7 Misconceptions About Adult ADHD That You Should Know

This is what it's really like to have adult ADHD, according to individuals who are living with it.

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When you think of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, a hyper kid running around an elementary school classroom may come to mind. But while ADHD often starts in early childhood, an estimated 4% of adults have the condition. To clear up some of the misconceptions about this condition, people living with adult ADHD offered up some of the truths about coping with the condition.

"A lot of people have this vision of ADHD in their minds of Dennis the Menace running amok causing chaos and terror wherever he goes," said Dale Archer, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and author of The ADHD Advantage. "But the condition is the same whether it's in children or adults like myself; it's the symptoms that might be different."

Adult ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. In children, symptoms may include a lack of attentiveness, daydreaming, or impulsive behavior. It's not entirely clear what causes ADHD, but it may be linked to genetics, certain environmental factors (such as lead exposure), or other causes.

There are also some adults who have ADHD but have never been diagnosed. And in adults, symptoms of ADHD may appear differently. For example, instead of hyperactivity, adults may experience extreme restlessness. ADHD in adults may affect day-to-day life, causing problems with work or relationships.

The disorder isn't totally understood yet, Dr. Archer said, "and that lack of understanding ends up causing a lot of misunderstanding."

Adult ADHD May Improve, but Not Always

Many individuals diagnosed with the condition as children also have ADHD during adulthood.

Britt Bischoff, 29, a digital marketing specialist who was overactive as a child, remembered how parents and teachers dismissed the hyper behavior as a temporary phase. "My mother always chalked it up to me being a daydreamer," Bischoff said. "One teacher swore that I could hear the lights buzzing or a ticking clock, and that's where my attention would go."

Today some of Bischoff's symptoms have gone away, but others linger. "My inattentiveness has also improved significantly. I am more able to control where my attention goes and tune out what's unnecessary. However, my hyperactivity and flooding thoughts have increased slightly with age."

Dr. Archer said part of the reason many believe ADHD can be outgrown is that most people get better at making lifestyle adjustments to better manage their symptoms. Dr. Archer explained that as they get older, people with adult ADHD have a better understanding of how their brain works. This understanding allows them to recognize how they need to modify their work or study obligations.

Meds Aren't the Only Treatment

Dr. Archer said that with ADHD, the attention center of the brain isn't working at maximum efficiency at all times. Dr. Archer described the role of medications for those with ADHD and explained how medications help the brain of those with adult ADHD focus better and concentrate.

But for some, it's possible to manage ADHD without meds, Dr. Archer added. Dr. Archer said one strategy, "is setting false or early deadlines and waiting until the last minute to finish projects. That little bit of stress or panic that happens by doing so actually helps the brain hyper-focus."

Extra discipline and a pared-down routine also help with managing symptoms, Peter Shankman, creator of the ADHD podcast "Faster Than Normal," told Health. "I have what I like to call unchangeable life rules that help me not only get through the day but also help me use my ADHD to my advantage and make me a better person."

"I wake up at the same time every day. I don't drink. And I have a ridiculously organized closet," Shankman said. "If I had a bunch of random belts, pants, sweaters, whatever, I'd be thinking, 'Oh, I remember that sweater! Laura gave me that sweater! I wonder how Laura is doing!'—then, three hours later, I haven't left the house. Routine doesn't allow me to get off track as easily."

Dr. Archer also believed many patients would benefit from counseling. "Therapy should always be the first line of treatment—not drugs," Dr. Archer said. "I'm not opposed to medication in worst-case scenarios, but I sure would like to try these other things first before the knee-jerk, 'OK, you need Adderall.'"

Inconsistency Not Inability to Focus

"I equate ADHD to having 50 pages open on a browser, and you keep jumping among all of them," said Michelene Wasil, a marriage and family therapist who was diagnosed with ADHD at age 41. But other times, "I can hyper-focus and tune out the world."

That makes total sense, Dr. Archer said. "People with adult ADHD can actually focus extremely well on topics that they find stimulating and interesting. It's when the brain is bored that the mind begins to wander all too easily."

Misconceptions About Being Lazy or Stupid

Terena Bell was diagnosed with ADHD at age 15. Now, as an adult, Bell is growing a second startup project, TVrunway, after selling a translation business.

"While I owned my first company, I was appointed to the White House Business Roundtable and took two calls with the President," Bell said. "So when I cut the check to pay a bill but forget to mail it when I start to tell a story in the middle of a conversation, [the people around me] look at these amazing things I'm capable of doing and think surely I must just not be trying. But I am. I am trying every day, and I try very hard."

People with adult ADHD also have IQs that are just as high as those of people who don't have the condition. Dr. Archer explained multiple studies demonstrate the intelligence of those with ADHD. Their intelligence "is no different whatsoever than someone that doesn't have the diagnosis," Dr. Archer said.

Adult ADHD Can Be Alienating

For Chris Rither, a professor and author, ADHD typically come out during interaction with other people. "I literally have to remind myself to look into their eyes, focus on what they are saying, and give them enough time to express themselves before I move on to the next task bouncing around in my brain."

Like Shankman, Rither keeps a busy, fast-paced schedule to channel energy. But it can create friction with others. "To help focus, I try to multitask on these activities over shorter periods of time. Because of this, I have a tendency to not give people my full attention."

You can also feel very alone, Will Steward, an entrepreneur with adult ADHD, said. "The hardest thing for me personally is the feeling of loneliness ADHD can evoke at times when it seems people don't understand you. I find that I often process information in different ways than other people."

ADHD Can Be a Powerful Asset

There are huge advantages to having adult ADHD, Dr. Archer said, like resilience and an ability to keep cool in a crisis.

A study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders in 2009 examined college students. The researchers looked at the psychological resilience of students with ADHD who were not on medication compared to those who didn't have ADHD. They found that individuals with ADHD were more resilient overall.

"And if you understand the condition of the brain with ADHD, the research makes complete and total sense," Dr. Archer said. "If you have ADHD and you make it to college and immerse yourself in all its challenges, then you had to do a lot of things and figure out a lot of things on your own."

Adults with ADHD also tend to be very creative, Ted Behr, an ADHD coach, said. "Many artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs have ADHD. We're also good risk-takers."

Empathy and Understanding Is Everything

Having personal awareness of your ADHD symptoms is key, Chris Nealy, a psychotherapist, and social worker said, "but family and social support is just as important."

"My impulsivity, forgetfulness, and racing thoughts create challenges as a husband and parent," Nealy said. "My wife's support allows us to work together to cope."

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3 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder(ADHD).

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What is ADHD?.

  3. Wilmshurst L, Peele M, Wilmshurst L. Resilience and well-being in college students with and without a diagnosis of ADHAJ Atten Disord. 2011;15(1):11-17.

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