Decoding ADHD Diagnosis Through DSM-5 Guidelines

The DSM-5 outlines specific criteria for ADHD diagnosis, which include patterns of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interfere with functioning or development. For adults, several symptoms must have been present before age 12 and in multiple settings.

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Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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The DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Adult ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting children and adults. It disrupts their ability to sustain attention, control impulses, and manage hyperactivity. While often associated with children, it can persist into adulthood, impacting various aspects of an individual's life. Recognizing the presence of adult ADHD is crucial as it poses unique challenges, making an accurate diagnosis and management essential for a fulfilling life. However, there are complex guidelines that professionals use to diagnose adult ADHD.

This article will explore the intricacies of the criteria for adult ADHD and the importance of recognizing it beyond childhood. We will delve into the significance of obtaining an accurate diagnosis to address the specific needs and challenges faced by adults with ADHD. To achieve this, we will define ADHD in adults and emphasize the role of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in the diagnostic process.

Understanding ADHD in Adults

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects individuals throughout their lifespan, including adults. While commonly associated with childhood, ADHD can persist into adulthood, presenting unique challenges and symptoms.

Adult ADHD commonly manifests as difficulty sustaining attention, remaining focused, time management, impulsivity, and difficulty managing sequential tasks. For adults, this impacts their daily lives differently from how it affects children, particularly in relation to social or occupational functioning. Symptoms interfere with other areas of their lives, such as financial stability, relationships, and health.

Contrary to popular belief, ADHD does not magically disappear with age. Research suggests that up to 90% percent of children with ADHD will continue to meet the diagnostic criteria into adulthood. ADHD is related to structural differences in the brains of affected individuals compared to those without ADHD. Based on this, many experts believe that even if symptoms improve with age, the underlying structural differences in the brain may persist.

Why Does Adult ADHD Often Go Undiagnosed?


One of the primary reasons adult ADHD often goes undiagnosed is the misconception that it is a childhood condition that dissipates over time. As a result, many individuals with ADHD symptoms in adulthood may not seek help or consider the possibility of having ADHD in adulthood. If caregivers and teachers miss symptoms during childhood, the condition is missed entirely or diagnosed later in adulthood. 


When ADHD persists into adulthood, it is often mistaken for another mental disorder. ADHD symptoms that result in rejection sensitivity, poor focus, and emotional dysregulation are commonly misdiagnosed as a mood disorder, anxiety disorder or personality disorder. This can result in the possibility of completely missing ADHD. Although people with ADHD are at a higher risk of having a diagnosed mental health condition, professionals often overlook the possibility of ADHD, worsening the existing mental health condition.


Another factor contributing to the underdiagnosis of adult ADHD is the perception that individuals should have ‘outgrown’ their symptoms. Adults with ADHD may adapt and develop coping mechanisms to manage and hide their symptoms, making it less apparent to others and even to themselves that they have the condition.


Gender bias in ADHD diagnosis is a prevalent issue affecting women and girls. Research has found that In childhood, only 25% of those diagnosed with ADHD are girls. However, in adulthood, it reaches an equal gender ratio of 50/50.

Unfortunately, many girls with ADHD go undiagnosed and untreated because their symptoms may differ from the stereotypical hyperactivity seen in boys. While girls with ADHD often display inattention, distractibility, and poor impulse control, it may manifest through excessive talking, perfectionism, and risk-taking. This makes it less recognizable, increasing the likelihood of missed diagnoses and appropriate support.

How The DSM Is Used To Diagnose Adult ADHD

The DSM-5, also known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a manual developed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It helps doctors and professionals diagnose mental health conditions, including ADHD, by providing standard guidelines for identifying symptoms and behaviors related to specific disorders. The DSM is regularly updated with the latest information and research to ensure it stays accurate and helpful in diagnosing and treating mental health issues.

The DSM-5 helps diagnose ADHD by providing clear criteria to differentiate ADHD from other conditions with similar symptoms. 

For a diagnosis of adult ADHD, the following criteria must be met:

  • Persistent symptoms for ≥ 6 months in two or more settings (e.g., school, home, work).
  • Several symptoms of ADHD present before age 12.
  • Symptoms that are not better accounted for by a different psychiatric disorder (e.g., anxiety) and do not occur exclusively during a psychotic disorder (e.g., schizophrenia).
  • Several symptoms significantly disrupt your functioning at work/school, with family, or socially.

If you meet these criteria, healthcare professionals will assess your most predominant symptoms against the three different presentations of ADHD: predominantly inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, and combined type.

Predominantly Inattentive Presentation

To be diagnosed with this presentation, adults (≥ 17 years) must meet five or more of the following symptoms.

