What does Adult ADHD look like? In fact, it can look different in each person who has it!
Maybe you’ve heard that people with ADHD are “creative” or “risk-taking” or “extroverted.” The truth is, people with ADHD are individuals.
Yes, that’s right. The estimated 10 to 20 million of these adults in the U.S. alone have distinct personalities, talents, backgrounds, and even genetics. As with all other human individuals, they don’t fit neatly into a box.
Still, there’s one thing adults with ADHD do have in common. And that is: various experiences of a variable syndrome. At the most basic level, much depends on the severity or number of official symptoms.
That’s why if you rely on shaky stereotypes about Adult ADHD, you might never see the Big Picture.
Instead, you’ll see only caricatures. More importantly, you’ll miss the fact that someone you love might have it.
Let’s Start with ADHD Symptoms
To gain a clearer snapshot of ADHD, let’s begin by considering its symptoms. I’ve adapted them in the chart below for my ADHD Partner Survey.
(Note: You don’t need all the symptoms to qualify for the diagnosis, just a certain number and to a degree that causes impairment in life.)
Learn more about the survey here: About the ADHD Partner Survey
From this symptom list, ADHD Partner Survey respondents selected behaviors that their ADHD partners displayed more frequently or strongly than most people their age. (That’s because you don’t expect a 22-year-old to have the same maturity as a 50-year-old.) I’m sorry if this image is blurry; WordPress compresses images, and this is a large chart.
What Does ADHD Look Like? Top 6 Vote-Getters
I’ve ranked the selections from the most commonly reported to the least. As you can see, these are the top vote-getters:
- Distractibility—Being easily diverted from the intended focus of attention
- Disorganization—Losing track of time, items, and the order in which tasks should be done
- Poor sustained attention—Difficulty initiating and/or finishing tasks
- Forgetfulness—“Blanking” on everything from small tasks to important obligations to entire conversations
- Restlessness—Feeling “on the go” mentally or physically
- Poor listening skills—Hearing only half of what is said or mishearing huge chunks of it
Do you not see in this chart your own or your ADHD loved one’s biggest hot spot? Perhaps it’s irritability, poor sleep habits, low self-esteem, or spending impulsively? Don’t worry. There’s plenty more to understanding how cut-and-dried symptoms come to life and take shape in real people.
What traits attracted you to your ADHD Partner?
How Did You Learn Your Partner Might Have ADHD?
I welcome your comments!
An earlier version of this post appeared June 28, 2008
30 thoughts on “What Does Adult ADHD Look Like? It Depends On the Individual!”
I’m 52 years old and just embarking on this journey, which is, in its early stages, filled with alternating joy and hope at finally being able to make sense of my life, mixed with despair at the lost years where I was floundering. I guess selfishly, each time I read of an adult diagnosed “late” in their 20s or 30s it’s like a little knife to my heart.
I had academic underachievement(precocious language development and chess ability but a hopeless daydreamer at school, always fidgeting and voicing amusing non sequiturs), risk taking, rages, substance abuse from age 14 until 27 when thankfully I got clean and sober, poor career achievement, awkward social relationships and few friends, piles of to-do lists that never got done, years of intensive psychotherapy where I was diagnosed over the years with generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and borderline personality. I was fortunate enough to marry at 28 to a woman who “did my adulting” for me—paid the bills, did our taxes, organised our holidays and our lives. I’ve always thought she’s some kind of genius, that she can negotiate the world like it follows a logical sequence that she intuitively understands.
My latest round of therapy found a psychologist who ran me through tests for signs of ADHD. I ticked a *lot* of boxes. It’d be fair to say I’ve hyper-focused on this and hoovered up everything I can find. I am all of your checklist, apart from the talking excessively. But I demonstratively make up for that in my writing!
I’m happy to welcome you aboard the ADHD Roller Coaster! Well, the ride isn’t new to you but at least the name is. 🙂
Your story is why I do what I do. This is the 21st Century. No one should be foundering for want of a science-based diagnosis (unlike many other psychological diagnoses).
