ADHD can be a confusing array of symptoms that may even mimic other conditions. How do doctors go about diagnosing it and providing the right treatment?
The process often starts when parents and teachers notice symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention in a child. A number of professionals may then come together to arrive at an ADHD diagnosis. WebMD lists family doctors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and counselors as among the people who can have input. Often it's best to start by going to your family doctor.
Even with this array of professionals, diagnosis can be difficult. NIH.gov reports that this is partly because children all have different personalities, and also mature at different rates. It's also because ADHD symptoms can be similar to those of other health issues.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes the symptoms of ADHD as children being hyperactive, impulsive, easily bored, and unable to focus on a project. Children are easily distracted, and have trouble processing information and following instructions. They often daydream and tend to lose things.
There are no specific tests for ADHD. But when children show these symptoms and ADHD is suspected, doctors who specialize in ADHD treatment do a medical and a neurological exam of the child. The tests evaluate vision, hearing, motor, and verbal skills. Doctors may also do tests of personality traits, intelligence, and information processing skills. They often complete a social history of the family, since family problems may exacerbate symptoms, and a medical history, since ADHD is thought to have a genetic link. People who work with the child, such as teachers and coaches, may be asked to add their input by filling out questionnaires.
All this information-gathering is done because other conditions can look similar to ADHD. Mayo Clinic lists learning disabilities, vision or hearing problems, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and brain injuries as other possible causes of symptoms. An ADHD diagnosis is not generally arrived at until several other conditions have been ruled out.
Mayo Clinic says that a child should receive an ADHD diagnosis when the symptoms appear in childhood and create serious, ongoing problems. But preschool children should probably not be diagnosed. That's because preschool children have not matured enough to be considered distracted or hyperactive, and also because symptoms may be caused by developmental delays. All children develop at different rates, and ADHD appears more clearly when children get to grade school and have obligations to meet, such as homework.
In 60% of cases, children with ADHD still have their symptoms in adulthood, so proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment are very important.