Most people who have heard of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder assume it’s strictly a diagnosis for excessively rowdy kids. But although symptoms begin to appear in childhood, they don’t automatically disappear at age 18. In fact, as more research into the disorder is conducted, more adults are realizing that they have it, too — and have, in some cases, for decades.
Those whose ADHD went undiagnosed until well into adulthood often share a troubling set of symptoms. They include:
- Inconsistent performance at work and frequent job loss
- Academic and career underachievement
- Inability to manage routine household chores
- Difficulty in personal relationships because of forgetfulness, inattentiveness or being quick to anger over minor issues
- Chronic stress and worry caused by failure to meet goals and fulfill responsibilities
- Deep feelings of blame, frustration and guilt
Louanne Calvin, a married mother of two in her 50s, can relate to most of the above. She didn’t realize she had ADHD until her now 20-something son was diagnosed as a kindergartener.
“I took him to the doctor and found out what the problem was with him,” she said. “I started researching it myself because I wanted to be a more effective parent.” Calvin became her son’s advocate throughout his school years, focusing on his care.
Then one day she ran across an adult ADHD quiz and took it.
“That is when I realized a lot of the problems I had had, and continue to have, were probably as a result of the ADHD,” she said. “There were 21 indicators of adult ADHD and I had 18 of 21. According to my husband, I had 19. I did nothing about it, just flowed through.” At least until her son’s doctor and her family convinced her otherwise.
Because ADHD can be inherited, at a family meeting the doctor asked if any other family members struggled with it.
“They all pointed to me,” Calvin said with a laugh. “Then the doctor said, ‘Well, are you being treated?’ I said ‘No, I manage. I’m doing great.’ When you’re older, you have a tendency to think ‘I’ve gotten this far. I’ve got these strategies. I have an education. I’m managing.’”
As she prepared to further her education, though, “it finally came into focus for me how hard I had to work to do everything in my daily life as far as managing schoolwork, work, home,” Calvin said. “I just thought, ‘why am I doing this to myself? If someone had diabetes, you wouldn’t think twice about giving them insulin. If I was going to perform to the best of my abilities, I thought, ‘why am I not doing that for myself?’”
While she’s now a reading specialist, she’s held jobs from restaurant manager to customer service support.
“I had to work very, very hard so that I could be professionally successful,” Calvin said. “I don’t care what kind of job you have, there are things to organize. The personal relationships you have to have with people — ADHD definitely makes it much harder to accomplish that because you constantly worry you might not have done something, might have missed something. So you’re working twice as hard sometimes.” Her strategies include “lists, and lists of lists, Post-it notes on the door, Post-it notes in the car — which is great unless you lose the Post-it notes.”
Calvin uses a combination of medication and psychotherapy to help combat the disorder.
“When you’re trying to get a diagnosis, you need an attitude of going to work with a professional and together as a team you’ll find what works for you,” she said. “Even when you go to the doctor and get an antibiotic, you hope it will be perfect, but sometimes it’s not and you make a switch. For something like this, severity can vary, chemicals in the brain and body can vary.” Hormonal fluctuations throughout life also can hinder women’s response to ADHD medication.
Being ADHD herself has helped Calvin help her students, as well as their parents.
“I say just because you’re ADD or ADHD, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” she said. “Most people I have met with it are very intelligent. You have to be to be able to manage it. But adults need to understand that it’s real and it does impact your ability to be a lifemate with someone and even personal relationships with friends. You can’t go from thing to thing with no particular focus and really have deep relationships.”
Primary Types of ADHD
ADHD can be classed as inattentive, hyperactive, or combined.
Symptoms of Inattention
- Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
- Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
- Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
- Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions)
- Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
- Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities
- Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
- Is often forgetful in daily activities
Symptoms of Hyperactivity
- Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
- Often leaves seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected
- Often runs about or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate (in adolescents or adults, may be limited to subjective feelings of restlessness)
- Often has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
- Is often “on the go” or often acts as if “driven by a motor”
- Often talks excessively
Symptoms of Impulsivity
- Often blurts out answers before questions have been completed
- Often has difficulty awaiting turn
- Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)
While a formal ADHD diagnosis requires in-depth evaluation and testing by a mental health professional, online quizzes such as the ones at PsychCentral can be useful as a starting point for conversation.
References and Other Resources
PsychCentral ADHD resources
PsychCentral’s ADD quiz
PsychCentral’s brief ADD quiz (six questions)
National Resource Center on ADHD
Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Women and ADHD
Social Skills in Adults with ADHD
Summary of ADHD research findings
Candy Czernicki is a professional journalist and managing editor of PsychCentral.