Understanding the 3 types of ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the name given to a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity at levels that are inappropriate for the age of the person.
Previously, three specific subtypes of ADHD were used to describe or classify this mental health disorder, but with the introduction of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5) in May 2013, these ‘types’ became known as ‘presentations’.
The DSM-5 is a handbook, which healthcare professionals use, that lists the criteria for assessing and diagnosing ADHD and other mental disorders.
What are the 3 presentations of ADHD?
The two core symptom domains of ADHD are inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. Each of these symptom domains has 9 core symptoms, meaning that ADHD has 18 core symptoms overall.
The two core symptoms domains - inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity - describe two of the three presentations of ADHD. The third presentation of ADHD occurs when a patient displays a combination of symptoms spread across both of the two core domains.
Presentations of ADHD
1. Predominantly inattentive
Often people with predominantly inattentive ADHD:
2. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
Often people with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD:
|Includes symptoms of both predominantly inattentive and predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD|
The 3 presentations of ADHD are a part of the ADHD diagnostic criteria
ADHD can’t be diagnosed using a simple blood test or scan. A combination of clinical examinations, interviews, third party observations, behavior and symptom rating scales, and a full patient history all play a role obtaining the necessary information to make a diagnosis.
Healthcare professionals gather information and assess patients against five criteria - from A to E - to help confirm a diagnosis of ADHD.
ADHD diagnostic criteria A-E:
- A. Criterion A sets out the presentations - the domains and symptoms listed above.
For a child to be diagnosed with predominantly inattentive ADHD, six or more of its nine symptoms must have been present for the past 6 months at a level that is not in keeping with what is expected for the developmental level of the child. The same applies for a diagnosis of predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD.
For the diagnosis of a combined presentation of ADHD to be made, the child must have had six or more symptoms in both the inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive domains for the past 6 month.
For patients aged 17 years and over, only five, rather than six, symptoms need to be present.
The symptoms must have a direct, negative impact on activities in a social, education or occupational setting.
If the symptoms are entirely due to a failure to understand instructions, defiance, hostility or oppositional behavior, then a diagnosis of ADHD will not apply.
- B. Several symptoms must have been present before 12 years of age. Under the old diagnostic criteria, symptoms needed to be present before 7 years of age.
- C. Symptoms must be present in two or more settings, such as at home and school, at home and work, or at work and in social settings.
- D. There must be clear evidence showing that the symptoms reduce the quality of, or interfere with, functioning in social, education or work settings.
- E. The symptoms must not be better explained by another mental health disorder, or occur only during the course of a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia.
ADHD can also be classified as mild, moderate or severe depending on the number or intensity of the symptoms.
A diagnosis of ‘partial remission’ can also be given to patients who have previously been diagnosed with ADHD, but who have had an improvement in their symptoms and no longer meet the full diagnostic criteria. This is especially important given the symptoms of ADHD can change over time.
ADHD symptoms can change over time
The symptoms of ADHD can change over time. Adult ADHD can present differently to ADHD in children. As people age the disruptive and hyperactive behaviors seen in children with ADHD may be replaced with more subtle symptoms, such as restlessness and inattention.
Why the change from 3 ‘types’ to 3 ‘presentations’ of ADHD makes sense
The use of the word ‘presentation’ is thought to better fit with the fact that ADHD symptoms can change over time. When a person is diagnosed with a particular presentation of ADHD, it is because it best describes how their symptoms present at that point in time.
For example, a child might display predominantly hyperactive-impulsive symptoms and few inattentive ones, leading to a diagnosis of predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. As that child ages their hyperactive-impulsive symptoms may diminish and more inattentive ones may become obvious, which would result in a change of diagnosis to predominantly inattentive ADHD.
The use of the word ‘type’ was thought to suggest a more stable or fixed trait, which no longer reflects what we know about ADHD.
- Epstein JN, Loren RE. Changes in the Definition of ADHD in DSM-5: Subtle but Important. Neuropsychiatry (London). 2013;3(5):455-458. doi:10.2217/npy.13.59.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). DSM-5: Frequently Asked Questions. Available at: https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm/feedback-and-questions/frequently-asked-questions. [Accessed May 28, 2021].
- Pearson. BACS3. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Available at: https://images.pearsonclinical.com/images/assets/basc-3/basc3resources/DSM5_DiagnosticCriteria_ADHD.pdf. [Accessed May 28, 2021].
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). ADHD Quick Facts: ADHD Presentations. Available at: https://chadd.org/about-adhd/adhd-quick-facts-adhd-presentations/#. [Accessed May 28, 2021].
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). What is ADHD? July 2017. Available at: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd. [Accessed May 28, 2021].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What is ADHD? January 26, 2021. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/facts.html#Types. [Accessed May 28, 2021].
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). ADHD: The Facts. Available at: https://add.org/adhd-facts/. [Accessed May 28, 2021].