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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - How do doctors diagnose ADHD?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be difficult to diagnose. Doctors don't have a simple test that tells them for certain whether a child has it.

How does my doctor know my child has ADHD?

Doctors take great care to make sure that a child really does have ADHD before they treat it.[22] However, doctors disagree about how to decide if a child has ADHD. This means that while one doctor may say your child has ADHD, another doctor may disagree.[23] A wrong diagnosis can be harmful because your child may be given unnecessary treatment or your child may not receive the treatment they need.

If you are worried about your child's behaviour, talk to your GP or your child's teacher. Both GPs and schools can arrange for you and your child to see a specialist. This specialist, usually a child psychiatrist, will assess your child and start treatment if necessary.[22] But specialists in the UK are often very busy, and they are getting busier. There are long waiting lists for appointments in some areas.[14]

You may find it frustrating to wait for your child to be assessed for ADHD. But don't give up. If you think your child has a problem, then you have a right to have them assessed. Keep talking to your GP and your child's teachers until you are happy that your child is getting the care they deserve. It can help to talk to other parents who have been through the same thing. Check online for a support group in your area. Also, it can help to keep a diary of your child's symptoms. When you do see a specialist, this diary should help them make a diagnosis.

Asking parents and teachers

To make a diagnosis, doctors usually ask parents and teachers about a child's behaviour. As a parent, you might be asked to:

  • Fill in forms that rate how your child behaves in different situations

  • Describe your child's behaviour problems, when they happen, and how long they have been going on.

This information helps the doctor get a picture of behaviour that shows whether your child has ADHD. Your doctor will pay special attention to how your child behaves in different situations, such as in school and in the playground, and when doing things that require lots of concentration, like reading or playing a board game.

To learn more about ways teachers can help your child, see Educational options.

Checking for symptoms

Your doctor will then compare your child's behaviour to the symptoms of ADHD put together by psychiatrists. These symptoms are listed in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The DSM says that to be diagnosed with ADHD:[24]

  • Your child must have six or more symptoms of not paying attention (inattention) or six or more symptoms of being overactive and acting before thinking (hyperactivity and impulsivity)

  • These symptoms must have started before your child was 7 years old

  • Your child must have been behaving like this for at least six months

  • Your child's behaviour must be causing problems in at least two places, such as at home and at school.

To learn more, see the Symptoms checklist.

Last Updated: September 27, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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