And yes, as you discovered, “talking excessively” is not required to qualify for the ADHD diagnosis. In fact, I’ve found it not that common at all. Maybe about 5% of the adults who come to my local group.
Keep learning! There has never been a better time to have ADHD!
This is rather an interesting and a well written rhetoric. I am intrigued to know if teenage ADHD symptoms will overlap with adult ADHD symptoms? The most prevalent of symptoms include
2. Mask like face
3.Doing careless mistakes
4. Switching frantically from one task to the other
5.Inability in prioritizing
6.Impulsiveness 6. Frequent fidgeting
7. Less sense of danger/repercussion. It is problematic that ADHD linked ailments are anxiety disorders linked with oppositional defiant disorder( ODD)-disruptive behaviour against elderly people, depression and Tourette’s syndrome. In children, it can lead to dyslexia too. Adults ultimately are on a risk to contract personality disorders to issues like OCD.
The diagnostic criteria for ADHD remain similar throughout the lifespan—adjusted for age-appropriate measures.
I wouldn’t say that ADHD “leads to dyslexia” so much as ADHD-related reading challenges are misdiagnosed as dyslexia.
Yes, ADHD symptoms and poor coping responses are often viewed through the personality-disorders lens, and that is seldom helpful.
Hi Gina I know we can have wide range of personality and comorbid behaviors, if it was a colaj portrait, it would be a cross between Van Gough and Pablo Picasso. For which what I am saying, can be very confusing for the neurotypical people we come in contact with. I am a 60 year young male that was diagnosed at 29, and still learning about life. Is there any data on personality types such percentages in the ADHD community of the 16 myers briggs personality types, I am a INFJ which is the most rare between 1-2 % of the general population. I know ADHD individuals can really struggle with fitting in with the general population, due to the quirky bull-shit that we do. I just want my ADHD sisters and brothers to love who they are, heal the scars we accumulate, and the neurotypical people we hurt along the way of this journey of life. The one thing that has helped me is my sense of humor, and my willingness to be forgiven, even if your apology is not accepted you at least put it out there, it keeps you humble and bitterness away. I want to THANK YOU GINA and your STAFF your blog is the BEST!!! Sincerely
Thanks for the interesting comment and the kind words. I appreciate it.
I have to laugh, though, at your mention of my “staff.”
With the exception of the genius who helps me with all layers of technological infrastructure (thank you, Carleigh Rochon!), it’s just me.
Re: Meyers Briggs. I did that years ago, and it indicated ENTJ for me. I believe that’s sometimes called the Commander. :-).
I have no idea what the test says of my husband. He has no interest in taking such a test. (Maybe that’s an unaccounted for type!)
My friend Taylor J., who wrote most of the posts in the book club series here (she has late-diagnosis ADHD along with her husband and her four children.), is fond of using Meyers-Briggs as a means of better understanding friends and loved ones.
We’ve discussed, which comes first — ADHD or the “type”. I’ve often thought it a bit dangerous to overly rely on such interpretations. If I’d listened to the therapists my husband and I saw, I’d have continued to see our differences as “different personality types” — rather than him having ADHD. And that would have been a shame.
I’d love to see some research along these lines.
Just doing a quick check, I found this one:
The results of this study affirmed our hypothesis that children with ADHD were more likely to be Sensing on the MMTIC, but did not support that they are more likely to exhibit the Perceiving trait. These results presented an intriguing picture of ADHD and personality type that warrants future research…..
That is amazing you are the real life Wonder Woman, tell your husband but I expect he already knows. Thanks for the quick return on my question, I see you log our submission by start time. Because I only finished not much before your reply, I am also dyslexic hence the long time for me to write it, you do not need to so quick this time even Wonder Woman needs to rest! I had 2 quotes to share but lost one some where between my ears Ha. My most consistent attribute are my inconsistencies, do not answer more submissions to nite rest and Thank You.
Haha. A real-life woman! You crack me up.
Sometimes I happen to catch a comment soon after it comes in. Sometimes it takes a while. I am deep in developing online training.
And, you know? I never noticed the submission times, etc. That’s just automatically part of the software. So, trust me, it was entirely random!
