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Processing a Late ADHD Diagnosis

In my last post, I went over some reasons ADHD can go undiagnosed for years. Today, I want to talk about what the actual consequences are of being diagnosed late.

When I say “late,” I really mean any time after childhood. I consider myself lucky that I was diagnosed at 20 – a very early late diagnosis.

I want to emphasize that the difference between an ADHD diagnosis in childhood and one in adulthood isn’t just quantitative, a question of how old you are when you’re diagnosed. It’s also qualitative. It fundamentally changes how you experience the diagnosis process.

QuestionsBy the time you’re an adult, you’ve developed a basic narrative of your life. You have a way of thinking about who you are and explaining the things that have happened to you. Sure, you continue to refine this narrative over the course of your adult life, but many of the fundamentals are in place by the time you reach adulthood.

The key difference between being diagnosed with ADHD early or late is whether you have a chance to integrate the fact that you have ADHD and the insights treatment can lead to into that narrative during your childhood and adolescence.

When you aren’t diagnosed with ADHD until adulthood, you still grow up with ADHD symptoms. You still get into trouble in school. You underachieve. You can’t focus.

Without treating the symptoms or knowing you have ADHD, you’re forced to come up with alternative explanations. So you start thinking of yourself as lazy, or stupid. You develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms, like blaming yourself or blaming other people.

These ways of thinking about your symptoms become habitual. That’s just how you are. Your narrative of why your life has unfolded the way it did starts to solidify.

When you’re finally diagnosed as an adult, you can feel like you’ve been blindsided, even if you’ve suspected you had ADHD for a while. All at once, you’re given this external information that throws a big wrench into your narrative of your life.

Suddenly, you have to go back and revise all the ways you’ve been explaining your symptoms up to this point in your life. This can take a long time because you probably aren’t even conscious of how deeply you’ve internalized your old explanations and how many dysfunctional coping mechanisms you’ve developed.

More than that, your late ADHD diagnosis raises as many questions as answers. What if I had been diagnosed sooner? Can I make up for the lost time? What does my diagnosis mean going forward?

There’s an enormous amount of processing involved in dealing with a late ADHD diagnosis. It can take a long time to integrate this fundamental new information into your life narrative. It’s an incremental, trial-and-error journey, and you’ll probably find that denial, anger and acceptance all make appearances along the way.

None of this is to say that a late ADHD diagnosis is hopeless. On the contrary, it’s a source of hope, because it points to a concrete path forward to making your life better.

An important point to keep in mind, though: that path forward isn’t just about treating your ADHD symptoms themselves, but also about working through all the effects of living for years with undiagnosed ADHD. That’s why whenever possible, you should supplement meds with psychotherapy.

If that all sounds like a lot of work, not to worry: dealing with the emotional consequences of a late ADHD diagnosis is more than worth the effort. You’ll likely find that it offers new insights into your life, helps you become more at peace with yourself, and takes some of the stress out of your daily life. Dealing with a late ADHD diagnosis is hard, but not as hard as living with undiagnosed ADHD.

How did you process your ADHD diagnosis? Please share below!

Image: Flickr/Noelia under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Processing a Late ADHD Diagnosis

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). Processing a Late ADHD Diagnosis. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Nov 2016
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