ADHD Symptoms

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that people discuss a lot these days, often ascribing the term casually to persons who seem unusually frenetic, "flaky," or scattered.

But, as a medical condition, it is not so easily ascribed. Parents will often struggle to distinguish between what might be considered "normal" rambunctiousness and inattention and the genuine inability to sit still and focus.

And sometimes, ADHD doesn't get diagnosed until later in life. An adult who always struggled to stay on task may be surprised to learn that the underlying reason stems from ADHD.

Even untrained physicians can have difficulty with this given that there is no single test that can diagnose ADHD or similar behavioral or learning disorders.

ADHD Presentation

ADHD symptoms vary from person to person. And there are different types of ADHD so it's important to keep that in mind when considering whether you or a loved one might have ADHD.

ADHD symptoms can:

  • Change with age
  • Change depending on the situation or environment a person is in
  • Differ depending on the gender of the individual
  • Range in severity, from mild to severe
  • Increase in severity during times of stress

People used to be diagnosed with ADHD or ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is no longer used.

Instead, there are considered to be three different presentations for ADHD:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, combined presentation
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly inattentive presentation
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation

Official ADHD Symptoms

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the official diagnostic guide for mental health issues used in the United States. It identifies nine symptoms of inattentive ADHD and nine symptoms for hyperactive/impulsive ADHD.

Inattentive ADHD Symptoms

Children and adults who are inattentive have difficulty staying focused and attending to tasks that they perceive as mundane. Because of this, they may procrastinate doing work that requires a great deal of mental energy.

Individuals with inattentive ADHD symptoms are easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds, shift from one activity to another and seem to get bored easily. They may appear forgetful and even spacey or confused as if they're in a fog or living in a different world in their own heads.

They may not seem like they're listening when they're being spoken to. Organizing and completing tasks is often extremely difficult, as is sorting out what information is relevant versus what's irrelevant.

Here is an adapted version of the DSM’s symptom list for people who have inattentive ADHD:

  • Make seemingly careless mistakes when performing schoolwork or projects in the workplace; paying close attention to the details is difficult.
  • Have problems sustaining attention on tasks, even fun ones.
  • Do not seem to be listening when someone is speaking to them, whether it is a teacher, friend, parent, or boss. Might look out of the window or glance at a clock.
  • Have difficulty following instructions. Completing a task from start to finish is challenging; motivation may be lost; getting-side tracked can happen.
  • Have trouble organizing tasks. Working out a logical step-by-step process can feel overwhelming.
  • Resist, avoid and procrastinate starting tasks that require mental energy.
  • Lose belongings frequently. Glasses, cell phones, and umbrellas need to be replaced regularly.

Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD Symptoms

Hyperactivity is the symptom most people think of when they hear the term "ADHD." Children and adults who are hyperactive have excessively high levels of activity, which may present as physical and/or verbal overactivity.

They may appear to be in constant motion and perpetually on the go as if driven by a motor. They have difficulty keeping their bodies still—moving about excessively, squirming, or fidgeting.

People who are hyperactive often feel restless. They may talk excessively, interrupt others, and monopolize conversations, not letting others talk. It's not unusual for an individual with hyperactive symptoms to engage in a running commentary on the activities going on around them.

Their behaviors tend to be loud and disruptive. This difficulty regulating their own activity level often creates great problems in social, school, and work situations.

Here is an adapted version of the DSM’s symptom list for people who have hyperactive/impulsive ADHD:

  • Sitting still is extremely difficult. Will continually squirm and move feet and hands.
  • Remaining in the seated position is challenging. Will constantly stand up and move, even when being seating is the socially accepted thing to do.
  • Will run or climb at inappropriate times. Adolescents and adults might be physically still but will experience an internal restlessness that feels painful at times.
  • Rarely take part in leisure or play activities quietly.
  • Will often be described as always ‘on the go’ or ‘driven by a motor.’ This can be fatiguing for parents of young children. In adulthood, others can be envious or admiring of this energy.
  • Talks constantly, which can cause problems at school, work, and in social settings/interactions.
  • Can appear selfish because has a hard time taking turns.
  • Will interrupt other people who are speaking or doing an activity.​

Unofficial ADHD Symptoms

In addition to the official symptoms, there are additional ADHD symptoms that many children and adults experience. Sometimes these are called secondary symptoms or soft symptoms.

While they are not taken into account during the diagnosis process, they frequently affect the quality of people's lives.

When people who live with ADHD realize that these behaviors are connected with ADHD, they can experience a sense of relief or have ‘aha’ moments. It helps to explain why they are the way they are, and why they feel different from other people.

Here are some common experiences individuals with ADHD may report:

  • Tasks, homework, a project at work, or a household chore seem to take them longer than other people.
  • They are often accused of not trying, or not appearing to care.
  • They seem to underachieve in areas of life where they have a lot of potential and talent, such as in academics, in their profession, in athletics, or in managing finances.
  • They can be very forgetful of things ranging from important people's birthdays, taking out the trash, or handing in homework (even when it has been completed).
  • They may hyper-focus on tasks that interest them, to the detriment of important activities like sleep and social interaction.
  • They have a low tolerance for boredom.
  • They miss important pieces of information because they ‘zone out’ for a minute or two.
  • They may have trouble reading a book from cover to cover, even if it seemed interesting at first.
  • They may get a lot of traffic tickets for parking incorrectly and speeding.
  • They love extreme sports and roller coasters, no matter what age. They may have frequent injuries and often break bones.
  • They face financial problems, even if they earn an above average wage. Impulsive spending and forgetting to pay bills can cause problems. Taxes are rarely filed on time.
  • They love caffeine. It might be a standing joke among friends how much coffee or energy drinks they consume.
  • A lack of motivation can cause problems in school, work, home, and relationships.
  • They struggle with time management and arriving on time to appointments.
  • They have great problems with sleep. Getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up on time does not happen easily.
  • They do not trust themselves to do what they say they will.
  • They worry about many things, including things they might have forgotten to do.
  • They often have low self-esteem after years of not meeting their own and other people's expectations.

