How do I know if I have ADHD as an adult?
Some adults may question whether they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or wonder if their ADHD-like behaviors – inattention, hyperactive-impulsivity or a combination of the two – are simply a product of the overwhelming, hurried demands of adulthood. How can you know for sure?
A telltale sign that an adult has ADHD is when behaviors begin to interfere with life at home or in the workplace, says Stephanie Sarkis, an author and psychotherapist located in Tampa, Florida. It's at this point a person should obtain further assessments and explore possible treatment plans, all of which begin with speaking to a mental health specialist, she explains. Doing so may help bridge the "gap between ability and potential" that a person with ADHD experiences, she says, noting that an adult with the disorder may have a high IQ but still encounter difficulties with a simple work task.
"A person with ADHD processes information differently," Sarkis says, explaining that words are often heard differently. The ADHD "brain changes what you hear" so information is taken in and processed differently than someone without the disorder, she explains. Difficulties following multistep directions, which can include anything from work-related tasks to recalling a spouse's grocery store list, she says, are typically par for the course for an adult with ADHD.
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Childhood ADHD Symptoms Never Fully Leave
Sarkis says that a person usually develops ADHD as a child and that the disorder follows them into adulthood.
"Even though hyperactivity tends to improve as a child becomes a teen," the National Institute of Mental Health states, "problems with inattention, disorganization and poor impulse control often continue through the teen years and into adulthood."
"You don't outgrow ADHD," Sarkis says, adding that the behaviors displayed later in life typically manifest differently than they did during childhood. Using hyperactivity as an example, she explains that an adult may exhibit the behavior more subtly than a child. For example, an adult with ADHD may instead experience an inner restlessness and engage in behaviors such as knitting while watching television, Sarkis says.
Recognizing the Symptoms
New Hampshire resident Debbie Bolduc, president of BizBuzz Marketing Partners LLC, was formally diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. If she's in a movie theater where options to engage in other activities are limited, she says she'll often pick at her nail polish or tuck and untuck her hair behind her ear.
Bolduc, who has a son with ADHD, also explains that while she received average grades in school, she had to work extremely hard to achieve them. She recalls being told she had reading comprehension issues, which she now knows occurred not because of an inability to grasp the content, but because an occasional lack of interest in the material often caused her mind to wander. This is still the case as an adult, she says, explaining that she'll sometimes have to read something over again, which can decrease overall reading speed. She's able to comprehend what she reads, albeit at a pace that's appropriate for her.
She also says she has an "excellent memory but finds memorizing challenging." This reinforces Sarkis' point about the ADHD brain working differently; for example, Bolduc says she can vividly recall details in a movie such as how a hat was tilted on a person's head. Yet when it comes to memorization involving mathematics, she solves problems differently than what's traditionally taught. Multiplication tables, she says, are something she never fully memorized, yet she created her own method to obtain accurate answers. For example, 8 multiplied by 6 equals 48. Bolduc arrives at that number remembering that 8 times three equals 24, and then she doubles it to get 48.
However, Bolduc wasn't always aware her symptoms were ADHD-related. While researching more about her son, she says she came across the book "Driven to Distraction" authored by Dr. Edward M. Hallowell and Dr. John J. Ratey. It included detailed case histories of children and adults with ADHD, and she recognized herself in some descriptions while reading the book in the mid-1990s. "Adults may not realize they have ADHD until they're looking into it for their child and start to notice similarities in themselves," she says.
When it comes to running a business, Bolduc says that while she's successful, there are challenges. She notes that there's room for creativity, but there's also plenty of room for distractions. However, her marketing business is doing well thanks to techniques she says keep her thoughts on track.
"I'm very good at writing things down," she explains; she keeps notes everywhere. Bolduc also explores other helpful strategies such as taking a cell phone picture of a list or paperwork which she can refer to later.
Organization is important for an adult with ADHD, says Sue West, a productivity and ADHD coach. She encourages people with the disorder to create a checklist "on paper or in an app, or by using the phone's notes feature for things like morning routines, wind-down routines, after school-through-dinner routines, meal plans" and even reminders to text a spouse about when you're leaving work.
"Think of your planner or phone as your 'external' memory," West says. "Learn to rely on it."
For some, organization goes beyond copious note-taking and setting reminders.
"My closet has two sides," says Peter Shankman, founder of FasterThanNormal.com, a website and podcast designed to reevaluate the ADHD conversation. He's also a successful entrepreneur, keynote speaker and author with ADHD. "One says 'office' and the other says 'TV/speaking.'" He explains that each section is filled with the clothes best suited for specific work needs, adding that all other clothing resides in a separate closet outside his bedroom. "The goal is to simplify and keep me focused and on task," he says.
Sarkis agrees that it's important for each person to find strategies to make life easier.
At work, she says this may mean engaging in more email correspondence since leaving a paper trail can serve as helpful reminders. Closing a conference room door, wearing noise-cancelling headsets in a cubicle or hanging a "do not disturb" sign may also be effective ways to keep distractions at bay, according to Sarkis.
At home, she suggests repeating what a family member says in an effort to clarify specific requests or to reinforce your understanding of a situation.
"It's all about changing the environment to fit your needs," Sarkis says, noting that most every adult with ADHD ultimately develops effective coping strategies
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