Frequently, I get calls from adults thinking that they have ADD, ADHD, attention deficit, autism, Asperger’s, or some combination of these symptoms. Usually, they’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything, but they’ve researched online and they’re pretty sure about the pattern that fits them. So the question is: How good are online screening tools?
To start, how does a professional diagnose autism, Asperger’s, ADHD in adults? There is no easy blood test or brain scan to make these diagnoses. Generally, a professional will look at the patient’s history, especially problems and symptoms, administer some screening tests, and then use their clinical judgment to come up with a diagnosis. Unfortunately, the most frequently used screening measures are designed for children, so working with adults requires some adaptation. Clearly, testing is a bit more involved than just the online screening tests individuals take.
What about confidentiality? Many individuals are concerned about a diagnosis going on their record, getting back to their employer, or some other worry. This shouldn’t keep you from working with a professional. Before you see any professional, ask about confidentiality. Specifically, discuss how you’ll be paying for treatment, and what kind of confidentiality insurance plans or employee assistance programs offer.
What about online screening tests? For some people a doctor’s appointment may be too expensive, or intimidating, or complicated. Other people want to be informed before they talk to a professional, so online screening is a place to start. Taking an online screening test is not a bad starting point in understanding yourself, although it doesn’t substitute for professional help.
When looking for a screening tool, it’s probably best to go to larger organizations rather than individual’s websites. Often, the best known and most popular measures are not available online, and professionals have to purchase them, so although they may be well written and well researched, you’re not going to find them online. Also, I don’t like measures that merely repeat back a symptom list from the DSM. The DSM is written for professionals, and the symptoms may be tough to interpret without training and experience dealing with a large group of individuals having those symptoms. You can also find excellent self report measures in books. Again, look for the credentials of the author writing the book, or a forward by a well known professional.
A good general rule: books and websites written by individuals diagnosed with an issue can be interesting and informative, but they’re not the best way to diagnose yourself. Books written by actors, politicians or playboy bunnies may be enthusiastic, but they are not the best sources of science. Get professional information from professionals.
Some examples? For depression and anxiety, David Burns has written excellent books with self assessments in them. For ADHD, you can find self measures on both the CHADD and ADDA websites. For Autism and Asperger’s, check out Simon Baron-Cohen’s book or website. For alcoholism questions, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a clinician guide with questions.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.