Discovering You Have ADHD as an Adult

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not just a childhood disorder. As a neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD is usually identified in childhood, but several individuals reach adulthood without being accurately identified as having the condition. An estimated 8 million adults in the United States suffer from ADHD. In many of these cases, it is attention, rather than hyperactivity, which is the primary problem; this form of the disorder, formerly called “ADD,” is one of the more common types of ADHD in adults.  

 Missing ADHD in Childhood 

While all adults who meet criteria for ADHD will always manifest some form of significant symptoms in childhood, the level of impact of these symptoms can be quite variable. Several children do not manifest the hyperactive or impulsive symptoms sometimes associated with the condition. Their behavior in the classroom and at home may not be entirely problematic. Instead of being disruptive, talkative, or irresponsible, they may only appear forgetful or flighty. Some children learn how to hide their distractibility or compensate for attention concerns. They may be embarrassed by their limitations, but may be motivated to keep up appearances. Some children are able to compensate for attention concerns with high intelligence, perseverance, flexibility, creativity, and other strengths. Many children might have difficulty understanding their symptoms. They might lack insight into whether there is a problem. They might not verbalize their symptoms in a way which would impel an adult to seek a consultation. 

Because of these reasons, the full impact of ADHD-related symptoms in a child may not be obvious to others. When parents or teachers do not see that there could be a problem, it is unlikely that the child will be referred for an assessment. Even more obvious cases are not always given the opportunity to be assessed for ADHD. Some parents may believe that there is a problem, but may be hesitant to access mental health services. 

 Noticing the Impact of ADHD 

As academic demands, work demands, and household responsibilities increase in adulthood, problems with attention can become more noticeable and more frustrating. Some adults may question whether they themselves have a problem as they see their siblings or their own children struggle with symptoms of the disorder. Many of the risk factors for ADHD, after all, are genetic factors. Adults who previously felt like they had effectively covered up their attention problems may sense that their coping mechanisms are losing their effectiveness.   

How ADHD can be Identified 

For adults who believe their own attention problems may have flown under the radar, there is a way to determine whether ADHD is present. Self-report questionnaires, used to compare an individual’s symptoms to hundreds or thousands of other individuals, can be helpful in providing information about the problem, but these are just one aspect of a comprehensive evaluation. An individual’s developmental history is important and this is usually obtained through a comprehensive interview with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other qualified mental health provider. Computerized tests and performance-based tests can also help to assess the full extent of the problem. 

Sometimes attention problems can be due to normal forgetfulness. Sometimes these problems can be directly caused by depression or anxiety. Sleep problems and other medical problems can also negatively influence attention. Not everything that looks like ADHD is ADHD. Participating in a psychological assessment with a qualified provider can be an effective way to know the difference. Understanding the cause of symptoms is the first step in finding ways to improve.  

Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine

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