When Len was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it explained a lot. Why he had made poor grades in school even though he was smart. Why he was always losing things. Why he felt so restless.
It was a surprise, though: Len was 38. He didn't think adults were supposed to have ADHD. But after his 8-year-old son was diagnosed, the therapist suggested that Len be evaluated.
ADHD has become a fairly common diagnosis in children. But for many years, experts thought that children grew out of it in adolescence. It is now thought that about 4 out of 100 adults have ADHD. And many of them have never been diagnosed.
What are the symptoms of ADHD?
There are 3 main subtypes of ADHD: primarily inattentive, primarily hyperactive/impulsive, and combined inattentive/hyperactive. Below are some of the symptoms.
Primarily inattentive type:
- Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
- Has trouble sustaining attention
- Often seems not to listen when spoken to
- Often doesn't follow through on instructions and fails to finish work
- Has trouble organizing tasks and activities
- Avoids or dislikes tasks that take sustained mental effort
- Loses things
- Is easily distracted
- Is forgetful in daily activities
Primarily hyperactive/impulsive type:
- Fidgets with hands or feet, or squirms when sitting
- Has trouble staying seated
- Often feels restless
- Has trouble engaging in activities quietly
- Is often "on the go" or seems driven by a motor
- Talks excessively
- Blurts out answers before questions have been completed
- Has trouble waiting or taking turns
- Interrupts or intrudes upon others
To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child would have to have at least 6 of the traits in one or both of these categories. Symptoms would have to appear before the age of 7.
It is hard to apply these same criteria to an adult for many reasons. By the time that they are adults, many people with ADHD have learned to compensate and may not have as many symptoms. They also may have trouble pinning down an age to when the symptoms first appeared.
Adults with ADHD are likely to have problems in other areas as well that would not show up in childhood, such as performance in work, and problems with safe driving, substance abuse, and relationships.
Who can diagnose ADHD?
Licensed mental health professionals (such as psychologists or counselors) can diagnose ADHD. Doctors (such as psychiatrists, neurologists, and family doctors) can also do evaluations. But some professionals may not be very familiar with ADHD in adults. It's a good idea to ask what kind of training and experience the person has working with adults who have ADHD.
ADHD traits are often more subtle in adults than in children. Also, many people with ADHD have other issues, too, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse problems. These facts can make it harder to figure out if a person has ADHD. A professional will need to rule out other possible causes of symptoms before making a diagnosis of ADHD.
Why get diagnosed?
Some people with ADHD can do well in life without being diagnosed and treated. But for many people, untreated ADHD keeps them from living up to their potential. They may fail in school, lose jobs, have trouble in relationships, or fall into substance abuse. If you believe you may have ADHD, it can pay to seek an evaluation.
Getting diagnosed gives you a chance to improve your life. Often, symptoms become less severe as a person ages, but the core elements of impulsivity, distractibility, or inattention remain. So you may not be bouncing in your seat anymore, but you may have trouble paying attention in meetings. You may still make impulsive decisions, lack patience, and blurt out things you later regret.
Learning how to organize your life may help you succeed. Many people use a day planner to keep track of their priorities. Your doctor may suggest a medication. Some people benefit from having a counselor or a coach. A coach can help someone with ADHD learn better time management, and offer encouragement and feedback to help the person stay focused on goals.
Created on 03/18/2004
Updated on 06/15/2011
- Moss SB, Nair R, Vallarino A, Wang S. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adults. Primary Care. 2007;34(3):445-473.
- Kessler RC, Adler L, Barkley R, et al. The prevalence and correlates of adult ADHD in the United States: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006;163:716-723.
- Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). Adults with ADHD: steps for beginners.
- National Resource Center on AD/HD. Diagnosis of ADHD in adults (What We Know info sheet #9).