When I read your top 6 I see myself in all of those. I am 49 and was originally diagnosed with anxiety and depression in my early forties. It was not until I got married and a marriage counselor who works with adhd clients caught on to my root problem, ADHD. I have had problems my whole life and just fell through the cracks. Finally I got the help I needed.
I am a veteran so I use the VA to get my medication for anxiety. When I went to the next visit after the counselor pointed out the ADHD connection. I was able to get adderall and the difference is night and day. It does not “fix” my symptoms but does help me manage them better.
I also have an amazing wife that is understanding and helpful. She does not brow beat me when I zone out or hyperfocus. In turn I work hard to make sure I give her and our life together the attention it needs. It is not easy fighting 49 years of ADHD habits but with the right treatment and support system it can be done.
Thank you for taking the time to write a comment.
After 20 years, I never stop being amazed. Living decades without ADHD being recognized—and, even worse, being treated for a misdiagnosis with medications (perhaps) that can intensify ADHD symptoms.
This is some insanity we are dealing with in the “mental-healthcare system.” And it’s worldwide.
Kudos to that astute marriage counselor who zeroed in on ADHD!
One tip: Adderall might, in the end, be the best medication for you. But for many, it is very problematic.
At the very least, you should be given a trial of both classes of stimulants (AMP, which includes Adderall, and MPH, which includes Ritalin, Concerta, etc.).
Here is more information on that topic—for years my most popular post:
So far I only read mention of “couples” and ADHD; one spouse has ADHD and the other does not. I’m glad there’s support forming for them however, what about an adult child who was diagnosed at age 20, and after 6 years of therapy she still cannot work or is an independent adult (like her peers)? Can you steer me towards information that addresses adult-child who were dx’d later in life?
As her mother I am desperate to help her become independent and survive the world; as I raised her to be before the dx. I’m 57 years old now, so may live a quite a awhile more. But this is my reality, I cannot pass away knowing she will be homeless or worse, abused by society in my absence.
Any leads you could throw my way would be appreciated.
I definitely understand and sympathize with your (and her) situation.
In fact, I have welcomed parents of adult children with ADHD for years at my local group. And, of course, I also receive tons of email.
In many ways, the strategies for parent-adult child are the same as they are for couples.
Many adults with late-diagnosis ADHD will need some “teamwork” when it comes to finding competent professional help, especially with medication.
You mention nothing about medication, though. Therapy is not a first-line treatment for ADHD. So, 6 years of therapy and no progress? I’m not surprised.
Even if your daughter is taking medication, it’s often not done well.
I encourage you to read my first book closely, to understand exactly what you and she are dealing with—and the evidence-based strategies shown to help.
The book is not so much about “romantic relationships” or marriage. It’s about recognizing ADHD symptoms and poor coping responses AND about understanding how to get the best results from medication. Also: what therapy helps and what often makes things worse.
Many in the mental-health field know absolutely nothing about ADHD. They also do not understand that they should be getting feedback from a loved one (spouse, parent, sibling, close friend, etc.) on how treatment is proceeding.
Most of all, they have a tendency to blame the parents—for everything. That helps no one and can even make things worse. But it’s all they know.
This is your life. This is your daughter’s life. No one will care more about your and her future than you do. That’s just the bottom line.
And the sad fact is, parents often cannot “outsource” an adult child’s road to higher functioning. They must be pro-active—and not be intimidated by those who say, “She’s an adult” and “Stop trying to control your child!”
Medication is often absolutely foundational to higher functioning. But, again, it can take teamwork to get it right. Pro-active teamwork.
I write about it in my first book. This is not just my little opinion. This is the consensus of the field’s preeminent experts.
I am working tirelessly to create online training — for individuals, spouses, parents, etc.. It is so desperately needed. Sorry it’s not available now!
Take care and know that you have every right to work with your daughter in improving her functioning and happiness in life. Don’t let “psychobabble” intimidate you.
P.S. Pamela, most adults with ADHD were diagnosed as adults, not children.
