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Where does one turn when they suspect their child is suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADHD)?

Most families first turn to their family physician or pediatrician for help, which is often a good first step. However, a reliable diagnosis of ADHD is best made by a trained and experienced mental health professional who specializes in helping children with ADHD. Such professionals are usually child psychologists, child psychiatrists, as well as some developmental or behavioral pediatricians and behavioral neurologists. Clinical social workers may also have such training.

While some pediatricians may do the assessment themselves, parents should always ask for a referral to an appropriate mental health specialist. In addition, state and local agencies that serve families and children, as well as some of the volunteer organizations listed at the end of this document, can help identify appropriate specialists.

SpecialtyCan Diagnose ADHDCan prescribe medication, if neededProvides counseling or training
Pediatricians or Family Physiciansyesyesno
Clinical Social workersyesnoyes

Knowing the differences in qualifications and services can help the family choose someone who can best meet their needs. There are several types of specialists qualified to diagnose and treat ADHD. Child psychiatrists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating childhood mental and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist can provide therapy and prescribe any needed medications. Child psychologists are also qualified to diagnose and treat ADHD. They can provide therapy for the child and help the family develop ways to deal with the disorder. But psychologists are not medical doctors and must rely on the child’s physician to do medical exams and prescribe medication. Neurologists, doctors who work with disorders of the brain and nervous system, can also diagnose ADHD and prescribe medicines. But unlike psychiatrists and psychologists, neurologists usually do not provide therapy for the emotional aspects of the disorder.

Within each specialty, individual doctors and mental health professionals differ in their experiences with ADHD. So in selecting a specialist, it’s important to find someone with specific training and experience in diagnosing and treating the disorder.

This article is based upon a brochure published by the National Institute of Mental Health.