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When People Misinterpret Your ADHD Symptoms

As someone with ADHD, even I don’t understand my symptoms sometimes. So I guess it’s only to be expected that other people will draw the wrong conclusions.

There’s a lot of guesswork that goes into understanding why people are behaving a certain way. We make assumptions along the lines of “if so-and-so is doing X, it must be because they feel Y.”

ConfusedFor example: “if so-and-so is making careless mistakes in their work and procrastinating frequently, it must because they don’t care and aren’t trying.”

This is where the commonly given and uncommonly unhelpful advice that people with ADHD should “try harder” comes from. If you see someone being inattentive, inconsistent and undisciplined in the way they approach work, school or everyday chores, it’s easy to interpret these behaviors as a simple lack of effort.

Any kind of inattentive symptom is easy to misinterpret as not caring or not trying. For example, getting distracted and not listening to people can be interpreted as just not caring about what other people have to say. A lack of organization can be interpreted as not putting in the effort to stay on top of things. Careless mistakes can be interpreted as, well, being caused entirely by a lack of caring, literal carelessness.

Hyperactive symptoms can be misinterpreted too. Fidgeting can be interpreted as an expression of impatience. Interrupting others or talking too much can be interpreted as being self-centered.

These alternative interpretations can cause serious misunderstandings. If you don’t realize that someone with ADHD is acting a certain way because they have a brain that works differently than yours, you’re going to really misread what’s going on in their head.

That is, if you assume that you’re dealing with someone whose brain works exactly like yours does rather than someone with ADHD, inattentive and hyperactive behaviors may take on entirely different meanings.

For those of us with ADHD, I don’t think there’s an easy solution to avoiding these misunderstandings. We can try explaining ADHD, but it’s not practical to do so in every interaction we have. And sometimes the explanation doesn’t really get through – people just continue to misinterpret inattentive and hyperactive behaviors while assuming that ADHD is being offered as an “excuse” for carelessness and self-centeredness.

But I do think being aware of the potential for these misinterpretations to arise can help. For those of us with ADHD, it’s worth thinking about how our different symptoms come across to people who don’t know much about ADHD and don’t have ADHD themselves. This awareness can hopefully help us mitigate more serious misunderstandings, or at least realize what’s happening when things start to go wrong.

Image: Flickr/Tall Chris

When People Misinterpret Your ADHD Symptoms

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). When People Misinterpret Your ADHD Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Oct 2017
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