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ADHD Manifestations in Adults

What does ADHD look like in adults? Image of a person looking up with their face covered with a white sheet.

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. While in the past it was a disorder that was primarily diagnosed in childhood, more and more adults are getting diagnosed with ADHD. “ADHD persists into adulthood in about 60% of all cases and is, therefore, a very common disease even among adults” (Lukas, Markku. 2020).

If you’ve been professionally diagnosed with ADHD, you’re now part of the Neurodivergent (ND) club. It sounds fun, but really, it's a hard life living in a world built for Neurotypicals (NT). Most people don’t get distracted by bright lights or loud sounds. Most people can block out the information that isn’t required for the task at hand. People who struggle with ADHD might have a hard time remembering the list of things they need to accomplish. They might start one project just to abandon it and start a new project. Even in as micro of a sense as cleaning a room and being unable to finish. Starting to look something up on Google and not being able to remember what they went to search for because something between getting their phone out and pulling up the browser distracted them. People with ADHD have brains that work on fast forward. When Neurotypicals are used to having resting periods when they don’t really think about anything, those with ADHD rarely get a break in thoughts. Usually, it’s more like an Olympic ping-pong match between thoughts. While people with ADHD don’t actually think faster than NTs, they don’t have those periods of rest, so they go through more thoughts in the same amount of time making it seem like they think faster.

What ADHD Looks Like

Just like any other disorder, it can manifest for people differently. We learn new things about divergent disorders all the time. There still isn’t a plethora of research about ADHD, so suffice it to say there are things we don’t know about ADHD. While I don’t think things like this should be blamed for bad behavior or used as an excuse to get out of forgetting things, I also don’t think NT people should dismiss someone when they’re trying to open up about how they are different. If you’re someone who is reading this to learn more about a loved one firstly, congrats. I’m proud of you for being open-minded enough to read. I encourage you to keep reading. There is so much to cover about ADHD, a blog post can’t touch it. Secondly, try to continue to be open-minded when your ND talks to you about how life is different for them. Try to see the difference between excuses and vulnerability. It’s hard, and it takes practice, but keep trying and you will get better. The effort will show through. Thirdly, see both sides. The gifts and the challenges alike. You can’t help if you’re overly optimistic or toxically positive, but you also can’t help if you pull them down with negativity and pessimism. Try a realist approach to a balanced view of the situation.

Close your eyes. I know, it's pretty tough to read with your eyes closed, but you get what I'm doing here. Imagine ADHD. What comes to mind? Is it a little white boy bouncing in his chair at school? There is a misconception that ADHD and Autism appears in young white males only. Firstly, young white males have to grow up, so acknowledging the exclusion of the adult white males is a place to start. Think about all the other genders and ethnicities that are being excluded if white men are currently being left out.

How does ADHD manifest in adults? Image of a woman with horns holding a skull

Because ADHD has to have symptoms in order to be diagnosed, many of the symptoms manifest similarly in the majority of people. With ADHD people you will often notice:

  • Hyperactive behavior

  • Social issues

  • Low resilience

  • Irritability

  • Struggles to actively listen

  • Loses common items frequently

  • Low output/incomplete work

  • Disorganized, late

  • Hyper-emotional

  • Might talk a lot

  • Forgetfulness

  • Highly creative

  • Restlessness

  • Struggles to

  • Adrenaline Junkie

  • Struggles to prioritize

  • Action without thinking about it first

  • Makes seemingly careless mistakes

  • Interrupting others when they speak

  • Hyperfocused on only “interesting” things

  • Excell in certain areas, but struggle with ones that are boring

  • Struggles to finish work without a system in place

  • Starting new tasks before finishing the old ones (lots of people do this, but is it due to inattention?)

  • Appearing lazy because they don't want to clean something for only 15 minutes, they want to wait until they can do a 4-hour deep clean (which doesn't happen without planning)

  • What’s the backseat of your car look like? What is your craft room doing?

  • What have the last 2 or 3 partners said about being in a relationship with you?

ADHD & The Brain

ADHD is a top-down disorder rather than a bottom-up disorder. What that means, is there is not enough control from the top, or the brain, to the bottom, or the body/environment. Conversely, a sensory processing disorder, where certain smells, lights, sounds, or textures make the brain go haywire, is a bottom-up disorder. The body and its reaction to the environment have crossed hairs when it comes to processing those sensations in the brain.

It’s not a disorder of ability, it’s a disorder of performance. They can do better, but impulse control creates struggles to perform well. It creates a gap between potential and performance that can have negative effects on their lives.

The brain is what controls mental processes like executive functioning, which is how you self-regulate. How do you get your shit done on a daily basis? People with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction is a behavioral symptom that makes it difficult for a person to control oneself in their cognitions (thoughts), emotional states, and behavioral actions.

This means the ADHD brain actually causes roadblocks to organization, memory, attention, and overall impulse control.

The ADHD brain has more occipital activity. The occipital lobe is responsible for sensory and visual processing. This means things that Neurotypical people don’t pay attention to or see, are a huge part of the world for people with attention problems. The bird flying just barely past the window? Saw it, processed it, and might not have found my way back to whatever I was doing before that. That’s why there’s a stereotype that anything shiny will distract someone with ADHD.

