Validity of DSM-IV attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptom dimensions and subtypes

Erik G. Willcutt, Joel T. Nigg, Bruce F. Pennington, Mary V. Solanto, Luis A. Rohde, Rosemary Tannock, Sandra K. Loo, Caryn L. Carlson, Keith McBurnett, Benjamin B. Lahey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

552 Scopus citations


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) specify two dimensions of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms that are used to define three nominal subtypes: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type (ADHD-H), predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-I), and combined type (ADHD-C). To aid decision making for DSM-5 and other future diagnostic systems, a comprehensive literature review and meta-analysis of 546 studies was completed to evaluate the validity of the DSM-IV model of ADHD. Results indicated that DSM-IV criteria identify individuals with significant and persistent impairment in social, academic, occupational, and adaptive functioning when intelligence, demographic factors, and concurrent psychopathology are controlled. Available data overwhelmingly support the concurrent, predictive, and discriminant validity of the distinction between inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms, and indicate that nearly all differences among the nominal subtypes are consistent with the relative levels of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms that define the subtypes. In contrast, the DSM-IV subtype model is compromised by weak evidence for the validity of ADHD-H after first grade, minimal support for the distinction between ADHD-I and ADHD-C in studies of etiological influences, academic and cognitive functioning, and treatment response, and the marked longitudinal instability of all three subtypes. Overall, we conclude that the DSM-IV ADHD subtypes provide a convenient clinical shorthand to describe the functional and behavioral correlates of current levels of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms, but do not identify discrete subgroups with sufficient long-term stability to justify the classification of distinct forms of the disorder. Empirical support is stronger for an alternative model that would replace the subtypes with dimensional modifiers that reflect the number of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms at the time of assessment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)991-1010
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2012


  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Dsm-5
  • Dsm-iv
  • Subtypes
  • Symptoms
  • Validity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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