Understanding Adult ADHD

banner image
By: Milissa Aronson

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects both children and adults. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), ADHD is a chronic condition that affects approximately 4% of adults in the United States.  Symptoms of ADHD include inattention or difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. ADHD can impact daily activities, relationships, and work performance. While it is often diagnosed in childhood, many adults are unaware that they have ADHD, and it is estimated that fewer than 20% of adults with ADHD are diagnosed and receive treatment.  


ADHD is typically first diagnosed in childhood, however, in some cases, ADHD may not be diagnosed until later in life. One reason for this is that ADHD symptoms can be difficult to recognize in children, especially in those who have milder symptoms or don’t show obvious difficulties with school behavior or academic performance.  Some children may have other conditions that can mask ADHD symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or learning disabilities, which can make it more challenging for healthcare providers to identify and diagnose ADHD.  Sometimes children learn to compensate for these symptoms, especially when the symptoms are primarily related to inattention and concentration and instead of hyperactivity.  


The symptoms of ADHD in adults are similar to those in children, although they may present differently. In adults, the disorder may be characterized by difficulty with concentration and focus, forgetfulness, poor time management, impulsivity, restlessness, and poor organization. Adults with ADHD may also have difficulty with social interactions, frequently feel impatient and lose their temper quickly, have a hard time expressing emotions, and may struggle with making decisions.  


Some adults have ADHD and may not know it. They may feel as if it is impossible to get organized, struggling with remembering or keep important appointments, getting places on time, frequently misplace things, try to- unsuccessfully- do many things at the same time, and struggle with daily tasks, such as getting up in the morning and preparing for their dayUndiagnosed or untreated ADHD can lead to significant challenges in work performance, relationships, and personal responsibilities, as well as low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and social isolation.  


To diagnose ADHD in adults, healthcare providers will typically assess the patient's behavior and symptoms, along with symptoms from childhood, obtain a detailed medical history, and rule out other potential causes of the symptoms. Healthcare providers may conduct diagnostic tests, such as rating scales and psychological evaluations to assess cognitive function, memory, and/or attention. The Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS) is a commonly used tool for screening adults for ADHD. 


Treatment for ADHD in adults generally involves a combination of medication to improve focus, attention and impulse control. Therapy for support and tailored guidance on organizational techniques and structure.  If you think you may have undiagnosed ADHD, your primary healthcare provider may be able to assist you with medication or a referral to a provider who can make a diagnosis and treatment recommendations.  


National Institute of Mental Health