ADHD? ADD? What’s the Difference?

Thanks to the ever-changing parade of names given to this syndrome over the years (e.g., Minimal Brain Dysfunction, Hyperkinetic Disorder of Childhood…), it’s no wonder people are confused! The names are designated by the American Psychiatric Association’s committee that periodically revises the “Psychiatrists’ Bible”: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM. The current DSM is the 5th edition.

So you may ask, “But what if there isn’t any hyperactivity? Isn’t that just ADD?”

The current classifications include:

  • Combined presentation (significant problems with both inattentiveness and hyperactivity and/or impulsiveness)
  • Predominantly inattentive presentation
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation

These three categories are each designated Mild, Moderate, or Severe.

In addition, there are two additional diagnoses to describe significant symptoms that don’t exactly fall under the aforementioned presentations: Other Specified ADHD and Unspecified ADHD.

(Whew!) Got it? Good. But don’t worry; in most circles, the terms ADHD and ADD are used interchangeably, and they work just fine.

What About “Adult ADHD” or “Adult ADD”?

Certainly, adults can have ADHD (ADD) — but they don’t “get” it in adulthood; for the diagnosis to be made, it must have been present since childhood, by about age seven. Sometimes, adults who were never diagnosed as children are just now learning that the cluster of signs and symptoms that have caused them difficulty for so long is due to previously-unrecognized ADHD.

However, many adults may exhibit ADD-like behaviors or have ADD-type difficulties but don’t have ADHD. There are many reasons for this: a stressful, hectic lifestyle, anxiety, depressed mood, sleep deprivation, a habit of multi-tasking (which isn’t real, by the way), and/or just too much “too much” can all cause trouble with concentration, short-term memory, irritability, labile mood, and some of the other classic signs and symptoms associated with an attention-deficit disorder. Sometimes intense, gifted adults “look like ADD” to others, even though they do not have ADD.

How is ADHD Diagnosed?

In children and adults, any assessment for ADHD begins with taking a thorough developmental history. Other means used to evaluate the likelihood of an individual’s meeting criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD include: direct observation, subjective self-reports, screening forms or surveys, anecdotal evidence, school or work performance reports.

A “formal” assessment by a psychologist may go on to include administration of standardized rating scales designed to measure degrees of distractibility and concentration, attention span, information intake and processing speed, behavior motivation, impulse control, etc., and/or a battery of psychological tests designed to measure the individual’s potential vs. academic, work, or life skill performance. However, there is no specific test for ADHD.

Some recommended resources




CHADD – Children and Adults with ADD

ADDA – Attention Deficit Disorder Association

ADDitude Ezine – ADDitude – Inside the ADHD Mind