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This article was written by Dr Amy Burton, a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor based in Sydney.

young person sitting on a couch next to their dog reading a book staring into the distance

Lately, people have been talking more about ADHD in the media, online and in popular culture. In some ways, this increased awareness has been great for people with ADHD, who have been misunderstood and treated unfairly by others due to their condition. 

However, it has also raised a lot of questions for many young people struggling with their attention, focus and impulsivity: Do I have ADHD? Should I be taking medication for ADHD? How do I get a diagnosis of ADHD? What if, all this time, my struggles with schoolwork and social interactions have been due to ADHD? 

In this article, we will share some tips on how you can go about finding answers to these questions.

🧠 What is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (also sometimes referred to as ADD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that the brain of someone with ADHD is different (neurodivergent) from that of the average person (neurotypical). 

Compared to a neurotypical person, someone with ADHD will have a harder time paying attention, sitting still and/or not acting on their impulses. Symptoms of ADHD first appear in childhood and impact upon the person’s ability to successfully and easily complete daily tasks at home, at school and with their friends.

Different types of ADHD

There are different types of ADHD, and not all people who get an ADHD diagnosis experience the symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity. 

  • ADHD – Inattentive type. People with ADHD (inattentive type) struggle with paying attention, concentrating and keeping focused. Completing tasks (such as school work, household chores, projects and assignments) is difficult due to their being easily distracted and unfocused. 
  • ADHD – Hyperactive/Impulsive type. People with ADHD (hyperactive/impulsive type) experience constant fidgeting and are unable to sit still. They also have trouble stopping themselves from acting on their impulses (such as doing things before thinking them through and interrupting others’ conversations or activities).
  • ADHD – Combined type. People with ADHD (combined) experience significant difficulties with both attention and concentration and with hyperactivity and impulsivity.

❓ Do I have ADHD? 

If you have constant challenges with maintaining focus and concentration, if you are often forgetful and get distracted easily, or if you find it particularly hard to sit still and be quiet (taking a test or sitting an exam is especially difficult for you), then it’s possible that you could have ADHD. 

Recently, young people have been diagnosing themselves with ADHD based on information they’ve found on TikTok, Instagram or YouTube, or after doing an online quiz. However, it’s very important not to self-diagnose a complex neurodevelopmental condition such as ADHD.

Why shouldn’t I ‘self-diagnose’ ADHD? 

Symptoms such as inattention, poor concentration or hyperactivity may not be due to an underlying ADHD. They could be caused by an anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other condition. Or these symptoms might be appearing due to stress, not getting enough sleep, too much caffeine, low or high blood sugar, side-effects of medication or recreational drug use. 

It’s important to get the diagnosis right so that you can access the most appropriate help and support to manage your symptoms. That’s why diagnosing ADHD requires a comprehensive assessment from a trained specialist.

However, here’s something to remember if you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD but face challenges like the ones described above: not having an official diagnosis doesn’t make your experience any less real or important. 

🩺 How do I get a diagnosis of ADHD?

So, if you can’t self-diagnose ADHD, how do you get a formal diagnosis? In Australia, only paediatricians and psychiatrists have the specialised knowledge and training to both diagnose and prescribe medicine to treat ADHD. While there are some ADHD assessment clinics around, and certain psychologists will have completed the necessary training to be able to assess and diagnose ADHD, only a medical doctor (e.g. a paediatrician or psychiatrist) can prescribe medication to assist with the management of ADHD symptoms.

Getting a diagnosis if you’re under 18

If you’re still in high school, you might be able to see your paediatrician for an assessment. The younger you are when you seek assessment for ADHD, the more straightforward the process will be. 

Getting a diagnosis if you’re over 18

Unfortunately, obtaining a formal diagnosis of adult ADHD is a time-intensive and expensive pursuit in Australia as there are long waiting times for psychiatrists and ADHD specialist assessment clinics and the costs of these comprehensive assessments are significant. 

If you’re looking to get diagnosed, or are currently on a waitlist for a diagnosis, check out some practical things you can do to manage your symptoms in the meantime.

🤔 Do I need to get a formal diagnosis?

Given the level of difficulty of getting a formal diagnosis, you might now be wondering if you really need one. If the symptoms you’ve been experiencing are getting in the way of your being able to focus on your school or uni work, or are impacting your ability to hold down a job, or have been affecting your friendships and relationships, it could be worth seeking a formal diagnosis. 

Here are a few reasons you might want to get a formal diagnosis:

  • Help at school/uni: You can have access to special consideration and learning support so that you can complete your school or uni work more effectively. Schools and unis can organise for you to be able to take breaks in tasks such as tests and exams, and to sit in a different room from the other students so that there are fewer distractions. 
  • Help at work: You can discuss your ADHD with your manager or the HR department, and your employer can work with you in order to put into place some supports to make the workplace environment more ADHD-friendly. 
  • Medication: A diagnosis will open up the opportunity to trial medications that can help you to manage your symptoms.
  • Clarity: If you have been struggling with your self-esteem related to difficulties at school, uni or work, then seeking a diagnosis of ADHD might provide some clarity for you and offer a helpful explanation for your difficulties.

While there are a few distinct benefits of seeking a diagnosis, it's important to note that you don’t necessarily need to get a diagnosis to get help with the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. 

🙋‍♀️ What help can I get without a diagnosis?

As it's so expensive and time-consuming to get a diagnosis, you might decide not to pursue a formal diagnosis for now. Thankfully, there are still things you can do to help cope with your difficulties with attention that don’t require a formal diagnosis. 

Seeing a psychologist

A psychologist can work with you to:

  • gain skills for effective time management
  • help you with overcoming procrastination
  • help with improving your attention, focus and memory
  • help you improve your impulse control 
  • help you improve your mood and self-esteem
  • organise some additional support for you.

Your psychologist can also provide you with supporting documentation to assist you with an application for special consideration at your school or uni. This documentation might allow you the same provisions for tests and assessments that you would be eligible for with a formal diagnosis. 

If you aren’t already seeing a psychologist, you can ask your GP to provide you with a mental health care plan, which can enable you to see a psychologist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Practical tips to help with ADHD symptoms

For ways to help manage symptoms of ADHD on your own, check out our article here.

✅ I have received a formal diagnosis of ADHD. What next?

It can be pretty overwhelming to get a diagnosis of ADHD, especially when you’re finding out about this part of yourself in your late teens or adulthood. You might be reflecting on your past difficulties with schoolwork and social interactions and thinking about how hard you have been on yourself, as well as about how you might have been treated by others (teachers, parents, friends) as a result of your ADHD symptoms. 

It’s common for people with ADHD to believe that they are stupid, a failure or a bad friend, and it can be confronting to realise that all this time your difficulties had an underlying neurological cause. 

Psychological therapy can help. It can provide a safe space for you to talk through your difficulties in the past and to get some very helpful strategies for managing your ADHD symptoms. Whether or not you decide to try using medication, CBT for ADHD will help you to reach your goals in your studies, work and/or relationships.

What can I do now?