How doctors test for ADHD in adults

By Tara Drinks

Expert reviewed by Andrew Kahn, PsyD

Updated March 29, 2023

How doctors test for ADHD in adults, man getting evaluated for ADHD

At a glance

  • Getting tested for ADHD doesn’t involve any blood tests or brain scans.

  • You’ll answer questions about how much your symptoms are impacting your daily life.

  • One goal is to figure out if you have ADHD or something else that looks like or overlaps with ADHD.

If you’ve been struggling for a while with things like focus and organization, you may be thinking about getting evaluated for ADHD. Here’s what you need to know about how doctors test for ADHD in adults. 

Getting tested for ADHD doesn’t involve any blood tests or brain scans. Typically you’ll talk with a trained professional and answer a bunch of questions. You may be asked some questions in a meeting and some in a questionnaire. 

Key parts of an ADHD evaluation

It’s important to make sure you get a thorough evaluation. Look for the evaluator to do five key things:

  • Talk about your past. The evaluator wants to know what school was like for you. It’s also helpful to know about your medical history. Be ready to share details like your birth weight and early milestones like how old you were when you started to walk and talk. Also mention any hospitalizations or ongoing medical issues. 
  • Explore daily life. The evaluator will ask you some open-ended questions. The goal is to figure out how much you’re struggling with ADHD symptoms.
  • Use ADHD rating scales. These questionnaires or checklists help the evaluator measure how often you have symptoms of ADHD and how severe they are. 
  • Look for other conditions. ADHD often co-occurs with things like anxiety and depression. It’s also common for people to have symptoms that look like ADHD but may actually be signs of something else. 
  • Provide a final report. The evaluator will explain your test results. The report should also recommend ways to help. Ideally, you’ll go over the report in person or over the phone.

Diagnostic criteria for an ADHD diagnosis

Different types of health care providers diagnose ADHD using the same guidelines. These guidelines were created by the American Psychiatric Association. They’re part of a big book called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. 

The DSM lists three types of ADHD and details how many symptoms you need to have to be diagnosed with each type:

  • At least six symptoms of inattention to be diagnosed with the inattentive type of ADHD (also known as attention-deficit disorder or ADD
  • At least six symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsivity to be diagnosed with the hyperactive-impulsive type of ADHD
  • At least 12 symptoms to be diagnosed with the combined type of ADHD (that combines the hyperactive and inattentive types of ADHD) 

The evaluator also wants to know:

  • When you first started noticing your symptoms. To qualify for an ADHD diagnosis, there need to be signs of struggle before age 12. This is why you’re likely to talk a lot about school and other parts of your childhood.
  • If you’re struggling in more than one setting, such as at home and at work. For example, are you distracted at work but doing OK outside of work? Challenges in one specific part of your life may not be enough to qualify for an ADHD diagnosis.

Why ADHD evaluations take time 

How long an evaluation takes varies from person to person. Some thorough evaluations can take an hour to complete. Others can take several hours and need to be spread out over a few visits. 

Why do some evaluations take so much longer? Some people may have a lot of patient history to review. It can also take time to tease apart symptoms that look like or may overlap with ADHD.

Why a thorough ADHD evaluation is essential

ADHD evaluations ask a number of questions to make sure that you have ADHD and not something else that looks like ADHD. Different conditions need different treatments. Answering as openly as you can help you get the right supports.

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