Therapists, doctors and other mental health professionals often get the question, “What’s the difference between attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?” It’s a fair question, since a lot of times you’ll hear a doctor or see an information resource use only one of these terms, and others (like us) who use the terms interchangeably.
This article describes the difference between attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in both children and adults.
Brief History of Attention Deficit Disorder
Before the modern diagnostic system of psychiatric disorders was adopted in the early 1980s, the term used by doctors to describe inattentive and hyperactive children was “Hyperkinetic Disorder of Childhood.” In 1980, with the publication of the psychiatric diagnostic reference called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition (DSM III), the terms “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) and “attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity” (just plain ADD) were formalized. (These were also the terms used in the international diagnostic classification system in use at the time as well.)
In the revision to the DSM III just seven years later, the DSM III-R seems to have dumped the “without hyperactivity” diagnosis. The reasons for this are unclear. You could still be diagnosed with ADD, but the formal diagnostic term appears to have been “Undifferentiated attention deficit disorder.” This was not nearly as popular a diagnosis as just plain old ADHD. There were no recognized “types” of ADHD in 1987 (although clinicians would often informally note the primary presentation of symptoms for the patient).
The DSM IV, first published in 1994, expanded upon the complexity of the ADHD diagnosis by allowing for the addition of a coding note for the type of primary presentation of the disorder. Clinicians could now specify whether the symptoms were combined, predominantly of the inattentive kind, or predominantly of the hyperactive/impulsive kind. (Those who don’t meet the full criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to a “not otherwise specified” category.) According to the DSM 5, ADHD affects about 5 percent of children and about 3 percent of adults.
The DSM 5 continues on this tradition, meaning that a person can be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with a combined presentation, predominantly inattentive presentation, or predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation.
So What’s the Difference Between ADHD and ADD?
The difference is simply a matter of some people preferring to use older terminology that may more accurately describe their specific type of attention deficit concerns without using the technical diagnostic specifier term. The phrase “attention deficit disorder” is also shorter to say and write, and so it’s often used as a shortened version of the full-blow, actual diagnostic term (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder).
In modern usage, because the term “attention deficit disorder” hasn’t been in normal use in the U.S. for decades, many people — including Psych Central — use the two terms interchangeably. We will typically use the full diagnostic name once or twice in an article, but then abbreviate it to just “ADHD” from thereon. We may use the shorter term from time to time as well, out of older habit or to appeal to people who still identify with that term.
Technically, however, there no longer is an “attention deficit disorder” diagnosis — it is all known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with a specifier made for the actual type of ADHD the patient suffers.