A stereotypical description of someone with ADHD might paint them as fidgety, flighty, or easily distracted. But the signs of ADHD, particularly in adults, don't always present so straightforwardly. The disorder can involve more than an inability to focus; often, people who are diagnosed later in life aren’t clued into the possibility that they have it, since symptoms can be unrelated to focus or attention altogether.
"In general, when someone has a diagnosis of ADHD, it usually describes a collection of symptoms and life impairments," psychologist Dr. Laura L. Walsh, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "It's slightly different for everyone and changes as a person grows from being a child, with relatively few coping skills, to adulthood," she says. Many people manage without therapy, medication, or targeted resources, but getting diagnosed can help to establish a better understanding of the particular way the ADHD brain works. That said, getting diagnosed can be difficult if you don't know what to look for.
Dani Donovan is a mental health influencer who makes TikToks about ADHD awareness with millions of views. Though Donovan was diagnosed and treated for ADHD as a college freshman, she never felt compelled to learn more about it. "No one who has ADHD was sharing what their experience was like in an educational way," she says. This inspired her to create her own content, which started with an ADHD comic strip that went viral. TikTok and Twitter, she says, are the perfect places "for people with short attention spans to get concise information."
Now, her inbox is filled with people telling her that her content inspired them to see a doctor, and that they now have a diagnosis and treatment plan. "They tell me that they didn't know to look up ADHD. They couldn't before put together that the things they were struggling with were related to ADHD."
According to Donovan, ADHD is finally being normalized thanks to platforms like TikTok or Twitter. "People with ADHD are sharing honest things, like how it can be hard to remember to brush your teeth, or how laundry is nearly impossible to complete with all of the starting and stopping," she says. Though some people may use the term "high-functioning ADHD" to refer to adults who have minimal or lesser known symptoms, Donovan says that the term carries a lot of stigma in the community. "It implies that people struggling with more severe ADHD are 'low-functioning',” she says, adding that the phrasing can lead to hurt feelings.
"At first, when adults are diagnosed with ADHD, they are shocked, and then everything comes together for them," therapist Harold Meyer, founder of the ADD Resource Center, tells Bustle. The symptoms that diagnosed adults experience, Meyer says, can seem unrelated to each other, but they do make sense at a distance. "People with ADHD might have low self-esteem and think everything is their fault. They feel like they are an imposter. They might have extreme highs and lows," Meyer says. Because most of the research on the disorder is on kids, it's not always easy for adults to get diagnosed, and according to Meyer, that can lead to anger. Many patients grew up without knowing why it was harder for them to function than their peers, which can make it both frustrating and enlightening to finally understand why.
Meyer says it's important to note that not everyone who has focus issues has ADHD, and only a doctor can give a diagnosis and apply appropriate treatment. The only ADHD criteria that doctors acknowledge in adults over the age of 17 is multiple, long-lasting symptoms of inattention — like an inability to follow instructions — and of hyperactivity and impulsivity — like an inability to wait one's turn to speak. These symptoms must also be deemed disruptive and interfere with quality of life.
On top of diagnostic criteria, there are certain life experiences or habits that might be more common in adults with ADHD, as manifestations of other symptoms. Here are some of the common behaviors adults who have ADHD experience.
While some people with ADHD may experience these signs, others might not, and none of these symptoms definitively point to having ADHD. Only a doctor can provide a diagnosis after a proper evaluation.
Dr. Laura L. Walsh, Psy.D, psychologist
Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, clinical psychotherapist and ADHD expert
Harold Meyer, therapist and founder of The ADD Resource Center
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