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Confusing labels for ADHD
In 1994 the name of the disorder got changed in a way that is confusing for many people. Since that time all forms of attention deficit disorder are officially called "Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder" after which a comma appears. After the comma, a subtype is specified:
Even though these are the official labels, a lot of professionals and lay people use both terms: "ADD" and "ADHD." Some use those terms to designate the old subtypes; others use ADD just as a shorter way to refer to any subtype.
In the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, there is a list of nine symptoms of "nattention" problems.2 Almost everybody has some difficulty with some of these sometimes. Persons who qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD have at least six of these nine symptoms and suffer significant impairment as a result. This means that daily functioning in two or more of the following areas is significantly disrupted: school, work, family or social interaction.
Because the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria were originally designed for children, the following questions have been developed from those criteria by the World Health Organization3 to ask adults about whether they suffer from ADHD inattention symptoms:
Individuals who have significant chronic impairment from six or more of these symptoms are likely to have ADHD if they also meet certain other criteria for diagnosis that are specified in the DSM-IV.
Doesn't everybody have problems with these inattention symptoms sometimes?
Yes, these symptoms of inattention are characteristic of everyone sometimes. Only persons who have significant impairment most of the time from these symptoms warrant a diagnosis of ADHD. If someone currently has significant impairment from at least six of these inattention symptoms and little or no hyperactive or impulsive symptoms of ADHD, they are likely to qualify for diagnosis as having ADHD, predominantly inattentive type. An individual can have little or no impairment from any hyperactive or impulsive symptoms and still fully meet DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for ADHD.4
What if someone was hyperactive in childhood, but has only attentional symptoms now?
If someone is currently impaired by at least six of these inattention symptoms and at least six of the hyperactive/impulsive symptoms, they are likely to qualify for the diagnosis of ADHD, combined type. If they experienced sufficient impairment from hyperactive and/or impulsive symptoms when they were younger, but now are impaired by inattention symptoms of ADHD with little or no problem with hyperactivity, the current diagnosis would be ADHD, predominantly inattentive type. It is common for hyperactive children to become less hyperactive as they get older; for those with ADHD, the inattentive symptoms tend to persist and may become more impairing as the person encounters the challenges of adolescence and adulthood.5,6
Are the inattention symptoms of ADHD constant? Are these persons inattentive in everything they do?
No, though the inattention symptoms must be chronically impairing for a diagnosis of ADHD, this does not mean that they are constant in everything the person does. Everyone with ADHD has a few types of activity in which they are able to function quite well without much trouble from their usual inattention symptoms. They might be able to concentrate very well when playing a favorite sport or video game. They might be good at maintaining focus for a long time when watching TV shows they like, doing art or building Lego models.
When asked why they can pay attention so well for these favored activities and not for other important activities, such as school or work, they often explain that they can pay attention easily on activities that are interesting to them, but cannot make themselves pay attention to tasks that do not really interest them, even when they know it is important. This makes it look like ADHD is a willpower problem, but that is not the case.7
Can a person be smart and still have ADHD?
Yes, ADHD has nothing to do with how smart a person is. Some individuals with ADHD have very high IQ scores, others score in the average range, and others score much lower. Often individuals with ADHD who are very bright are not recognized as being impaired with ADHD symptoms. Teachers and parents and clinicians often think they are just being lazy or unmotivated or bored.8
When can a person with predominantly inattentive type ADHD be recognized and diagnosed?
Children who have ADHD with hyperactivity are usually recognized and diagnosed in preschool or early elementary school grades, especially if they are disruptive and difficult to manage. Most individuals with ADHD, predominantly inattentive type are not recognized until later when parents or teachers notice that they are having a lot of difficulty staying focused on tasks, or remembering what they have read, or in keeping up with their work in school, homework or tasks at home. Sometimes these inattention symptoms are not noticed until a student gets into middle school or high school where they must deal with multiple teachers and many different classes and assignments daily.9,10
Can a person have ADHD, predominantly inattentive type and never be diagnosed until they are older adolescents or adults in college or at work or raising a family?
Yes, sometimes a person's ADHD impairments have been blamed on laziness or lack of motivation for many years. Until recently, very few teachers, psychologists or other doctors had been taught to recognize symptoms of ADHD, predominantly inattentive type. Often parents recognize their own ADHD impairments only after they become more familiar with the disorder as their child has been diagnosed with ADHD. To qualify for ADHD diagnosis, at least some of the ADHD symptoms should have been present sometime in childhood or adolescence, even though they may not have been recognized at the time.11,12
Can girls and women have ADHD, or is it just a problem for males?
Studies show that for every three boys diagnosed with ADHD there is at least one girl who has the disorder. In adult samples the ratio of males to females is almost one to one. It appears that girls are often overlooked because they tend to have ADHD, predominantly inattentive type more often than the combined type. This means that girls with ADHD are less likely to be recognized as having ADHD because often they are not being disruptive enough to call attention to themselves.13,14
How is ADHD, predominantly inattentive type diagnosed?
