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When people think about attention deficit disorder (ADHD), they usually consider it a childhood problem. However, a large proportion — between 30 and 70 percent — of children with the condition remain affected throughout adulthood.

In the late 1970s, the first studies were done into adult attention deficit disorder. Individuals were retrospectively diagnosed in their childhood through assessment by interview. As a result, standardized criteria were set down to help specialists diagnose ADHD in adults, called the Utah Criteria. These, and other newer tools such as the Conners Rating Scale and the Brown Attention Deficit Disorder Scale, combine data on personal history and current symptoms.

In general, adults with the condition will not have considered ADHD as an explanation for their problems, which may include poor organizational skills, bad time-keeping and lack of sustained attention. Their everyday lives can be full of challenges that are not experienced by adults without the disorder, so diagnosis can be a great relief.

ADHD Diagnosis in Adults

Because adults with ADHD do not usually believe they have the condition, it may take a specific event to trigger their suspicions. For example if their child is being assessed for or has been diagnosed with ADHD, or once the adult seeks medical advice for another issue such as anxiety, depression or an addiction.

For the diagnosis to be given to an adult, the individual must have symptoms which began in childhood and are ongoing up to the present. These may include distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness. Diagnosis must be accurate and is best undertaken by an expert in adult ADHD. It will include taking a personal history and often involve gathering information from one or more of the individual’s close relatives, friends or colleagues. The specialist will want to check for other undiagnosed conditions (such as learning disabilities, anxiety, or affective disorders), and may give a physical examination as well as the usual psychological tests.

Having been diagnosed with ADHD, an adult can start to make sense of the problems they may have suffered for a long time. It can help him let go of bad feelings about himself, and improve low self-esteem. It can also aid close relationships by giving others an explanation for unusual behaviors. To help face up to and overcome these issues, the individual may wish to begin psychotherapy or other counseling.

ADHD Treatment in Adults

Medical treatment for adult ADHD can be similar to that for children — many of the same stimulant drugs can be of benefit, including the newer drug Strattera (atomoxetine).

Another useful category of drugs for adults with ADHD are the antidepressants, either alongside or instead of stimulants. Antidepressants which target the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine are the most effective. These include the older form of antidepressant known as the tricyclics. In addition, the newer antidepressant drug Venlafaxine (Effexor) may be helpful. The antidepressant Bupropion (Wellbutrin) has been found useful in trials of adult ADHD, and may also help reduce nicotine cravings.

The effects of drugs can be different in adults and children. This must be taken into account when treating adult attention deficit disorder, as must any other medications which will be taken at the same time for psychological or physical conditions, so that adverse interactions are avoided.

As well as drug treatment, adults with ADHD can benefit from education and psychotherapy. Learning about the condition is likely to give a sense of empowerment. With assistance, the patient can devise techniques to counter the effects of the disorder. It may be a good idea to set up systems involving well-planned calendars, diaries, lists, notes, and official locations for important items such as keys and wallets. Paperwork systems can help reduce the potential confusion of bills and other vital documents and correspondence. Such routines will give a sense of order and achievement.

Psychotherapy can provide an opportunity to explore emotions related to ADHD, such as anger that the problem was not diagnosed much earlier. It may boost self-esteem through improved self-awareness and compassion, and offer support during the changes brought about through medication and conscious efforts to alter behavior and limit any destructive consequences of ADHD.

The therapist can also help their patient see the beneficial effects of high energy levels, spontaneity and enthusiasm that ADHD can bring.

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This article is based upon a brochure published by the National Institute of Mental Health.