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Adult ADD / ADHD — Understanding it; What Can Be Done to Help


09Aug 2009

Given the multiple “hats” that I wear professionally, some people know only about certain areas of service I provide (for example, consulting with successful business families) and not with other areas (evaluating individuals with ADD / ADHD and learning difficulties).  So I thought I would share some about the ADD / ADHD side of my work.

Although many people talk about “Adult ADD”, from a professional point of view there is no “ADD” anymore.  It all falls under ADHD, even for those individuals who are not hyperactive nor excessively fidgety.  There are actually three subtypes of ADHD:

  • the hyperactive – impulsive type (sort of the classic “wild boy” that many people think of when they think of “hyperactivity” — on the go non-stop, high energy, difficult to control, loud (often), accident-prone (because they move or do things before thinking about them), etc.
  • the inattentive type.  This used to be called ADD without hyperactivity.  These individuals primarily have a hard time focusing, concentrating, are easily distracted, lose their train of thought.  In girls, they were sometimes referred to as “airheads” or “space cadets”.  Guys were referred to as the “absent-minded professor-type”.  These people aren’t hyper or fidgety but they lose things easily, and are pretty disorganized.
  • the combined type — that has some aspects of both.  This individual could be a “full-blown” ADHD person who is hyper, impulsive and distractible.  Or they could just be inattentive, distractible and impulsive.

A key point to note is that the person does not have to be hyperactive to be ADHD.  This is often confusing to people — I frequently hear “Well, he can’t be ADHD because he isn’t hyperactive — maybe ADD, but not ADHD.”  And I understand what the parent is saying. It is just that (from a professional’s use of the term) really no one is just ADD anymore.  [But parents and teachers still frequently use the term.]

I have been evaluating individuals with ADHD for over twenty years now, and have seen 4,000 plus students (from 5 years old to senior adults).  And frequently, after evaluating a school-aged child, the parent (often the father) says — “You know, J.D. reminds me of me as a child.  I really struggled with the same issues — and still do.”   This then can lead to an evaluation of the parent and, lo and behold, they also are ADHD (research shows that about 50% of fathers of ADHD students are ADHD themselves.) So let’s talk a little about Adult ADHD and what it looks like.

  1. First, it is important to note that many very successful people are ADHD.  Some of the characteristics of ADHD (high energy, being socially outgoing, a risk-taker) help individuals become successful entrepreneurs, salespersons, entertainers, athletes, and law enforcement officers.  (You don’t tend to find too many ADHD accountants or actuaries!)  But it is also important to know that these same character qualities limit these professionals success — risk-taking in moderation (with appropriate judgment, due diligence, and risk management) can be good.  But excessive risk-taking — without the necessary ability to “wait and see”, investigate further, etc. — can lead to poor decisions with damaging results.
  2. Secondly, just like ADHD students vary tremendously in their individual profile of ADHD characteristics, so do ADHD adults.  Having said that, there are some common daily life symptoms:

*Great starters. Poor finishers.  ADHD adults are often imaginative and creative.  They come up with great ideas, and even start out on the new path with lots of energy.  But they quickly can become distracted, discouraged, or overwhelmed with the details to make the project work.

*Struggle with managing paperwork.  ADHD adults can do some paperwork, for a while.  But too much paperwork overwhelms them.  And they have a hard time keeping on top of a lot of paperwork over time.  They build piles on and around their desk.  And they usually need the help of a very effective adminstrative assistant (or spouse) to clean up their piles.

*Forgetful.  An ADHD adult would “forget their head if it wasn’t connected”.  They lose their keys, their wallet, their glasses, their checkbook, important paperwork, . . . One of their most used phrases is “Has anyone seen my ….?”

*Time management issues.  Some ADHD adults tend to be chronically late to appointments, not having a good sense of time.  Others, because of their struggles in this area, overcompensate and leave early for appointments — so that they won’t be late.  A large number of ADHD individuals tend to underestimate how long it takes (or will take) to complete a task — and so they are always running up against the deadline to complete the project.

*Impulsive behaviors.  Think about doing or saying things “on impulse” — and that is the struggle many ADHD adults have.  They speak they mind bluntly.  They interrupt others.  They make quick decisions without thinking through all of the issues.  They spend money quickly and easily.  They can be impatient with others (or circumstances).  They can be easily frustrated and have a quick temper (especially when they are tired, hungry or stressed.)

*Struggle with focus and concentration.  Many ADHD individuals complain about not liking to read (they rarely read the assigned books in high school or college).  They can’t remember what they just read.  Sitting through lectures is torture for them.  They can just sit and watch TV or a movie — they have to be doing something else at the same time.  They forget what they were just going to say, or why they came into the room (it is probably a different issue if you are 50+).

There are lots of other common symptoms of Adult ADHD; these are just a few, but they give you a start.  For more information go to this website on diagnosing ADHD in adults.

So what to do if you think you, your spouse, your boss or your business colleague is ADHD?

First, find out some more.  A couple of good books are Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction, written by two ADHD doc’s, Hallowell & Ratey.

Second, see what resources are available.  www.addwarehouse.com has numerous books and videotapes on Adult ADHD, including ones specifically for women.

Third, it is important to know what treatments are available.  Most people jump to the conclusion that treatment by medication is the only alternative.  Although medication can be helpful, there are other ways to help ADHD adults.  Coaching for ways to manage their primary problem areas can be effective.  Also, there is a relatively new computer-based cognitive training program that has been shown to be highly effective as well.

I could say a lot but more, but for those who really need this, I’ve already pushed the limits of their ability to focus this long.  Have a great week!

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