There is no one blood test, psychological test, computer test nor brain imaging test that can make the diagnosis of ADHD of any type. Adequate evaluation requires a comprehensive clinical assessment done by a psychologist, psychiatrist, pediatrician or other professional trained to recognize ADHD and other learning or psychiatric disorders that may mimic or accompany ADHD. The evaluation should include an intensive clinical interview with the child or adult suspected of having ADHD. For children or adolescents, parents should be included in the interview and information from past and present teachers should be reviewed. In addition, for all ages, a medical examination is important to rule out possible medical causes for ADHD symptoms.15,16,17
For adults, it is usually helpful to include a spouse, friend or someone else who knows the individual well. In addition to the interviews, standardized rating scales for ADHD and DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for ADHD should be utilized; there should also be careful screening for other possible disorders, especially learning disorders, anxiety and depression. As with children, there should be a medical examination to rule out possible medical causes for ADHD symptoms. This is especially important for adults who may have more medical problems and may be taking more prescriptions that might cause ADHD-like symptoms.18,19
What treatments are usually helpful for children
or adults with predominantly inattentive type
Until recently, most of the research on ADHD treatments was done only on children or adults with combined type ADHD. More recent studies that included predominantly inattentive type indicate that medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of ADHD tend to work well for a substantial majority of those with predominantly inattentive type.20,21 Details about these medications and the careful medical management they require are included in What We Know #3, "Managing Medication for Children and Adolescents with ADHD" and What We Know #10, "Managing Medication for Adults with ADHD."
In addition to medication, anyone with ADHD also needs education for themselves and their family about ADHD and its treatment. Some individuals with predominantly inattentive type also benefit from accommodations in school such as extended time for tests or more frequent feedback from teachers. Behavioral interventions to improve organizational skills, study techniques or social functioning are also helpful for some. For others, carefully managed medication and education about ADHD may be sufficient. Most individuals with ADHD, predominantly inattentive type function quite well when they are receiving appropriate treatment.22,23,24
1. Lahey, B.B., & Carlson, C.L. (1991). ?Validity of the diagnostic category attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity: a review of the literature.? J. Learning Disabilities 24 (3), 110-120.
2. American Psychiatric Association (2001). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press.
3. World Health Organization (2003). Adult Self-Report Scale for ADHD.
4. Brown, T. E. (2000). Emerging Understandings of Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities. In Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities in Children, Adolescents and Adults. T. E. Brown, Ed. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press: 3-55.
5. Weiss, M, Hechtman, L.T., & Weiss, G. (1999): ADHD in Adulthood: A Guide to Current Theory, Diagnosis and Treatment. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
6. Biederman, J., & Mick, E., et al. (2000). Age-Dependent Decline of Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Impact of Remission Definition and Symptom Type. American Journal of Psychiatry 157(5), 8-15-818.
7. Brown, T. E. (2000). Emerging Understandings of Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities. In Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities in Children, Adolescents and Adults. T. E. Brown, Ed. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press: 3-55.
8. Barkley, R.A. (1998): Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment. New York, Guilford Press.
9. Brown, T. E. (1995). Differential Diagnosis of ADD vs. ADHD in Adults. In A Comprehensive Guide to Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults. K. G. Nadeau, Ed. New York, Brunner/Mazel: 93-108.
10. Brown, T. E. (2000). Emerging Understandings of Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities. In Attention Deficit Disorders and Comorbidities in Children, Adolescents and Adults. T. E. Brown, Ed. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press: 3-55.
11. Millstein, R. B., & Wilens, T.E., et al. (1997). ?Presenting ADHD symptoms and subtypes in clinically referred adults with ADHD.? J. Attention Disorders 2(3), 159-166.
12. Weiss, M, Hechtman, L.T., & Weiss, G. (1999): ADHD in Adulthood: A Guide to Current Theory, Diagnosis and Treatment. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
13. Nadeau, K. G., & Littman, E.B., et al. (1999). Understanding Girls With AD/HD. Silver Spring, MD, Advantage Press.
14. Biederman, J., & Mick, E., et al. (2002). ?Influence of Gender on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children Referred to a Psychiatric Clinic.? American Journal of Psychiatry 159(1), 36-42.
15. Barkley, R.A. (1998): Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment. New York, Guilford Press.
16. American Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry (1997): Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children, Adolescents and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of the American Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry; 36(10 Supplement):085S-121S
17. American Academy of Pediatrics (2000): Clinical Practice Guideline: Diagnosis and Evaluation of the Child With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Pediatrics; 105(5):1158-1170
18. Weiss, M, Hechtman, L.T., & Weiss, G. (1999): ADHD in Adulthood: A Guide to Current Theory, Diagnosis and Treatment. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
19. Barkley, R.A. (1998): Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment. New York, Guilford Press.
20. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2002): Practice Parameter for the Use of Stimulant Medications in the Treatment of Children, Adolescents and Adults. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 41(2 Supplement):26S-49S
21. American Academy of Pediatrics (2001): Clinical Practice Guideline: Treatment of the School-Aged Child With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Pediatrics; 108(4):1033-1044
22. Dendy, C. A. Z. (1995). Teenagers With ADD: A Parents? Guide. Bethesda, Woodbine House, Inc.
23. Brown, T.E. (2000). Attention-deficit Disorders and Comorbidities in Children, Adolescents, and Adults. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.: 537-568.
24. Pfiffner, L. (2003). Psychosocial Treatment for ADHD-Inattentive Type. ADHD Report 11, 1-8.
The information provided in this fact sheet was supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number 5U38DD000335-04 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC.
This fact sheet was approved by CHADD's Professional Advisory Board in September 2004.
© 2004 Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).
For further information about ADHD or CHADD, please contact:
National Resource Center on ADHD
Children and Adults with
4601 Presidents Drive, Suite 300
Lanham, MD 20706