When is an ADHD diagnosis right?

Is your child unable to sit still at the dinner table? Daydreaming in class? Having trouble following instructions? Interrupting others and blurting out inappropriate comments? These are all normal behaviors in children. They might also be signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, says  Dr. Ashley Gorman of Morris Psychological Group.

But how do you know? And if you have the nagging suspicion that it might be ADHD, when is the right time to have your child tested?

According to Gorman, the keys to an accurate diagnosis are the extent of the symptoms and their duration. Are these behaviors interfering with your child’s ability to function at home and at school? How long have they been present?

“Signs of ADHD often show up between the ages of three and six,but diagnosis is difficult at that age,” Gorman says. “Children mature at different rates and delays in language development, for example, may cause frustration that looks like ADHD. Also, other medical and psychological conditions, learning disabilities or major life changes might cause behaviors that mimic ADHD. By around age seven, a qualified professional can generally confirm or rule out a diagnosis.”

While there is no single test that definitely identifies ADHD, Gorman says a clinical psychologist or other specialist will examine a combination of factors to formulate a diagnosis – a complete medical history and exam, interviews or questionnaires for parents, teachers and others who interact regularly with the child, and possibly an ADHD rating scale that helps collect and evaluate information.

She offers these tips for parents:

Signs and symptoms

The child who is inattentive…seems not to be paying attention even when spoken to directly, makes careless mistakes, loses things, has difficulty completing a task, is easily distracted, has trouble following instructions and staying organized, is forgetful.

The child who is hyperactive…runs around at inappropriate times, fidgets and squirms when forced to sit, seems to be in constant motion, talks nonstop, has trouble with quiet tasks, has a volatile temper.

The child who is impulsive…interrupts, blurts out answers without waiting to be called on, can't wait his or her turn, acts without thinking, intrudes on others' activities, overreacts emotionally.

Tips for  when to seek help:

  • Are the symptoms consistent across all settings – home, school and play? If the behavior is exhibited in only one environment, chances are something other than ADHD is causing it.
  • How long have the symptoms been present? A persistent pattern of behavior for six months or more is generally a criterion for a positive diagnosis.
  • How severe are the symptoms? Are they negatively affecting the child at home, at play or at school? Is he or she falling behind academically? Isolated socially? The impact on a child's life is the most important consideration in seeking an evaluation.