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General Medical Questions
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Question : How is a person with attention deficit disorder (ADD) diagnosed?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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July 29, 2013
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Doctors diagnose attention deficit disorder (ADD) by making observations and taking a careful history.

For children, parents and teachers can weigh in about the child’s development and functioning. For adults, family members and friends can give helpful information.

There are no specific tests to prove the presence or absence of the disorder. Some standardized questionnaires can help define symptoms. Psychological tests can measure speech, language, mental processing and attention. They can also help define the person’s social and educational development.

Sometimes doctors will ask parents or teachers to fill out questionnaires about children. Adults with ADD symptoms can complete self-rating questionnaires.

The key features of the illness — inattention, hyperactivity and poor impulse control — can interfere with a person’s ability to meet life’s challenges. A doctor will make the diagnosis if symptoms are severe enough to cause impairment.

What is “severe enough?” It’s not clearly defined. But that’s fine, because getting the right help often does not depend on getting the diagnosis right.

In fact, the symptoms sometimes do not reflect a disorder. As many as 15% of boys are classified as more active than average without having attention problems.  But their level of motor activity may actually be in the normal range.

Whether or not you have the diagnosis, take advantage of treatments that may help you function better. You can focus on specific problems. For example, look for strategies to deal with an attention or learning problem.

It’s helpful not to lock onto the idea of ADD. Sometimes a different disorder is at fault. A person may actually have an anxiety, mood or conduct disorder. There may be a medical problem, such as a thyroid illness, hearing loss, seizure disorder or a drug reaction. Sometimes the most effective solutions come from thinking more broadly about the problems and their causes.

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