What Does Undiagnosed ADHD Look Like In Adults?

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Estimates suggest that somewhere between five and seven percent of the adult population in the United States has ADHD. However, only about 20% of those individuals are ever treated for the condition. While some with ADHD may choose to go without treatment, many adults who have the condition simply don’t recognize that they even have it.

The three types of ADHD are the inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or the combined type. While children experience the same symptoms, they often look different in adults. In kids, symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity tend to be more disruptive and apparent in classroom settings.

This can create a wide variety of problems in a person’s life, ranging from academic struggles to relationship conflicts. To better understand the condition and its effect on an individual’s life, it can be helpful to look at what undiagnosed ADHD might look like in adults.

Restlessness

Hyperactivity is often a major symptom of ADHD. Where in children, this symptom often manifests as an inability to sit still. In classroom settings, kids might fidget or squirm in their chairs, talk excessively, interrupt others, and always seem to be in motion. 

This symptom looks a bit different in adults with the condition. People feel restless or unable to relax. Or they might even feel tense, anxious, or on edge. 

On the positive side, this means that they always seem to have almost boundless energy. However, it can also make it difficult to sit through work meetings or other activities. 

Disorganization

Adults with undiagnosed ADHD often seem disorganized or even scattered. These organizational struggles can affect many areas, from prioritizing tasks to keeping track of personal items.

Common signs of organization problems include:

  • Always looking for items they can't find 
  • A haphazard approach to projects, where tasks are often left incomplete
  • Clutter and messiness in their home, office, car, and other areas under their control
  • Difficulty putting things in order
  • Dropping things where they are and not sorting them
  • Losing important bills, papers, documents, or bank statements
  • Misplacing items
  • Sorting objects into visible piles instead of putting them where they belong
  • Storing things in locations that don't make sense

This disorganization also affects speech and thought. Adults with undiagnosed ADHD may have problems organizing what they want to say or may lose track of what they are saying as they are speaking. It also affects their ability to stick to a routine, remember appointments, and complete projects in an orderly fashion.

Problems With Motivation

Another common sign of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is a tendency to struggle with what feels like poor motivation. ADHD causes deficits in executive functioning, which are the mental skills needed to plan, organize, initiate, and sustain activity. 

Because they often struggle with these skills, people with this condition may want to start a task but struggle to get started. It's common to feel overwhelmed by too many details or too much information. Finding a place to start seems overwhelming or impossible, so people might simply lose their initiative before they begin.

In other cases, a person might start a task but struggle to stay focused on it. And not knowing how to organize the project into manageable, sequential chunks can make it that much more difficult to stick with it. This means they might start a project only to abandon it. 

Unfortunately, this often leads to adults with undiagnosed ADHD being labeled as lazy, unmotivated, and uncaring. Such labels aren't just hurtful; they can also impact a person's self-image and self-esteem.

An adult with ADHD might look at the lost list of projects they never started or tasks that were abandoned halfway through and think that it must be a sign that they are lazy. 

Lack of Focus

Adults with ADHD may struggle to focus on tasks that they find boring, repetitive, or uninteresting. However, what may seem confusing to many is that these individuals may also get lost in projects that interest them. 

Because of differences in the brain structure of people with ADHD, they often find it incredibly difficult to feel motivated to stay focused when the task is uninteresting or unrewarding.

A person without ADHD may be just as bored, but they can marshall their motivation and focus for long enough to slog through it. An adult with undiagnosed ADHD may simply lack that focus.

This lack of focus is the most noticeable for time-consuming, predictable, or repetitive tasks. Reading books, completing daily household chores, or managing a checkbook are a few examples of these activities. Projects that take a long time to pay off, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument, can also lead to problems with focus.

However, undiagnosed ADHD in adults is also often characterized by periods of hyperfocus. People will become extremely engrossed in one thing, often for hours at a time. They may neglect other important tasks in order to focus on the thing that is currently holding their attention.

