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Is Sleep Deprivation Worse When You Have ADHD? Yes and No

Inattentive mistakes come with the ADHD territory, but that doesn’t mean ADHD is the only thing that can cause them.

If you’ve ever missed out on a solid night’s sleep, you know that sleep deprivation can get in the way of cognitive functioning. That’s not to say ADHD and sleep deprivation are equivalent, but they can both lead to inattention.

So what happens when you add them together? Nothing good, as you can imagine!

TiredThere’s a new study out in which researchers compared the cognitive performance of ADHDers and non-ADHDers on a test of attention. The study participants were asked to complete the test both before and after 25-hour period of staying awake.

To the surprise of exactly no one, the neurotypical participants outperformed those with ADHD on the test of attention.

That was true before the 25-hour period of wakefulness, and it was true after as well. For both ADHDers and non-ADHDers, going 25 hours without sleep led to more inattentive mistakes. And the increase in inattentive mistakes was about the same for both participants with and without ADHD.

So, great, that means sleep deprivation takes a similar cognitive toll on those who have ADHD and those who don’t right? Well, yes, but there’s a catch to think about.

It’s this: if the ADHDers start off with lower capacity for attention than the non-ADHDers and then see their capacity for attention decrease by about the same amount, then they’re going to end up with an especially low capacity for attention – lower than that of non-sleep-deprived ADHDers and that of sleep-deprived non-ADHDers.

Interestingly, the researchers found that for many types of inattentive mistakes, the scores of non-sleep-deprived ADHDers were comparable to the scores of sleep-deprived non-ADHDers. I see two major takeaways from that:

  1. If you want to experience the inattentive side of ADHD, try going through a normal day without having slept the night before. Obviously it’s not an exact comparison, but you’ll get a feel for how inattention can cause problems.
  2. ADHDers are starting from a place of already being more prone to inattentive mistakes, so in that sense sleep deprivation can be especially problematic for us.

The way I see it, getting adequate sleep is important for everyone because not getting enough sleep will invariably compromise your cognitive abilities. But ADHDers have less of a “buffer” to work with when it comes to things like inattentive mistakes, which makes it all the more important for us to prioritize sleep!

Image: Flickr/sekihan

Is Sleep Deprivation Worse When You Have ADHD? Yes and No

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. (2020). Is Sleep Deprivation Worse When You Have ADHD? Yes and No. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jan 2020
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