What Does Adult ADHD Look Like? It Depends On the Individual!

What does Adult ADHD look like

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.

Adult ADHD look like

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.

Related Posts:

What traits attracted you to your ADHD Partner?

How Did You Learn Your Partner Might Have ADHD?

I welcome your comments!

—Gina Pera
An earlier version of this post appeared June 28, 2008

30 thoughts on “What Does Adult ADHD Look Like? It Depends On the Individual!”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.


  2. Pingback: What Does Adult ADHD “Look Like”? – Diseases for All

    1. Hi 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.

    2. Dear Julie,

      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,

  3. Mark Ingargiola

    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.

  4. 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!

    1. Hi Judy,

      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.

  5. 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.

    1. Hi Dani,

      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.

      Good luck!

    2. 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.

    3. Hi Mandy,

      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:


      Good luck!


  6. 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-

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. I can’t wait for your book. Thank you for your insight, your wisdom, your research and your talent!!!

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