Because most children exhibit symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to some degree at one time or another, ADHD can be difficult to diagnose. In many cases, ADHD diagnosis is a complex process.
ADHD diagnosis requires that symptoms of the disorder must appear before the age of 7, must be present for at least 6 months, must be determined to be inappropriate for the child's age, and must affect at least two areas of the child's life (e.g., home, playground, school, community, social situations).
In some cases, parents and caregivers suspect ADHD before the child enters school. However, because children mature at different rates, a medical professional (e.g., pediatrician, child psychologist, child psychiatrist, clinical social worker, behavioral or pediatric neurologist) should be consulted to determine if the child's behavior is within an appropriate range for his or her age. Once children enter school, teachers often are able to recognize signs of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. If ADHD is suspected, the child should be referred to a neurologist or mental health professional trained in the diagnosis and treatment of children with ADHD.
The first steps in diagnosing ADHD are to evaluate the child's personal and family history (including school records) and perform a physical examination to rule out other medical conditions (e.g., seizures, hearing or vision loss, anxiety) that can cause similar symptoms. Parents, caregivers, and teachers may be asked to complete evaluation forms (called behavior rating scales) that compare the child's behavior to the behavior of other children who are the same age.
The next steps are to interview the child and observe him or her in various settings (e.g., at home, in school). Psychological testing may be used to evaluate the child's attention span and tests that measure intelligence and learning may be administered to determine if the child has a learning disability.
Once the diagnostic process is complete, the health care specialist will compile and evaluate the results to determine if the child meets the diagnosis criteria for ADHD. In many cases, receiving the correct diagnosis is a relief for the family and allows the child to receive the medical, educational, and emotional treatment he or she needs.