About a decade ago, a survey showed that only 1 in 10 adults thought to have ADHD were diagnosed.
That number has been steadily increasing in the intervening years.
It urks me that the textbook definition of ADHD does not include any of the emotional aspects that those with the disorder experience. We with this disorder are intensely emotional, to the point where it causes problems in our relationships and I just wish I had been diagnosed sooner than 29.. maybe I wouldn’t have believed for so long that I was a broken or defective person. That belief held me back for a long time. Getting diagnosed was such a relief.
I agree, Kim.
When I first landed in ADHD land 20 years ago, I’m looking around and absolutely seeing the “emotional dysregulation.” But no one was talking about it.
I’d ask psychologists who allegedly specialized about it, and they’d tell me, “Oh, that’s not ADHD. That’s bipolar.”
Back then, Dr. Barkley was little known to the public. There was no YouTube. His own book for consumers didn’t come out until years later.
But I read his first book, and I contacted him. He absolutely confirmed my perception. And that was good — but also bad because so many ADHD-treating professionals had no clue!
I’m sorry that the field’s knowledge gaps held you back. That’s what I was seeing then and was shocked at how many people were left without legitimate help. That’s why I do what I do.
Pingback: What Does Adult ADHD “Look Like”? – Diseases for All
I’m the one with AD/HD in my marriage.
I work hard at managing my AD/HD, but it has affected every aspect of my life, from the day-to-day (misplacing keys, throwing important mail in the trash, etc.etc) to the very serious (being fired from a job in an intensely competitive field, which pu an end to my chosen career path).
My husband has told me that he feels he does most of the day-to-day work to keep the family together–holding down a full-time job, handling the finances, sort of supervising everything that goes on.
I want to tell the frustrated partners of people with AD/HD that many of us are trying as hard as we can. It takes me a lot more effort to do most things than it takes, say, my husband.
When I’ve successfully “adulted” 80% of the time, I call it a good day–but sometimes my husband just notices that I forgot to pick up milk at the store. (Again!).
And if sometimes we don’t seem to be trying as hard as we can, it’s because trying hard all the time gets damn exhausting. Life is hard for the partner of someone with AD/HD but, believe me, it’s no picnic being inside my brain, either.
I absolutely understand and sympathize. I’m sorry to hear about your career lost. Ach.
It’s a very tricky business, educating the public (including people with ADHD and their loved ones) about ADHD.
There’s the range of variability, for one thing. The presence or absence of co-existing conditions, for another.
But I’ve found it’s also important to validate perceptions, to acknowledge reality before trying to help someone move into understanding ADHD and its treatment strategies and how to implement cooperative strategies.
For the adults with ADHD and their partners.
The way to close the mind of the partner of an adult with ADHD? Begin by explaining how hard their ADHD partner has it and how they can help them more. 🙂
I’ve seen those folks, sitting in my lecture audiences. They sit there with arms crossed, as if daring me to “tell me one more thing I have to do for my ADHD partner!” 🙂
But when I start acknowledging their experience and explaining treatment/cooperative strategies, they start to warm up and be more open-minded.
Unfortunately, many ADHD specialists in the field of ADHD and coaching too often try to shame or browbeat the “partners of” into “understanding” and “helping.” They don’t get it, that they’ve been helping for years and are exhausted.
The better way, imho? Offering useful, practical joint strategies. That’s why I spent 5 years producing our couple-therapy book — to change the way we help couples.
Thanks so much for your comment,
Academic difficulties are also frequent. The symptoms are especially difficult to define because it is hard to draw a line at where normal levels of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity end and clinically significant levels requiring intervention begin. To be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms must be observed in two different settings for six months or more and to a degree that is greater than other children of the same age.
I loved your video on totally ADD. I have just had to give my partner notice to vacate after he entered yet another courtroomand promised someone something that would have meant our home would be held hostage two nights a week by people frequently incarcerated and untreated. First he said he planned it, then later said he regretted it and later still said he had lost interest in what everyone was saying in the courtroom and did not know what he agreed to. I love this guy but I am exhausted and I know he loves me but why does he not run for treatment? His life has been one mess after another!
