ADHD is often thought of as a “childhood disorder.” Media stories generally focus on childhood ADHD, and even a disproportionate amount of the scientific research is concentrated on ADHD in children.

Adult ADHDThose of us with adult ADHD can be left waving our arms and shouting hey, don’t forget about us! That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that even though ADHD is sometimes portrayed as a childhood disorder, it’s common for ADHD symptoms to continue into adulthood.

If you’ve researched this whole ADHD thing before, chances are you already knew that. But I want to go a little further today.

ADHD doesn’t just continue from childhood into adulthood. True, it’s the same disorder with more or less the same symptoms, but there are several aspects of adult ADHD that are different from and more complex than childhood ADHD. It’s worth keeping these in mind as you go through diagnosis and treatment.

Here are some of the ways adult ADHD is different.

  • Adults have more control over their environment: Compared to children, adults have much more flexibility to determine how they spend their lives. ADHD symptoms show up differently in different contexts, so you’ll find that some environments bring out different aspects of your symptoms. For example, your symptoms will probably show up in very different ways if you’re an accountant than if you’re a professional athlete. And adults with ADHD sometimes gravitate to environments that are more accommodating of their symptoms. Or sometimes they don’t, and then bad things happen. In any case, the point is to keep in mind that there’s more variation in how adult ADHD symptoms express themselves simply because there’s more variation in adults’ environments.
  • Adults can’t take routine for granted: This is somewhat related to the last point. Children can depend on others to give them routine and structure. Adults have much more control over how they organize their lives, but the flip side of this is that they have to provide their own routine and structure. Therefore, symptoms of adult ADHD will often show up on the basic level of how people keep their lives in order (or don’t). Of course, sometimes adults with ADHD do depend on others to provide routine and structure, and this in itself can be telling, which is why one of six questions on the ADHD Self-Report Screening Scale is: How often do you depend on others to keep your life in order and attend to details?
  • Adults have a lifetime of bad habits to overcome: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an adult with ADHD new coping strategies – it just takes a lot of work. People who are diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood have a lot of psychological baggage: unhealthy coping mechanisms, damaged self-esteem, and years of underachievement. That’s why part of the work of treating adult ADHD isn’t just addressing the symptoms of the disorder but also coming to terms with the psychological effects of living with undiagnosed ADHD for years and developing new, more effective coping mechanisms.

You might see a pattern here. Most of what makes adult ADHD different isn’t about the symptoms themselves: in either childhood or adulthood, ADHD is basically a disorder of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

But even though the symptoms themselves are essentially the same, they can show up differently in the context of adulthood. Adults find themselves in different environments with more responsibilities and more ingrained coping mechanisms than children, all of which changes the way ADHD makes itself known.

So it’s worth keeping in mind that ADHD doesn’t just not go away when children become adults. It acquires new dimensions and discovers entirely new ways to wreak chaos in people’s lives.

If you can think of other ways adult ADHD is different from childhood ADHD, please share below!

Image: Flickr/Karin Dalziel