ADHD Symptoms in Adults

ADHD symptoms typically change in adulthood. Hyperactivity becomes less visible to the observer. An adult can sit relatively still, even though feeling an internal restlessness.

Inattentive symptoms of ADHD usually remain consistent. However, adults typically have more control over their environment than children do. Adults can design a life that works with their ADHD symptoms.

For example, many people with hyperactive ADHD are careful to choose a career that does not involve sitting at a desk for long. They might work at a hospital in a job that involves lots of walking, or become a sales person who uses their car as a traveling office. This freedom is not available to a child in school, and so childhood ADHD symptoms tend to appear worse than adult symptoms.

In children, ADHD symptoms typically cause problems in school, such as low grades or getting into trouble for disruptive behavior. In adults, ADHD symptoms can result in more diverse problems like losing a job, bankruptcy, marriage problems, and addictions. This is why it is important to recognize possible ADHD symptoms and seek help.

The fifth edition of the DSM states that ADHD can be diagnosed if an adult meets the following criteria:

  1. The symptoms of ADHD have been present since childhood. You may not have been diagnosed as a child, but there must be evidence that you had problems with attention and self-control before you were 12 years old. The only exception to this is if you have suffered a brain injury or medical condition that resulted in ADHD symptoms.
  2. The symptoms are present in more than one setting. You currently experience significant problems with inattentive and/or hyperactivity-impulsive symptoms in two or more important settings. For example, at home and school, or home and work.
  3. The symptoms affect performance. Your symptoms reduce the quality of your social, academic, and/or job performance.
  4. There are five or more symptoms present. The DSM identifies 18 symptoms of ADHD. Nine are related to inattention, and nine are related to hyperactivity. After 17 years of age, if you have five of the symptoms listed, and they have been present for at least six months, then a diagnosis can be made.
  5. Other causes have been ruled out. Sometimes, ADHD-like symptoms are caused by another condition, like a bipolar disorder or a sleep disorder. Before accurately diagnosing ADHD, the doctor or clinician needs to rule out all other possible causes that could account for the ADHD-like symptoms. 

    ADHD Symptoms in Girls and Women

    Girls are more likely to have inattentive ADHD, which often can go unnoticed and undiagnosed. A hyperactive young boy is much easier to detect than a quiet, day-dreamy girl.

    If a girl has hyperactivity-impulsivity, she might be considered a ‘tomboy’ because she is more physically active than other girls her age. She might also be very talkative and impulsively interrupt others who are speaking. Because of this, it can be hard for her to make friends with other girls.

    Unlike the way ADHD symptoms are seen in boys, ADHD symptoms in girls are often attributed to a girl's character. For example, a girl might be thought of as a 'drama queen,' a 'tomboy,' or a 'chatterbox.'

    One of the benefits of girls being formally diagnosed with ADHD is that the diagnosis lifts the shame and guilt they might have about their symptoms. It also frees them from the labels they have been given.

    Girls with ADHD are also more likely to have an eating disorder than girls who don't have ADHD.

    ADHD can also look different throughout the lifespan of women. The hormone changes women experience at different times—puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and monthly hormone fluctuations—can increase the severity of their ADHD symptoms.

    In the past, women living with ADHD were often misdiagnosed with anxiety or depression. Thanks to increased knowledge and research about ADHD symptoms, more women are being diagnosed correctly.

    ADHD Discussion Guide

    Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

    Mind Doc Guide

    Positive Aspects of ADHD

    ADHD is often thought of as a liability. But there can be some positive aspects to having ADHD, especially when it is treated appropriately. Some people with ADHD report:

    • They have lots of energy, which can be channeled into work projects, sports, hobbies, and charity events.
    • They are highly creative. Many successful and famous entrepreneurs have ADHD.
    • They are excellent problem solvers, due to out-of-the-box thinking.
    • They have an excellent sense of humor and fun, which makes people gravitate toward them.
    • They are very curious about the world and are lifelong learners.
    • They seem younger than their biological age, thanks to their energy, enthusiasm for life, and curiosity about the world around them.
    • They are sensitive, understand how other people are feeling, and can respond accordingly.
    • They are forgiving, trusting and loving, which, with the right person, can mean a long and happy relationship or friendship.

    Comorbid Conditions

    As many as one-third of children with ADHD have one or more coexisting, or comorbid, conditions. The most common of these are behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, and learning and language disabilities.

    Adults with ADHD show an even higher incidence of comorbid disorders. These adults may also experience depression, bipolar disorder, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, or eating disorders.

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    Article Sources
    • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC:
    • Diederman,J., S. W.Ball, M. Monuteaux, C. B. Surman, J. L. Johnson, and S. Zeitlin. 2007. Are Girls With ADHD at Risk for Eating Disorders? Results from a controlled five year prospective study. Journal of developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics. 28(4): 302-307