ADD/ADHD in Adults

by Tina Blue
January 3, 2001

          Until fairly recently (perhaps the last ten to fifteen years), it was widely assumed that children with ADD/ADHD (ADD henceforth, for convenience, though I will also be focusing on the hyperactivity component of ADHD in this article) simply outgrew the syndrome as they matured.

          The truth, however, is that they don't. In fact, much of the best recent research on ADD has been accomplished by scientists who themselves have ADD, and some of the most useful books on the topic written for the lay reader have been written by researchers and by clinical psychiatrists and psychologists who have come to the field by way of their own struggle with the syndrome both as children and as adults.

          One reason why it took so long for experts to recognize ADD in adults is that most adults are no longer in school, and many of them have self-selected out of occupations that routinely require that they stay attentively on task for long periods of time.

          Think, for example, of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. His office is a mess, his socks are mismatched, he can't find where he put the chalk or the eraser, and he walks around as if he spends most of his time in La-La Land. These are classic ADD symptoms, though without the hyperactivity associated with ADHD. But the absent-minded professor has found a career that is tolerant of his inability to follow a rigid schedule or to keep paperwork in order.

          Similarly, many ADD adults are self-employed, so that they don't have to meet the expectations of an unforgiving or demanding boss or corporate structure.

          Because they are not students and often are not in jobs that highlight the problems associated with ADD, the attentional deficits in most adults with ADD are not as easily recognized. And when they are, those problems are usually marked down to thoughtlessness, laziness, or moral failing, just as they once always were in children. Even now, many ADD children are thus stigmatized, but at least some educators and parents are aware of ADD and of the fact that these children need help in managing the symptoms of their condition. Few people extend such consideration to adults whose ADD makes it difficult for them to negotiate the demands of modern life.

          The ADD adult who is still in college or in some technical training program often will still have problems that interfere with his performance and thus get him labeled as an "underachiever." Such adults may be unable to get through necessary reading material if it seems boring, and they may not be able to complete tasks that they do not find compelling. These are the people who claim to do their best work under pressure. Of course, they don't do their best work under pressure--usually they do their only work under pressure. It's hard to guess what their best work might look like, since they never give themselves a chance to perform to the best of their ability.

          Many adults with ADD have found ways to compensate for their difficulties, and some, especially those who are gifted and/or who have the high energy level associated with ADHD, actually find ways to make their symptoms work for them rather than against them. These are the multi-tasking dynamos that everyone else is so often in awe of. But even these "supermen" and "superwomen" are frequently exhausted by the effort to keep all their oranges up in the air at the same time, and they undermine their health and happiness by getting too little sleep and by the stress of always feeling that they are teetering perilously close to the edge of disaster.

          One problem with identifying ADD in adults as well as in children is that ours is what ADD specialist Edward Hallowell calls an "ADD-ogenic" society. In a sense, modern life creates ADD- and ADHD-like symptoms in almost everyone. But even accounting for the pervasiveness of what Hallowell calls "pseudo-ADD," most people can tell that there are some who are more continually and more comprehensively troubled by the inability to focus their attention, to settle down, and to stay on task.

          So, yes, Virginia, adults do have ADD, and it causes them many of the same problems that it causes for children who suffer from the syndrome. In my next article I will discuss in more detail the way that familiar ADD symptoms from childhood manifest themselves in adults.


       Here are some good books to start with if you wish to begin reading about ADD/ADHD:

Barkley, R. A. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment. N.Y.: Guilford, 1990.

Diller, Lawrence H., M.D. Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Perofrmance in a Pill. N.Y.: Bantam Books. 1998.

Hallowell, Edward M., M.D., and John Ratey, M.D. Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood through Adulthood. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone ed. 1995.

Wender, Paul H., M.D. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults. N.Y.: Oxford University Press. 1995.
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