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Adult ADD / ADHD: Myth, Excuse, or Reality?

17Apr 2007

I am going to post a three-part series on Adult ADD / ADHD.

The first deals with understanding what ADD / ADHD really is. The second takes a look at the issue of overdiagnosis. The third discusses the impact of ADHD characteristics in the workplace.


Adult ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is one of those terms that elicits a variety of reactions from people. Some laugh with a derisive tone. Others eyes brighten as if you understand them. Many have that puzzled, quizzical look demonstrating their lack of knowledge of the condition.

Clarifying the terms ADD & ADHD

Let’s first get our terminology correct. ADD (whether adult or otherwise) is no longer the current term used by professionals (although many teachers and non-professionals still use it. The correct diagnostic term is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The confusion largely comes from the fact that an individual may have ADHD and not be hyperactive. This is because there are three subtypes of ADHD: a) the hyperactive-impulsive type (sort of your classic “wild boy” that many of us associate ADHD with); b) the inattentive subtype (which used to be called ADD without Hyperactivity); and c) a combined type which has aspects of both hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattentiveness (again, however, an ADHD-combined person may not be hyperactive; they just could be inattentive + impulsive).

The reason this clarification of terminology is needed is because many people when they hear or read about Adult ADHD (or if a friend or relative asks them if they are ADHD), firmly state: “No. I can’t be ADHD because I am not hyperactive — and never have been.”

Characteristics of Adult ADHD

Like any diagnostic category, Adult ADHD (or really, ADHD as found in adults) both describes common characteristics shared by many people but also allows for individual variations. That is, there are adults with ADHD who are very similar and those who are quite different from one another, depending on their individual characteristics and subtype.

Let us look at some clusters of symptoms grouped by general categories.

Attention / Concentration Issues

*short attention span *struggles maintaining mental focus *easily distracted off task *forgetful *can’t pay attention for long in lectures *spaces off during conversations *misplaces items *loses train of thought while reading *starts a lot of tasks but finishes few *distracted by their own thoughts *distracted by things in their environment

Hyperactivity / Fidgetiness

*moves at a fast pace *can’t sit still for long *frequently fidgets with things *legs bounce when sitting *gets agitated if sits for long *doesn’t need much sleep *always “on the go” *frequently looking forward to the “next thing”, struggles living in the present


*does and says things “on impulse” *talks a lot *interrupts others *speaks mind bluntly *very spontaneous *makes quick decisions *doesn’t think through consequences *excitement seeking *problems managing money *focused on the “now” *puts off tasks & work until later


*poor organizational skills *problems managing paperwork *can get “hyperfocused” on a task procrastinates *dives into new projects then loses interest quickly *easily frustrated *quick temper (but gets over it quickly)

We have described what ADHD looks like in adults. In my next entry, we will discuss the issue of overdiagnosis of ADHD in our culture and the challenges this creates.

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