That’s wise of you to limit your financial entanglement, it sounds like. Imagine going into a courtroom with those kinds of stakes and not paying attention. That’s just too risky.
Why does he not run for treatment, you ask? Because he might not be paying attention to his ADHD-related deficits?
Please look out for yourself.
Im wondering if there are any single mothers out there who has ADHD and is also raising a house full of ADHD? Is it just me who struggles everyday to follow through on everything and anything. Discipline is the worst for me! You’re grounded! yet tomm I have no idea I grounded you. When asked to go outside, Im distracted with work or schoolwork and respond with a yes. Not even realizing again I didnt follow through.
Yes, I think there are many single mothers with ADHD who also have children with ADHD. And yes, I agree that many are doubly challenged.
You are expected to provide solid structure for children who have challenges with creating structure – yet you share their challenges!
Many manage to do it, though, and they do it by maximizing ADHD treatment strategies. That means, for many, medication, healthy diet, sleep, and “externalizing” strategies wherever possible. That means lists of rules posted where all can see, charts for household chores, routines, etc.
My husband recently bought me a book Women with Attention Deficit Disorder. My mind is blown. I mean we have joked about my distractibility and such, but I had no idea. I have been reading and crying over the last few days. My life makes so much more sense now. I am just trying to process it all and learn as much as possible, so thank you for sharing all of your info. I want to get an official diagnosis and maybe finally get a handle on some things.
Congratulations! And give that husband of yours a big hug from me. This is a huge discovery.
For the next book on your reading list, I suggest this, from Dr. Patricia Quinn. It’s an excellent guide:
oh yes, they can be extremely lovable, distractable, playful and all of the other weird but cute, sexy and fun things until… you get tired of the nutty professor bit and want a partner who can share in a conversation about dealing with day to day “stuff” oh and live the day to day stuff without suddenly losing their notorious sense of humor when(in my opinon) they need it the most and do a complete one sixty on you and make you out to be the biggest jerk who ever crossed their path(spit,spit). He would like to be a dad – but just not yet… He is 44, I am 38… this has been my life for the last 13 years, I wish he had been diagnosed by his parents and treated as a child, instead of having to go through life struggling without answers, but I belive it runs in his family(major constant drama!-huge) ugh.
Thank goodness for the on-line support group I found out of blind desperation not even knowing that adults could have add. It has been a huge education and hopefully more people learn of this and can work towards understanding and treatment of ADHD in adults.
best wishes everyone-
I have been with my husband for 27 years, and we dated for 8 years before that. This guy is “all of the above”. He is incredibly distractible, loving, messy, playful, daydreamer, intensely interested and obsessive regarding his field (thank goodness!) doesn’t maintain anything we own, breaks stuff all the time, makes quite a but of money but is also an impulsive spender, is a charismatic leader but loses his paperwork, keys, etc all the time, thinks outside of the box, doesn’t have a clue where the scissors are kept. I could go on and on. He’s a terrific dad but kind of doesn’t think safety is all that important (or has a different standard than I do). I always thought he was a bit weird but lovable, cute, sexy, but said the “wrong thing” at the “wrong time” and a lot of people are nervous around him, like my daughters’ boyfriends. Most people think he is so wonderful though.
This sort of person is not easy to live with. Someone has to make sure the cars get serviced and the lawn gets mowed, pay the bills, you know, the tedious work that this type can’t bear to do, or finish. We are late everywhere.
If you marry a person like this, I can vouch for 2 things- you could be very lucky as well as in for some extra work!
What I thought was an attractive playfulness which was missing in other men in my age group became a total lack of responsibility as I advanced into our relationship and came to realize he had ADD. As I did my research, I became more aware of the signs of this disorder and the far more serious side effects than just “forgetting where the keys are.” I trust this soon to be released book will save others the time I spent wondering what was wrong with me! Now my mantra is “it’s not me, it’s not me” – it’s ADD.
I’m going to buy two copies — one for me and one for our couple’s therapist!
I can’t wait for your book. Thank you for your insight, your wisdom, your research and your talent!!!