Forgetfulness

Forgetfulness is a common theme among adults who have ADHD, but these symptoms can seem particularly confusing for those who have received a diagnosis. This symptom can lead to problems like:

  • Starting a tasking and forgetting what they were doing
  • Losing things, even if they were just using them
  • Forgetting important dates or appointments
  • Retelling a story that they've already told someone because they don't remember telling it to them
  • Momentarily walking away from a task and then forgetting that they were working on it

An adult who has ADHD may often not realize that they have forgotten something until they get a call from their dentist's office about missing their appointment or come across a partially-completed project they forgot they were working on. 

This also contributes to conflict with other family members, who may misinterpret the behavior as a lack of care or responsibility.

Like other ADHD symptoms, research suggests that forgetfulness stems from differences in how the brain works in people who have the condition. People with ADHD are less able to filter out irrelevant distractions so they can focus on what's important. This negatively impacts the ability to both encode new memories and retrieve old ones.

Time Management Issues

Adults with undiagnosed ADHD often struggle with time management. They may always seem to be late, unsure of what needs to be done when, and unclear about how much time they have left to finish important tasks. 

This may be because people with this condition experience something known as time blindness. They struggle to sense the passing of time, which means that they have a hard time recognizing how much time has passed.

These time problems often result in issues such as:

  • Chronic lateness
  • Feeling like time is passing too quickly
  • Feeling like time is passing too slowly
  • Problems making and sticking to schedules
  • Problems recognizing how long ago events occurred
  • Trouble knowing how much time will be needed to finish a task

Time management issues can create serious problems in a person's life. Always being late for work can hurt a person's professional reputation.

Chronic lateness can also negatively affect relationships. And because people often don't understand the reason why they struggle with time management, it can contribute to feelings of frustration and poor self-image

Shifting Emotions

Adults with undiagnosed ADHD may also experience symptoms of emotional dysregulation, which means they may struggle to control their emotional responses. Some of the ways that this might be expressed include:

  • Having problems calming down when they are mad
  • Overreacting to relatively small stresses
  • Becoming very frustrated by minor annoyances
  • Difficulty focusing on anything other than their emotions
  • Experiencing sudden shifts in mood or outbursts of anger

Unfortunately, these problems with emotional regulation are often misunderstood. It also contributes to the underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of ADHD.

A healthcare provider or mental health professional might look at these symptoms and, without knowing about the other ADHD symptoms the individual is experiencing, conclude that the person has another condition such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), or depression.

This also means that the person experiencing these intense and upsetting emotions may not understand why they can't seem to moderate their feelings. Other people in the person's life might conclude that they are overly sensitive, temperamental, or aggressive.

Recap

Undiagnosed adult ADHD can seriously impact many aspects of a person's life, including their work, friendships, and romantic relationships. Troubles regulating emotions help feed these struggles.

Indecisive

Indecisiveness is a common problem for many adults, but it can be particularly troublesome for those who have undiagnosed ADHD. It can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

According to one 2021 study, adults with ADHD experience indecision and various other decision-making-related problems.

Other symptoms of the condition, such as memory problems, distractibility, and inattention, contribute to this problem by making it hard for people to focus on the options and information they need to make decisions. 

In particular, adults with ADHD often struggle with working memory, the type of memory that allows people to hold and manipulate information for long enough to think about and act upon it.

Challenges in making decisions are also related to the same executive functioning impairments that lead to many other symptoms of adult ADHD. Such functions allow people to plan, organize and prioritize.

Getting a Diagnosis

If you suspect that you might have undiagnosed adult ADHD, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for future evaluation. For many adults, getting a diagnosis can be both a relief and life-changing. It often helps explain struggles and problems that a person may have been dealing with all their life. 

It's never too late to get treatment for your condition, and you may find that medication and lifestyle modifications can help you better manage some of the symptoms that make it difficult to function in day-to-day life.

A Word From Verywell

ADHD often goes undiagnosed and untreated because the symptoms often look different in adulthood than in childhood. Other factors including lack of awareness and the masking or self-medicating of symptoms can also play a role.

Symptoms of adult ADHD also frequently resemble other conditions, and the presence of co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety can further complicate the diagnosis. 

If you think you might have ADHD, start by explaining your symptoms and how they impact your life to your healthcare provider. They can diagnose your condition, refer you to another profession, and recommend treatments that can help. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind 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.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.