  1. Carelessness/poor attention to detail: Often makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities and overlooks or misses important information.

  2. Diminished attention span: Difficulty remaining focused on tasks or play activities, such as during lectures, conversations, or reading.

  3. Poor listening skills: Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly, even without any obvious distraction.

  4. Lacks follow-through: Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace, quickly losing focus and getting sidetracked.

  5. Disorganized: Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities, including managing sequential tasks, keeping belongings in order, and having poor time management and meeting deadlines.

  6. Avoids tasks requiring concentration: Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort, like preparing reports, completing forms, or reviewing lengthy papers.

  7. Loses things: Often misplaces necessary items needed for tasks or activities, such as wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, or phones.

  8. Easily distracted: Quickly loses focus and is often easily distracted by things in the environment or unrelated thoughts.

Forgetful: Is often forgetful in daily activities, such as doing chores, running errands, returning calls, paying bills, or keeping appointments.

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Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation

To be diagnosed with the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation of ADHD, adults must meet five or more of the following symptoms of hyperactivity impulsivity:

  1. Fidgets a lot: Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet and may squirm when seated.

  2. Trouble staying still: Often leaves their seat in situations when remaining seated is expected, such as in the office or during movies.

  3. Restlessness: Experiences a strong desire to move about when it's inappropriate or consistently feels restless and finds it difficult to control.

  4. Trouble keeping quiet: Often unable to engage in leisure activities quietly, may engage in self-talk, or struggle to refrain from interjecting or shifting to more "exciting" activities.

  5. Very much "on the go": Acts as if "driven by a motor," feeling uncomfortable being still for an extended time, and others may find it hard to keep up.

  6. Often talks excessively: Engages in excessive chatting, sometimes unaware of its effect on others.

  7. Impulsively blurting things out: Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed, completes people's sentences, or cannot wait to speak in a conversation.

  8. Trouble waiting their turn: Often has difficulty waiting for their turn, such as waiting in line.

  9. Interrupts/Intrudes: Often interrupts or intrudes on others, taking over activities without being invited, butting into conversations, or using other people's things without asking for permission.

Combined Presentation

When a person has both inattentive and hyperactive impulsive symptoms, they are diagnosed with the combined type. However, it's possible for someone to experience symptoms from both categories without fully meeting the criteria for either type.

Issues With The Criteria For ADHD

There are a few issues reported by clinicians when using the DSM-5 to reach a diagnosis of ADHD in adults.

Some of these include:

Symptoms Do Not Reflect Adult ADHD

The symptoms listed in the DSM were originally designed for children and may not fully capture the adult experience with the condition, leading to challenges in diagnosis and understanding.

Arbitrary Onset Age

The DSM-5 requires that several symptoms of ADHD must be present before age 12 for a diagnosis. However, the age of onset for symptoms can vary, and relying on a fixed age may lead to inaccurate diagnoses for some individuals.

Subjective Definitions

The DSM's definition of 'impairment' is vague, making it challenging to determine the extent of functional difficulties caused by ADHD. Clinicians must assess various life domains to determine if adverse consequences are a result of ADHD behaviors or related to something else.

The Importance of Early Detection and Treatment

Detecting and treating adult ADHD early is crucial for improving various aspects of life, including relationships, academic or work performance, and emotional well-being. Timely intervention can prevent long-term effects and enhance the overall quality of life. 

Early management and support lead to more positive outcomes for individuals with ADHD. Accessing appropriate treatment helps develop effective coping strategies and improves long-term functioning.

Dispelling myths and encouraging help-seeking behaviors are vital to ensure timely assistance. Educating the public about adult ADHD promotes early detection and reduces stigma related to the condition.


In conclusion, the DSM serves as a valuable tool for diagnosing adult ADHD, helping clinicians differentiate it from other mental health conditions. However, it is crucial to be mindful of its limitations and take a holistic approach when assessing symptoms. Looking beyond the DSM criteria allows clinicians to better understand how ADHD impacts various aspects of the patient's life, enabling more comprehensive and accurate diagnosis and treatment. By considering the broader context, they can provide individuals with ADHD with the support and interventions they need to thrive in all areas of life.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is ADHD a diagnosed mental illness?

Yes, ADHD is a diagnosed mental illness, classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder.

What is the DSM-5 criteria code for ADHD?

The DSM criteria code for ADHD is 314.00 (F90.0) for the combined presentation, 314.01 (F90.1) for the inattentive presentation, and 314.01 (F90.2) for the hyperactive/impulsive presentation.

What are the subtypes of ADHD in the DSM-5?

The subtypes of ADHD in the DSM-5 are described as ‘presentations’. They include the predominantly inattentive presentation, hyperactive/impulsive presentation, and combined.

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