The word ADHD gets thrown around often, especially on TikTok. The algorithm has everyone thinking that we all have ADHD or, at least, some symptoms of this disorder.
ADHD is a neurotypical disorder commonly diagnosed in school-aged children due mainly to classroom disruptions, but in recent years adults are getting diagnosed later in life. It’s estimated that 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD1. Data also shows that it is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls, but more research shows that girls present ADHD differently.
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it typically presents in a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that makes daily life difficult for those diagnosed.
You may ask yourself: What happened to attention deficit disorder (ADD)? Well, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5)—the diagnostic tool that most, if not all, mental health professionals use in their practices—removed the ADD diagnosis in 1994 and put everything under the umbrella of ADHD.
The DSM-5 now includes three subtypes of ADHD: predominantly inattentive, predominately hyperactive-impulsive, or combined type2.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
To be diagnosed with ADHD, an individual needs to be assessed by their pediatrician, family doctor, or mental health professional. There is no lab test to figure out if someone has ADHD. There are some self-report quizzes and tests online, but seeing a doctor is best for an actual diagnosis.
The DSM-5 breaks down ADHD symptoms into two categories: inattentive type and hyperactive/impulsive. To get an official diagnosis, symptoms and behavior must be present for over six months and persist in two settings (e.g., home or school).
If individuals are less than seventeen years old, six or more symptoms must be present; if individuals are over seventeen, then only five or more symptoms are needed for diagnosis3.
Here is some the criteria used when making an ADHD diagnosis:
Inattentive Type Symptoms
Careless mistakes at school/job
Little to no attention to details
Problems staying focused on tasks
Doesn’t listen when spoken to
Doesn’t follow through with instruction/homework/chores/job duties
Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort
Often loses things
Forgets daily tasks
Hyperactive/Impulsive Type Symptoms
Fidgets with hands, feet
Unable to stay seated
Runs around when inappropriate
Unable to do things quietly
Always on the go
Talks too much
Blurts out or speaks over others
Difficulty waiting their turn
Interrupts or intrudes on others
To be classed predominately inattentive, an individual will meet almost all inattentive criteria and no hyperactive/impulsive criterion. The opposite is true for the predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type, and individuals will present with more hyperactive/impulsive criteria than inattentive. To meet the requirements for the combined type, individuals will meet both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive criteria3.
About 10 million adults have ADHD, but it usually shows up and is associated with depression and other mood disorders, and sometimes substance abuse. Often, adults with ADHD go underdiagnosed.
Here are some symptoms that can be seen in individuals with adult ADHD4:
Lack of focus – This is the most telling symptom. Individuals will find themselves easily distracted, hard to listen in a conversation, frequently overlook details, and have trouble completing daily tasks.
Hyperfocus – Individuals can become so engrossed in something that they completely forget about the world around them. It’s easy for them to lose track of time.
Disorganization – Disorganization may be present in their living spaces, keeping track of daily tasks and prioritizing them accordingly.
Poor Time Management – Adults with ADHD find it difficult to manage their time. This causes them to procrastinate on tasks, show up late, or ignore things that they find boring.
Forgetfulness – The level of forgetfulness present in adult ADHD can affect careers and relationships. One may forget important dates or routinely forget where something is.
Impulsivity – This is very similar to how impulsivity presents in children. They will interrupt others in the middle of a conversation, be socially awkward or inappropriate, rush through tasks, or act without considering consequences.
Emotional Concerns – Adult ADHD can cause some people to experience fluctuations in emotions. An individual can go from feeling bored to seeking out excitement very quickly.
Negative Self-Image – Individuals with adult ADHD are very critical of themselves, and this can lead to perfectionism, poor self-esteem, and body image.
Lack of Motivation – Another symptom common in children, but it frequently shows up in adults.
Restlessness/Anxiety – It feels like someone can’t turn themselves off. There’s a compulsion to keep moving and doing things.
Adults who discover they have ADHD later in life often were undiagnosed children or had such a mild case that parents and teachers overlooked it. A doctor or mental health professional may use standardized behavior rating scales or an ADHD checklist to make their diagnosis. These standardized tests will examine working memory, executive functioning, and visual, spatial, and reasoning skills.
Even with more adults discovering they have ADHD, many don’t know it. Some adults chalk it up to being disorganized or lazy or having a poor memory5.
ADHD in Girls and Women
Most ADHD research has focused on young boys and men, but a recent study has been coming out showing that girls and women present with ADHD very differently than their male counterparts. ADHD usually goes underdiagnosed or undiagnosed in females due to the inattentive type being more common.
Often girls with ADHD get diagnosed as adults. Research finds that girls internalize many symptoms that affect their sense of self and life management skills. Girls and women with ADHD often have chronic feelings of inadequacy and shame that are difficult to discuss.
This makes the outward expression of ADHD very subtle and can easily be misinterpreted as shy, introverted, and perfectionistic. Future research needs to explore why ADHD takes a more significant psychological toll on women and how it may be linked to internalized symptoms, hormone fluctuations, and the weight of societal pressures6.
Treatment & Medication
There are a few different approaches to treatment that can be effective for ADHD. These include one or more types of therapy and medication. If a parent is seeking treatment for their child, practitioners will often offer behavioral measures for them to use.
Medication is an essential component of treatment and is best discussed with a doctor. There are two types of classifications of ADHD medications: stimulant and non-stimulant medication.
This class of medication is most prescribed to children and adults. They work by increasing the production of dopamine and norepinephrine—two important neurotransmitters affected by ADHD.
Where this type of medication would stimulate a neurotypical individual, they have a calming effect on people with ADHD. Stimulants help reduce hyperactivity and improve attention, concentration, and focus.
Common drug names are Adderall, Focalin, Concerta, and Ritalin.
This class of medication is second in line when stimulant medication is ineffective or causes unwanted side effects. They work at increasing the availability of norepinephrine in the brain, which helps attention and memory.
In addition to medication, several types of therapy are beneficial in managing ADHD symptoms.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a way to manage symptoms by coping with feelings, finding a way to better approach relationships with friends and family, and exploring behavior patterns.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is another very effective modality of therapy that is goal oriented. It aims to facilitate behavior change and negative thinking patterns and replace them with skills to manage ADHD symptoms. CBT helps improve time management and procrastination while managing irrational thought patterns that keep individuals from staying on task7.
Danielson, ML, et al. Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Volume 47, 2018 - Issue 2
Parekh, Ranna. “What Is ADHD?” American Psychiatry Association, July 2017, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd. https://www.aafp.org/dam/AAFP/documents/patient_care/adhd_toolkit/adhd19-assessment-table1.pdf
The Healthline Editorial Team. “Symptoms of Adult ADHD.” Healthline, 9 Feb. 2021, www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adult-adhd#fatigue.
“Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults: What You Need to Know.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/adhd-what-you-need-to-know.
Littman, Ellen, PhD. “Women with ADHD: No More Suffering in Silence.” ADDitude, 2 June 2022, www.additudemag.com/gender-differences-in-adhd-women-vs-men.
Sprich, S. E., Knouse, L. E., Cooper-Vince, C., Burbridge, J., & Safren, S. A. (2012). Description and Demonstration of CBT for ADHD in Adults. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 17(1), 10.1016/j.cbpra.2009.09.002. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2009.09.002
NHS website. “Treatment.” Nhs.Uk, 12 Jan. 2022, www.nhs.uk/conditions/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/treatment.