What is the cause of ADHD? Image of a crystal ball on a fence with a tree in the background

The Cause of ADHD

“No single risk factor explains ADHD. Both inherited and noninherited factors contribute and their effects are interdependent. ADHD is familial and heritable. Research into the inherited and molecular genetic contributions to ADHD suggests an important overlap with other neurodevelopmental problems, notably, autism spectrum disorders. Having a biological relative with ADHD, large, rare copy number variants, some small effect size candidate gene variants, extreme early adversity, pre and postnatal exposure to lead, and low birth weight/prematurity have been most consistently found as risk factors, but none are yet known to be definitely causal” (Thapar, et. al. 2013).

This means there’s nothing we can do to tell if someone will end up with ADHD, and there’s nothing we can do to ensure they don’t. If you have a close relative with ADHD, or you were exposed to lead paint, you have a higher risk, but we should avoid lead-based paints for bigger reasons than ADHD.

ADHD Diagnosis

If you haven’t yet been professionally diagnosed, maybe you’re in the research phase. It’s possible you’ve read or heard something that resonated with you, that caused you to look ADHD up to learn more. While it is important to research before approaching doctors with questions about a diagnosis, it's also important to take everything with a grain of salt. If something seems like it resonates, don’t just decide right then and there that you are self-diagnosing yourself with ADHD.

Start out by finding your perfect way to take notes. Whether it be old-fashioned pen and paper, or the notes app on your phone, find a way that works for you. Write down all the things you have concrete memories that resonate with what you learn.

Read a lot. Not just blogs and social media influencers, but actual research articles, and books. Talk to your friends and family and ask open-ended questions that don’t lead them in any particular direction about how they’ve experienced you. Be open to what they have to say, they might not see you as inattentive at all. Little bits of information like this should all go into your notes so you can make an educated guess at the end of your research phase before talking to your doctor and presenting the evidence you’ve found.

What ADHD Isn’t

A common misconception is that ADHD and Autism are the same. They are different disorders, though many of the symptoms are similar, and many people with one diagnosis have a comorbidity, or double-diagnosis, of the other. Having ADHD doesn’t automatically mean you have Autism and vice versa.

Another common misconception is that if they relate to a TikTok influencer who says they have certain symptoms, that must mean they have the disorder too. This is not always the case. Just because you have periods of time where you can’t pay attention, despite relating to the fact that you can’t ever find your keys, does not mean you have ADHD. Similarly, if you don’t like the feel of tags on your skin, it doesn’t automatically mean you have Autism (or even a sensory processing disorder).

Take this quiz if you think you might have ADHD, and need a second opinion.

ADHD superpowers

Superpower: ADHD

Have you ever wondered what your superpower would be if you had one? Maybe you would fly. Turn invisible. Be able to change outcomes or control emotions. In most origin stories, heroes and villains alike, have a superpower, but they don't know how to use it. Usually, the power is portrayed as a kind of curse until the gifted feels confident with it. Have you ever stopped to think about how your ADHD could be your superpower, but you don't know how to use it, yet? ADHD has its challenges but it’s not all bad.

What does it mean when we say your Superpower is ADHD? There are ups and downs to everything. If you choose to only look at the ways it changes your life and makes it harder, you will have an overall negative view of your situation, and therefore yourself. It doesn’t have to be that way. While I’m not a huge fan of toxic positivity, it’s not a bad thing to be able to see how ADHD adds to your life and makes it a better life than it could have been if you were born NT.

Individuals who have ADHD have the Superpower High-level Abstract Reasoning, which is just a fancy way of saying we can take in information quickly and solve problems in different ways beyond the obvious ways they have been traditionally solved. High-level Abstract Reasoning requires logical reasoning, lateral and flexible thinking, and inductive reasoning. Basically, ADHDers are able to solve problems!

This superpower is important because it really comes in handy in a crisis. Granted, a crisis level of performance isn’t sustainable long-term, and inattention and impulsivity are major drawbacks to this superpower. This evidences our need for the right work environment. When in the right domain with the right circumstances, we make an amazing addition to any team. When thrown into a Neurotypical world and expected to perform the same way our peers do, we are just being set up for failure. Luckily, there are laws in place that protect people who need accommodations to ensure the right environment for themselves whether that be at school or work. You are allowed to ask for reasonable accommodations for your ADHD so you can have the same chance at success as a NT.

Don’t forget about the Superpower Hyperfocus. I know what you’re thinking. “ADHD means inattention.” Which is accurate, inattention is a highly manifested symptom, but so is hyperfocus. This is also a superpower Autistic individuals have. Hyperfocus is when a person with ADHD can lock in on one topic and focus on only that for a period of time. The timeline is dependent on the severity of impulse control and inattention symptoms for each person. This is a wonderful superpower because it allows little breaks between the suffering for things we enjoy.

If we’re good at it, we’re good at it. Superpower Talent. Because of the Superpower Hyperfocus, when people with ADHD are able to focus intensely on something that interests them, they’re more likely to become proficient in whatever they set their mind to. It might be in work, but more likely it’s a passionate hobby.

Many people with ADHD are drawn to the helping field. Superpower Healer. Sometimes that’s found in emergency services, the medical field, or the mental health field, but sometimes that’s in the form of spiritual growth, religion, or the art & music industry. Oftentimes, people who struggle with dealing as a Neurdivergent in a Neurotypical world venture out from the traditional employee/job work box and find their own path on an entrepreneurial one.

If you're wanting more, look into the ADHD book list recommended by a Licensed Mental Health Counselor.

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