How to Recognize the Signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a behavioral disorder that affects a small percent of children and adults worldwide and is characterized by difficulty focusing, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.[1] People with ADHD focus differently from people without it, and like many neurological disorders, people with ADHD tend to process and interact with the world around them in unique ways. While ADHD has probably existed for centuries (one author even suggests that ADHD is an evolutionary adaptation to the "hunter" lifestyle[2]), today's multitasking, on-the-go society often puts people with ADHD at a greater disadvantage than in the past. ADHD is also believed to be more common with people with ancestries in countries such as Norway and Finland that have unusual daylight hours, causing people's minds to be inattentive because of the altered daylight.

ADHD is not a regularly screened-for disorder in most places, so to receive a diagnosis and treatment you must first suspect the disorder and then go to a doctor to receive a formal diagnosis. If you think that you or someone that you know might have ADHD, it can help to know the symptoms so you can have a productive discussion with your doctor.


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    Do some research. Many people only know the stereotypes of ADHD behavior, but don't realize that many subtler symptoms exist, especially in girls and adults. Do some searching on the internet or at your local library for books, articles, and websites that explain ADHD in ways you can understand.
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    Know the three ADHD subtypes. ADHD people can display a range of symptoms which make up three ADHD subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined. Inattentive type is characterized by distraction, daydreaming, losing things, and trouble finishing work. Hyperactive/Impulsive type is characterized by disorganization, restlessness, impulsive decision making and constant movement. Combined type is typically a mix of inattentive/hyperactive symptoms.
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    Recognize the childhood symptoms. Most generic screening tools are aimed at children, and one of the requirements for an ADHD diagnosis is the presence of symptoms before the age of 7. Even if you are now an adult, knowing and recognizing childhood symptoms can help you determine if you are a candidate for ADHD diagnosis, or if your symptoms are more recent (and therefore not ADHD). The American Psychiatric Association uses the following questionnaire to screen for childhood ADHD, with section A being symptoms indicative of inattentive type, and B being indicative of hyperactive/impulsive type.
    • A. Six or more of the following symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months to a point that is disruptive and inappropriate for developmental level:
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      • Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
      • Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities.
      • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
      • Often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
      • Often has trouble organizing activities.
      • Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn't want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
      • Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
      • Is often easily distracted.
      • Often forgetful in daily activities.
    • B. Six or more of the following symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for developmental level:
    • Hyperactivity:
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      • Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat.
      • Often gets up from seat when remaining in seat is expected.
      • Often runs about or climbs when and where it is not appropriate.
      • Often has trouble playing or enjoying leisure activities quietly.
      • Is often "on the go" or often acts as if "driven by a motor".
      • Often talks excessively.
    • Impulsiveness:
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      • Often blurts out answers before questions have been finished.
      • Often has trouble waiting one's turn.
      • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games).
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    Recognize the adult symptoms. While all adults with ADHD should have exhibited childhood symptoms, these behaviors may not have been disruptive enough for a diagnose, and symptoms evolve with age to reflect behavioral and environmental changes. Adults with ADHD are more likely to exhibit the following symptoms[3]:

    • Inattentive type
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      • Procrastination
      • Indecision, difficulty recalling and organizing details required for a task
      • Poor time management, losing track of time
      • Avoiding tasks or jobs that require sustained attention
      • Difficulty initiating tasks
      • Difficulty completing and following through on tasks
      • Difficulty multitasking
      • Difficulty shifting attention from one task to another
    • Hyperactive/Impulsive type
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      • Chooses highly active, stimulating jobs
      • Avoids situations with low physical activity or sedentary work
      • May choose to work long hours or two jobs
      • Seeks constant activity
      • Easily bored
      • Impatient
      • Intolerant to frustration, easily irritated
      • Impulsive, snap decisions and irresponsible behaviors
      • Loses temper easily, angers quickly
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    Understand that ADHD is different in each person. Many trends exist in ADHD symptoms, for example young boys are the most likely to exhibit the hyperactive/impulsive subtype, and adults and girls tend to exhibit more inattention symptoms than hyperactive symptoms. However, symptoms vary from person to person, as does the degree of interference these symptoms cause. For some people ADHD does not pose a problem in childhood, but can become more disruptive with increasing workload, such as when the person starts college, enters the workforce, or has children. Some people go their whole life without ADHD ever posing a real problem.
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    Understand the affects of ADHD. Beyond the symptoms that define it, ADHD can have a large impact on lifestyle and behavior. Girls with ADHD often struggle to relate to their peers and therefore have trouble making and keeping friends. Adults can become discouraged by a seeming inability to complete tasks or keep up with colleagues, and many women are falsely diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder when the cause of their symptoms is actually ADHD. More and more research is emerging linking ADHD to troubles sleeping and mid-day fatigue and exhaustion, as well as eating habits like binge-eating.
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    Learn about the environmental factors that can impact ADHD. Some studies suggest that environmental factors like sugar and food additive intake can have adverse effects on attention, and that eliminating or regulating consumption can reduce the severity of ADHD symptoms. Caregiver relationships can have a profound impact on a child's attentional abilities as well, which may be linked to a higher incidence of ADHD-like symptoms in foster children and child abuse victims.
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    Inform yourself on treatment options. Many ADHD medications are well known, such as Ritalin and Adderall, but medication is only a small piece in the effective treatment of ADHD and is not recommended in all cases. Medication can boost the ability to focus and calm some of the symptoms of hyperactivity, but behavioral changes and even diet can be important in managing symptoms. There are many ADHD websites that provide useful ideas, but the best resource would be a psychologist or therapist with experience managing attention disorders.
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    Talk to a doctor about getting diagnosed. Talk to your regular doctor about the possibility of be diagnosed with ADHD. Often a general practitioner (family doctor) can do a basic ADHD screening using the above questionnaire and prescribe medication, but it is a good idea to get a referral to see a psychologist or neurologist. They can provide a more thorough assessment through interviews and behavioral questionnaires. Some can even perform a comprehensive learning disability screening which quantitatively measures brain activity and provides hearing, vision, speech and language assessments. These tests are very insightful and can pinpoint the underlying learning disabilities that often go hand-in-hand with ADHD, such as sensory integration disorders.


  • There are many conditions that must be ruled out before a conclusive diagnosis of ADHD can be reached. Some of these conditions can look like ADHD. They include hypothyroidism, anemia, lead poisoning, chronic illness, hearing or vision impairment, substance abuse, medication side effects, sleep impairment, and child abuse.
  • Educators may suspect ADHD and recommend an evaluation by a physician or psychologist.
  • An Individualized Educational Program (IEP) may be developed to assist an ADHD child in the learning process. Parents and teachers can work together to develop an appropriate IEP for each child.
  • If you suspect you or your child has ADHD, go to a specialist to get diagnosed. Discuss drug-free treatment options, as many ADHD medications can have lasting side effects.
  • Children who are diagnosed with ADHD may qualify for educational assistance through the school's resource program.


  • Self-diagnosis is dangerous with any condition. While these symptoms can be indicative of ADHD, there are several other conditions and factors that must be ruled out before a diagnosis can be made and treated.
  • Similarly, never self-medicate! Common ADHD medications are Schedule II Controlled Substances in the United States, meaning they have a high risk for dependence and abuse, and it is illegal to possess them without a prescription. Additionally, these stimulant drugs have a range of side effects, from loss of appetite to high blood pressure and heart arrhythmias, that can be very serious if you have other existing conditions.

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Categories: Attention and Developmental Disorders