If you recently started noticing that you feel inattentive, overwhelmed, scattered or restless, you might wonder if you are dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If you did not exhibit ADHD symptoms during childhood, which is the time when ADHD is most commonly diagnosed, you may be unsure of whether the condition is to blame for your struggles.
Can ADHD even be diagnosed in adulthood? Or was it possibly missed when you were a child? Or perhaps is there something else at play? Read on to learn more about what ADHD is, to learn more about the onset and progression of the disorder and to better understand the development of ADHD-type symptoms as an adult.
ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder that develops during childhood. The characteristic symptoms of the disorder include:
- Lack of focus
- Challenges with organization
- Difficulty paying attention
Although the specific cause of ADHD remains unknown, medical studies have unveiled a strong genetic component and have found a developmental impairment in the brain’s executive function.
ADHD tends to run in families but environmental factors and home life may worsen (or improve) symptoms although they do not cause ADHD. The condition is considered to be a brain based disorder.
There is not a cure for ADHD but treatments, including behavioral therapy, medications and other forms of support, may help greatly. Some people grow out of ADHD but the majority of people do not. Only few people see their symptoms lessen as they get older. 75% of school children with ADHD will continue to experience symptoms into adulthood, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), making it a lifelong condition.
Can Adults Develop ADHD Later in Life?
It is difficult to say definitively but the short answer remains no – or it once did anyway. In order for a person to be diagnosed with ADHD, multiple symptoms that lead to impairment need to be present during childhood, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the resource used by experts in all aspects of mental health. (Hold onto this thought for later.)
ADHD signs must be present before age 12 for an official diagnosis, meaning that ADHD technically does not develop in adulthood. This means that if you are an adult with ADHD, you had the condition as a child too. Alternatively, if you did not have these symptoms as a child, your symptoms of ADHD as an adult may be the result of something else, such as a mood disorder like anxiety, depression or something else.
But before you write ADHD off of your list of possible causes of your newfound restlessness, inability to focus or inattentiveness, know that ADHD can be difficult to diagnose at times. Symptoms can present differently from one person to the next and is often diagnosed more through observation rather than by other means such as physical markers like blood tests.
If an adult is seeking a diagnosis, it is possible that when the adult was a child, nobody knew to look for ADHD and he or she may have had it since childhood.
Symptoms of ADHD can also appear in different ways as a person gets older. In younger children, for example, hyperactivity might manifest itself as an inability to sit still while an adult with hyperactivity may seem restless. Furthermore, some people with the condition are able to find ways to cope that mask symptoms of ADHD, such as incorporating nature therapy or physical activity, using a fidget, consuming caffeine or using organizational supports. Resultantly, some people may not be diagnosed with ADHD until they are adults.
How ADHD Changes with Time
Some ADHD symptoms rear their heads during the preschool years – especially if a child displays impulsivity and hyperactivity type symptoms. These behaviors are more often noticed because they are usually more disruptive. Inattentive signs may be missed on the other hand, because children with this symptom tend to be more quietly unfocused or can do well without needing to pay close attention.
When a child enters into grade school, symptoms of inattention become more noticeable. This is in part due to the fact that this time requires increasing demands for sustained focus. Younger children are often allowed to move around classroom settings while learning through play and physical activity while older children are expected to sit still while listening attentively and maintaining greater self-control.
During adulthood, some with ADHD notice a lessening of symptoms, while others still experience them. Despite this, ADHD symptoms in adults looks more like a person who is easily distracted, restless, forgetful and/or overly reactive to frustration.
But Wait – There is New Research
It was recently acknowledged in the DSM-5 that ADHD sometimes develops after childhood. As stated before, it was previously considered to be crucial that ADHD symptoms be present before a person enters adolescence in order for a person to be diagnosed with the condition. Many resources line up with the previous school of thought that ADHD can only be diagnosed in childhood.
But now, researchers are exploring the possibility that the condition can develop later in life without symptoms that are diagnosable before adolescence.
Currently, research is underway that can be categorized into three possible reasons for a late ADHD diagnosis without symptoms that are known in childhood:
- A misdiagnosis with another disorder, such as depression or anxiety
- Symptoms in childhood were masked due to other (or protective) influence, such as parental guidance or organization, good grades or a high IQ
- A form of ADHD that is exclusive to adulthood that has yet to be medically identified at present
ADHD that goes untreated can lead to numerous physical and mental problems. These issues can put a strain on relationships while causing difficulties in everyday life. If you think you or an adult you care fore have symptoms of ADHD, talk to a medical professional. You may be experiencing ADHD that has gone undiagnosed or another condition that looks similar to ADHD, like anxiety, insomnia or depression – or you just might be battling a form of ADHD that still remains somewhat foreign to researchers and medical professionals: adult onset ADHD.