHD when you were younger, your specialist may wish to see your old school records or talk to your parents, teachers or anyone else who knew you well when you were a child.

For an adult to be diagnosed with ADHD, their symptoms should also have a moderate impact on different areas of their life, such as:

  • underachieving at work or in education
  • driving dangerously
  • difficultly making or keeping friends
  • difficulty in relationships with partners

If your problems are recent and did not occur regularly in the past, you are not considered as having ADHD. This is because it is currently not thought that ADHD can develop for the first time in adults.

Page last reviewed: 15/05/2014

Next review due: 15/05/2016

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Comments

The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

MT82 said on 18 September 2014

I am an adult with an autistic spectrum disorder, and I pretty much have every symptom of ADD/ADHD, supported by my friends and relatives who saw me as a child.

I cannot concentrate on things if there are distractions, I cannot feel settled, I get hyper focused on certain things, to the detriment of everything else. I constantly feel ready to explode, I have left every job that I have ever had, and university, due to my concentration problems and always making stupid mistakes because of it. My head is swimming constantly, my mood is contantly up and down, and I score incredibly high on every online ADHD test that I have taken.

I took this information to my psychiatrist, and was immediately dismissed, without one screening question. I then stressed to him that there is a lot of medically supportive publications available supporting the comorbidity of ASDs and ADHD, and that he had not asked me anything to investigate what I was saying, and that on our first encounter, he did not even know my present diagnosis, as hadn't looked at my records (i recently moved). He then asked a load of screening questions for ADHD and agreed that i should have a referral to the ADHD team.

It is very apparent to me that this consultant immediately assumed that I must be wanting psychostimulants, or he just doesn't care enough to listen to my opinions. I could appreciate his view if he actually did some investigation, but he does nothing but suggest more antipsychotics and lorazepam, which make me ill.

I know that if these symptoms are not dealt with soon, that I will not be able to continue living, and I have stressed this to the doctors, and still nothing is done.

The NHS should try treating symptoms, instead of arguing over diagnostics, or living on out dated practice and info. All I want to do is get my life on track for once, and be able to support myself, but I am just being drugged and kept on the sick while everything is getting worse.

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MT82 said on 18 September 2014

I am an adult with an autistic spectrum disorder, and I pretty much have every symptom of ADD/ADHD, supported by my friends and relatives who saw me as a child.

I cannot concentrate on things if there are distractions, I cannot feel settled, I get hyper focused on certain things, to the detriment of everything else. I constantly feel ready to explode, I have left every job that I have ever had, and university, due to my concentration problems and always making stupid mistakes because of it. My head is swimming constantly, my mood is contantly up and down, and I score incredibly high on every online ADHD test that I have taken.

I took this information to my psychiatrist, and was immediately dismissed, without one screening question. I then stressed to him that there is a lot of medically supportive publications available supporting the comorbidity of ASDs and ADHD, and that he had not asked me anything to investigate what I was saying, and that on our first encounter, he did not even know my present diagnosis, as hadn't looked at my records (i recently moved). He then asked a load of screening questions for ADHD and agreed that i should have a referral to the ADHD team.

It is very apparent to me that this consultant immediately assumed that I must be wanting psychostimulants, or he just doesn't care enough to listen to my opinions. I could appreciate his view if he actually did some investigation, but he does nothing but suggest more antipsychotics and lorazepam, which make me ill.

I know that if these symptoms are not dealt with soon, that I will not be able to continue living, and I have stressed this to the doctors, and still nothing is done.

The NHS should try treating symptoms, instead of arguing over diagnostics, or living on out dated practice and info. All I want to do is get my life on track for once, and be able to support myself, but I am just being drugged and kept on the sick while everything is getting worse.

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katto2013 said on 24 February 2014

my experience with the nhs mental team have been rubbish ive diagnosed with adhd when i was 7 but it wasn't official because i missed loads of appointments and i kept having very manic episodes to the point where i could of been put in a mental hospital so i went to my doctors told her bout it they give me tablets to make to sleepy until i was seen by the young people adhd team bout 3 month ago i was told i would only have to wait 7 weeks to be seen then i go to my doctors when 7 weeks was gone and told her i still haven't heard off my so she phones them up and they say oh could be 8 months befor i see them witch i wasn't happy about because the drugs they gave me to make me sleepy don't work anymore and i can just feel that im going to have another manic episode

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User492629 said on 19 February 2014

If there is no definite test which proves any child has ADHD How do we know it exists in the first place ? Also it could be far too easily misdiagnosed and young children put on needless dangerous stimulant drugs. I really think the condition should be proven 100% to exist before any more drugs are prescribed !

