While the public discussion around attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often centers around school aged children, many adults in the United States have ADHD.
About 2.5% of U.S. adults have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Increasing awareness about adult ADHD has helped expand understanding of how it presents in adults and how to treat it.
ADHD is defined as a persistent pattern of trouble with attention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that gets in the way of your daily functioning or development.
If you are an adult with undiagnosed ADHD, one challenge is recognizing the symptoms. You might chalk your symptoms up to fatigue, disinterest in work, or poor time management skills.
A diagnosis of ADHD can be a relief because there’s an explanation for your symptoms and treatment options.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), symptoms of inattention can include:
- difficulty sustaining attention in tasks, like classes, lectures, or reading
- difficulty paying close attention to details or making careless mistakes at work or during other activities
- not seeming to listen when spoken to directly
- difficulty following through on instructions or finishing duties in the workplace
- difficulty organizing tasks and activities — for example, is messy and has difficulty with time management
Symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity can include:
- difficulty sitting still or feeling restless when sitting still is required
- interrupting others during conversation
- being socially inappropriate
- rushing through tasks
- acting without much consideration for the consequences
A combined presentation diagnosis occurs when enough symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity occur for at least 6 months.
We don’t know exactly what causes ADHD. We do, however, know several factors that can contribute to developing ADHD.
According to the NIMH, the following are risk factors for ADHD:
- Genetics. If you have a parent with the condition, you are much more likely to develop ADHD than a person without that familial history. In fact, 3 out of 4 children who have ADHD have a relative who also has the disorder.
- Maternal factors. Cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or drug use during pregnancy may contribute to a child developing ADHD.
- Toxins. Exposure to environmental toxins during pregnancy or at a young age, such as high levels of lead, may be a risk factor.
- Low birth weight.
- Brain injuries.
ADHD is more common in males than females. Inattention is especially common in females with ADHD.
People with ADHD may have co-occurring conditions, including:
Researchers began studying ADHD in children in the
Over the years, researchers and experts expanded and refined these criteria. In 1980, ADHD was included in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the first time it had appeared in the guide.
DSM-III developed three symptom lists for inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
The current edition, DSM-5, outlines several requirements for an adult diagnosis of ADHD:
- several symptoms must have been present before the age of 12
- the adult must have at least five symptoms of either inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity
- the symptoms must be present in two or more settings, such as at home and at work.
- there must be evidence that the symptoms interfere with the person’s functioning in these settings
So how does a specialist decide you meet that criteria?
They’ll ask you about your history, especially regarding work and school, as well as their daily life and habits. The specialist will want to check for other undiagnosed conditions, such as learning disabilities, anxiety, or affective disorders.
To better understand your personal history, the specialist might ask to talk with relatives, friends, or co-workers as part of their evaluation. If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry. It’s not always necessary for a diagnosis, just helpful.
They also might give you a physical examination and ask about your medical history. According to the NIMH, “A person’s medical history is also important, as previous health problems, trauma, or injury can also be the cause of symptoms.”
Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult can be liberating, as it can explain why certain things have been challenging throughout your life.
If you are diagnosed with adult ADHD, you have a variety of medical treatment options. Your doctor might suggest a stimulant like:
- Strattera (atomoxetine)
- Ritalin (methylphenidate)
- Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine)
Antidepressants can also be useful in treating ADHD, either alongside or instead of stimulants. Antidepressants that target dopamine and norepinephrine are the most effective in treating ADHD. These include venlafaxine (Effexor) and bupropion (Wellbutrin).
As always, you’ll want to tell your doctor about any other medications you’re taking, as these can interact with ADHD medications.
Counseling or therapy can also help people with ADHD better understand the condition and manage their day-to-day lives.
Looking for more? Check out our treatments for ADHD article here.
Coming up with structure and routine for accomplishing tasks can be really helpful for people with ADHD.
Productivity and time management tools can go a long way to improving your work and personal life. For example:
- Using apps like Todoist can help you prioritize tasks and keep track of what you need to get done.
- Keeping a productivity diary can help you visualize what you want to accomplish and evaluate how you did.
Along with therapy or counseling, many people find that having an ADHD coach helpful. These coaches can help you figure out what organizational and time management systems work for you.
Looking for an ADHD coach? The ADHD Coaches Organization (ACO) provides a directory to search by location.
Other organizations that can help you connect with ADHD coaches include:
- ADD Coach Academy
- National Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA)
- Professional Association of ADHD Coaches (PAAC)
It can really help to talk with someone about how you’re feeling about having ADHD. Psychotherapy can help you explore emotions related to ADHD. A good therapist can also help you see the beneficial effects of high energy levels, spontaneity, and enthusiasm that ADHD can bring.
The important thing to remember is that an ADHD diagnosis opens a world of treatment possibilities that can greatly improve your life.
Looking for more? Read our main article on tips for living with ADHD here. Also, check out the ADHD Survival Guide by Sam Dylan Finch, a writer and positive psychology practitioner who lives with ADHD.
If you think you might have undiagnosed ADHD, contact your doctor. They can talk to you about your symptoms and refer you to a specialist for evaluation.
If you want to talk with other adults who have ADHD, you can find support groups through organizations like Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD).
If you want to read more about ADHD, we’ve included some resources below: