An ADHD misdiagnosis is possible. Still, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of this happening.

Awareness of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has grown over the past decade. Yet fully understanding the condition and getting a correct diagnosis can be complicated.

Misdiagnosis can occur because symptoms of ADHD can mimic other conditions. Also, ADHD is multifaceted, and symptoms often present differently from person to person.

ADHD diagnoses in children increased by 42% between 2003 and 2011. Is the jump due to the healthcare community learning more about the condition, or is it overdiagnosed? The latest research and the top potential causes of misdiagnosis offer some clues.

ADHD is a common childhood mental health condition that usually remains well into adulthood, though symptoms tend to lessen or change.

About 11% of children, 8.7% of adolescents, and 4.4% of adults in the United States have ADHD. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition than women.

Symptoms of ADHD include focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. From having difficulty sitting still in meetings to speaking out impulsively, living with ADHD in work, school, and personal settings can be challenging.

Here are a few ways ADHD shows up:

  • inattention: unable to focus or stay on task, disorganized, missed deadlines
  • hyperactivity: restlessness, constant fidgeting, excessive talking when inappropriate
  • impulsivity: acting without thinking about consequences, interrupting others

There’s no typical way to experience ADHD.Symptoms can show up differently in every individual.

The exact number of misdiagnosed cases is unknown, but a recent review of studies concluded that ADHD is overdiagnosed and overtreated in children and adolescents.

A doctor can misdiagnose ADHD for a few different reasons.

ADHD misdiagnosis and criteria

Doctors must follow diagnostic guidelines to identify specific criteria for every disease. But they may feel they can accurately diagnose without the reference if they’ve memorized the standards or experience has made them experts.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) requires specific criteria for a person to receive a diagnosis of ADHD. For example, behaviors must occur in two or more settings, such as work and school.

But a study of 50 pediatric practices found that only an estimated 50% of doctors used diagnostic guidelines from at least 2 sources and across 2 settings to make their ADHD diagnosis, but 93% prescribed medication to treat the condition.

ADHD misdiagnosis and age

When children lack challenge or stimulation in the classroom, it can manifest as symptoms of ADHD. In these cases, childrenmay exhibit only a couple of the symptoms associated with the disorder.

For example, a child may have trouble paying attention in class because they already understand the material. They may also leave their seat often because they’re bored.

As you get older, symptoms of hyperactivity first noted in childhood may manifest differently.

You may have constantly climbed on furniture and roughhoused with siblings when you were a kid. But now that you’re an adult, you talk a lot and get restless when trying to sleep at night — all signs of the same ADHD hyperactivity tendencies showing up in different behaviors.

Previously, experts believed ADHD to be a childhood disorder. As you grow into an adult, the symptoms subside. Now, they recognize it continues into adulthood and requires continuous treatment. There is a lack of awareness among some doctors.

Doctors may feel symptoms of hyperactivity have to be present to diagnose someone with ADHD, but this is not the case. Impulsivity and inattention are just as strong indicators of ADHD.

ADHD misdiagnosis and sex

Research shows that many female children with ADHD are likely to remain unidentified and untreated. As a result, experts consider many factors when looking for why that disparity exists.

One theory is that young females mask their behaviors and socially adapt more than boys. In other words, the behavioral expectations aren’t the same among the sexes and lead to misdiagnosis.

Women are also more likely to experience the primary symptoms of inattentiveness instead of hyperactivity. That may be why ADHD is diagnosed more in men and missed in women.

Boys may also feel more comfortable culturally acting on their whims and being high-energy, potentially leading to overdiagnosis. This doesn’t mean they have ADHD.

ADHD symptoms may overlap with the signs of other conditions, leading to misdiagnosis. For example:

  • Feeling distracted or having difficulty focusing can be a symptom of ADHD and symptoms of depression and anxiety. With depression and anxiety disorders, the person is preoccupied with difficult thoughts or worries, distracting them.
  • Sleep disturbances are common across many mental health diagnoses, including depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and sleep disorders like insomnia.
  • Restlessness and fidgeting can be a way for someone to cope with anxiety rather than not being able to sit still.

You may show some symptoms of ADHD. But combined with your other symptoms, they may be more indicative of another mental health disorder.

If the prescribed treatment for ADHD is not helping you manage your symptoms, you might have been misdiagnosed. But sometimes, your doctor may need to try a few different ADHD medications before finding an effective one.

Doctors are human and can make mistakes. But if you try different treatments and still don’t see results, you’ll want to speak with your doctor again.

You can be your own health advocate and talk with your doctor if you feel you received an incorrect diagnosis.

Here are some steps to consider before meeting with your doctor:

  • Make a list of your symptoms. Note the severity of your symptoms and what makes them worse.
  • Communicate openly and honestly. When you’re clear and honest about how you’ve been feeling, it can help you and the doctor make the right decisions for your care.
  • Considering bringing a loved one. Having a friend or family member with you can ensure all the information is communicated accurately on both sides.
  • Learn how to access your medical records. Today, many healthcare systems offer easy access to your test results, diagnoses, medications, and treatment plans to help your understanding.

Sometimes, doctors don’t get an initial diagnosis right. Being your own health advocate can help ensure you get the correct diagnosis, critical to receiving effective care.

If you’ve been correctly diagnosed with ADHD, it’s going to be OK. Though stigma still exists, society has come a long way in awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions.

You don’t need to hide your symptoms. Your local health office is a safe space to seek help for your mental health condition — whether it’s ADHD or something different.

The National Alliance on Mental Health site’s resources or your doctor can also offer support and guidance.