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techiechick74 said on 03 November 2013

Getting a diagnosis as an adult is very difficult,so many barriers to get through,if you got uneducated GPs then there is not much hope (like mine) .I used to be under mental health and then my psychiatrist left the country to work in Austrailia so I got a new female one who was ok,until a new hospital was built further away and the system was changed I was just passed around different psychiatrists who didn't seem to listen about my attention and concentration issues and just kept repeating themselves and discharged me.So I got my GP after asking twice to get me back under mental health and had to see a social worker to assess if I need to see a psychiatrist? how is a social worker qualified? The GP got a reply afterwards from the psychiatrist,bare in mind now that he had only ever seen me once,saying that I had an ASD (which I was diagnosed with before) and there was nothing he could do for me,it seems there is no help unless you are unless you are hearing voices or trying to hurt yourself.

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beezty69 said on 15 October 2013

I'm in the process of a diagnosis that has been on going for nearly 14months. Typically ADD from a young age, as a man of 39 years it went unnoticed. When I first approached my GP he looked at me in a very strange way! He didn't have a clue what I was talking about but gave a referral anyway. I've seen various psychiatrists and psychologists in the past year and was told back in July by the psychologist they would recommend treatment for ADD. I have had several appointments cancelled and am hopeful the next app. in November can finally bring some treatment of which I'm sure will help day to day. I'm Scottish and live in West Lothian. I'm led to believe it's one of the better Districts when dealing with ADD so god help the rest of the country. The process has been lethargic to say the least. Anyone reading this that's looking for further information regarding ADD should have a look a Dr Russel Barkley's work. An American who's studied the disorder for decades, has 1st hand experience of family with the disorder and is as informative as I've found. He can be found on youtube as well as books from amazon which are reasonable. To anyone with the disorder I wish you good luck with your treatment in the UK. You're going to need it unfortunately. I'll post an update after my appointment in November. Good luck to you all.

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thisismyusername0987 said on 04 September 2013

I have been to the Doctors quite a few times now to try & get an diagnosis for ADHD. The doctors do not seem to have any idea what I am talking about & they do not seem to take me seriously what so ever, all they say is 'There is no point in putting you on the list for a diagnosis because it will take 2 years to get this done' because of my anxiety I am unable to speak up and put my foot down. Recently my life is really being incredibly affected by these symptoms, I am only 20 years old and I have not been able to hold down all 6 jobs that I have had already, all because I do something silly because of my inability to focus. I am 100% sure i do have ADHD, I work at the moment with people who have Learning Disabilities and i am trained to know everything about each disability. I am getting so frustrated with the way I am now and I just wish doctors would take me more seriously so I can get some help. It is affecting my motivation to work, clean, manage money, hold down a job, listen to partners properly, watch TV, focus at meetings, learn to drive. All the things you need to do to live! I do believe that ADHD should be taken more seriously, the inability to focus is incredibly frustrating and if they did these things there will probably be less people on Job Seekers! I will be going to my Doctor again on Wednesday and I am going to be more direct this time and make sure I get an answer, if that doesn't happen then I have no idea what i am going to do.

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number1sweetgirl said on 04 June 2013

I am a teenager and once booked an appointment at my GP to check if I have symptoms of ADHD/ADD. I seen that it probably runs in the family because my aunt was diagnosed with it and her child (my cousin) who is a year older than me and he was diagnosed with it when he was a child (no wonder he was such a bad child?). The GP doctor i normally get checked up by had no clue what to do, he did not hold any knowledge on the subject and no questions, all he said that it only happens in children, and that you should speak about it to school, what?! is there a specific type doctor i have to book with who actually knows about the disorder? oh yh, my dad and me do similar actions-exactly similar (like our anxiety-when we are holding our patience by automatically shacking our leg/s, or the fact that i have the exact same hand writing as him - really weird! he never taught how to write, not once did i remember how he wrote when i was younger) i could go but i really do it runs a bit in the family cuz that aunt is my dad's sister. i heard that some adhd people had (another) learning disorder as a child, i had dyslexia as a child and know one (my parents would be the last ones to know-as they did) and the teachers-doctors, point is that knowone knew! i eventually had my break through at yr5 or something?since, i dont have much trouble (or any)...what can i do to prove or see that i have the symptoms to adhd?the GP is not taking me seriously enough, and since i always had trouble with school (not behavior wise-just learning, remembering, anxiety etc.) I want to see if i can be treated about it if i have (which i am sure of), but nothing/know one helped and if i mention it to my parents, they will think i am a mental person...my GP is not doing what the NHS mentions, no help what so ever. can i go to a psychiatrist who can help me and understand me?

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juliaspeculiar said on 02 May 2013

There are many books that provide a clearer and very much more comprehensive understanding of ADHD/ADD in both adults and children. I would recommend reading these and not solely relying on NHS diagnostic tools and therapy. My GP knew extremely little of ADHD/ADD in adults and waiting lists for diagnosis and treatment are really long. There are currently no licensed medications for use with adult ADHD/ADD until diagnosed by a specialist. I have so far been waiting for eight months and have severe ADD and M.E.and doing all I can to find out about alternative treatment and supplements. So far little has worked. If I've not been hospitalized before receiving treatment it would be a miracle!!!!

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