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Is an Accurate ADHD Diagnosis Really Possible?

The difference between an ADHD diagnosis and a related condition can be negligible. How do you use overlapping symptoms and treatment to your benefit?

Diagnosing our kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), its common comorbid conditions, and learning disabilities is like putting together puzzles.* Some kids are like a 25-piece floor puzzle; their pieces (symptoms) fall into place fairly quickly, and before you know it, you see the complete picture. Others are 1,500-piece challenges — putting the tiny pieces together takes time, and the pieces are so similar in shape and color that you’re likely to make some mistakes along the way.

Some parents hang all of their hopes on finding the right diagnosis. We have a tendency to believe that when our kids are assigned the right labels, we’ll be just a step away from solving every problem. Others hope to avoid labels altogether. They don’t want to put their kids in boxes, to have others view everything they say and do through the lens of a label.

I spend way too much time thinking, writing, and talking about diagnoses, and once I get started on the topic, I tend to rant. Recent headlines have had me focused on the topic once again. Is it ADHD or auditory processing disorder? Is it ADHD or pervasive developmental disorder? Is it this, or is it that? Or, is it this and that? Those are some very tough questions to answer. Just look at the similarities — and the differences — then consider the fact that no two kids are exactly alike. Where does that leave you? If you’re like me, it’s probably in a state of confusion.

How important is getting an accurate diagnosis to you?

Coping with overlapping, evolving, and generally confusing diagnoses

1. Getting the “right” diagnosis is only important insofar as it guides you to the “right” treatment and opens doors to the “right” services. Don’t be afraid of labels, and don’t put too much stock in them. Instead, use them to your child’s advantage.

2. Don’t miss out on strategies and products that might help your child just because they were developed to address different conditions. Many techniques that help kids on the autism spectrum or with sensory integration disorder, for example, will help our kids with ADHD and vice versa. In our quest to find information and support, we need to reach out beyond the ADHD community.

3. Diagnosing isn’t necessarily science. Years ago in an abnormal psych class, I learned that the criteria for diagnosing included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), aka the Bible, are written by mental health professionals serving on committees. With personalities and politics at play and compromise and consensus building factoring into decisions, we aren’t exactly talking about hard science here, folks.

I might sound jaded about the diagnosis dilemma, but I would still encourage you to read ADDitude‘s experts’ explanations of how to distinguish one disorder from another.

Here are links to all of the articles available to date:

Is It Anxiety or ADD/ADHD?

Is It Asperger’s Syndrome or ADD/ADHD?

Is It Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) or ADHD?

Is It Autism or ADD/ADHD?

Is It Bipolar Disorder or ADD/ADHD?

Is It Depression or ADD/ADHD?

Is It Executive Function Disorder (EFD) or ADHD?

Is It a Learning Disability or Inattentive ADHD?


Is It Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or ADHD?

Is It Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or ADHD?

For a visual representation of how symptoms overlap and differ, take a look at this chart of behavioral characteristics and related mental health conditions in children.

Please share your thoughts!

*I can’t take credit for the puzzle analogy. I’m sure I read it somewhere before. My thanks go to the original source, whoever you are!