As an Adult, How Do I Get Diagnosed for ADD?

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Reader’s Question

As a 20-year-old, how do I go about getting a diagnosis of ADD? My parents and brother do not believe in individuals having ADD, but friends can vouch for me in that they believe I have ADD as well. Would I actually be able to get diagnosed if my parents aren’t able to vouch for me? I’ve been struggling with figuring out how to do this for a while now.

Psychologist’s Reply

The diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has become controversial due to the huge increase in the number of children (mostly boys) who have been given the diagnosis over the past decade. Some mental health professionals attribute the increase to greater awareness of the problem, leading to more individuals being identified and treated. Others, however, point out that many of the diagnoses are made by family physicians, based entirely on reports from parents.

The predominant theory to explain ADD is based on assumptions about differences in the brains of people with and without attention problems. Very few people have difficulty concentrating on something they enjoy, and most people can make themselves focus on something uninteresting if they believe it’s important to do so. However, the assumption is that people with ADD have deficits in that part of the brain responsible for sustained attention under the control of will. So, the attention problems show themselves most in tasks that are uninteresting, such as studying or some repetitive task. The typical treatment is to prescribe stimulant drugs to “wake-up” those parts of the brain involved in consciously focused attention.

The good news is that, as an adult, you can seek diagnosis and treatment on your own, and the health care professional will not expect to talk to your parents. Like with virtually all disorders that fall under the purview of psychology and psychiatry, there are no laboratory tests per se for ADD. The diagnosis is typically based on symptoms and problems reported by the patient (or the parents and teachers in the case of children). Indeed, there are numerous screening surveys available that ask questions similar to those a health care professional would ask, including some questionnaires available at our main site. I am aware of some mental health professionals who employ a computerized task to quantify the individual’s ability to concentrate, and then compare those data to a normative sample who took the same test. However, my sense is that this type of testing is clearly the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps the ultimate question is the desired purpose of a diagnosis. You may be seeking treatment, in which case you’ll probably receive a prescription along with follow up to see whether it helps. Or, you may simply be seeking validation that you have attention problems that your family has ignored or denied. Given what you said about their belief that ADD does not exist, I doubt that a diagnosis from a professional will sway their opinion. I encourage you to focus on seeking help with the goal of improving your attention and concentration so that you’re able to achieve your goals and better understand how your unique brain works.

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