Home > About ADHD > What does ADHD look like in adults?

By adulthood, some of the childhood ADHD behaviours may be less problematic, or may present in a different way. However, other difficulties may become more apparent due to the increased level of responsibility of being an adult and the lower level of practical support received from others.

The following behaviours are commonly seen in adults with ADHD. Assessment of ADHD may be sensible if a large number of these behaviours occur together, every day, over a lengthy period of time and cause significant problems and disadvantage:

Some adults will display a mostly “inattentive subtype”, others will have a “hyperactive/impulsive subtype”, while many will have a “combined subtype” involving inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behaviours.

Inattentive behaviours

Attention

  • Does not seem to hear you when you ask them to do something (needing to ask a number of times to get a response)
  • Difficulty absorbing and remembering spoken information (e.g., instructions given in work meetings)
  • Difficult remembering names at work or social events
  • Difficulty keeping attention on the task at hand resulting in slow pace of work, unfinished tasks, or sloppy/careless work
  • Easily distracted by noise and activity, or by own thoughts
  • Not following through on what has been asked despite agreeing to do so (e.g., pay a bill, pick up groceries, hang up washing, book a meeting room)
  • Not following safety precautions (e.g., wear a dust mask, use protective clothing or sunscreen, wear shoes when mowing lawn)
  • Losing important belongings (e.g., wallet, phone, keys, credit card, tax receipts)
  • Not paying attention when driving (accidents, near misses, red lights)
  • Focusing better on mentally challenging tasks in the quiet of night hence staying up too late to get things done
  • Difficulty remembering to do things at a future date (e.g., service the car next week, attend an appointment)
  • Leaving doors and windows unlocked, appliances or lights turned on

Organising and planning

  • Difficulty prioritising tasks (not knowing which one to do first)
  • Difficulty organising complex or multi-step activities (e.g., transferring a mortgage and credit card to another bank, researching and writing a report, organising an overseas trip)
  • Problematic procrastination re activities that are uninteresting or challenging (putting off phone calls, tax return preparation, household tasks, writing an essay or report)
  • Messy and disorganised house (e.g., drawers and cupboard doors left open, piles of clean and dirty clothing heaped together on the floor, dirty plates and cups throughout the house, overflowing garbage bins, not unpacked suitcase from last month’s holiday)

Motivation

  • Difficulty getting started on activities in the absence of a deadline, or despite a deadline
  • Taking short cuts to reduce effort resulting in sloppy work, penalties, disapproval from others
  • Difficulty persisting with activities that require commitment or mental effort (e.g., learning to drive, learning to use a necessary computer program) unless very interested

Time management

  • Losing track of time and regularly running late / poor sense of time
  • Underestimating how long things will take (e.g., travel time, getting ready)
  • Double booking and overcommitting
  • Missing appointments or turning up late (e.g., dentist, doctor)
  • Leaving things to the last minute
  • Failing to meet deadlines / requesting extensions

Hyperactive behaviours

  • Fidgety and restless, like a motor is constantly running (e.g., jiggling legs and feet, clicking pens, tapping fingers on table when seated for long periods of time)
  • Difficulty sitting for long periods of time (e.g., constantly getting up during TV shows)
  • Difficulty waiting in queues, being impatient
  • Talking constantly or too loudly, and at the wrong times
  • Interrupting other people’s conversations because unable to wait, or talking over the top of people or finishing their sentences for them
  • Difficulty shutting off a busy mind at night in order to get to sleep
  • Flitting from one activity to another, often without completing each activity
  • Rushing through activities without adequate care in order to get them done quickly, typically resulting in poor quality work (e.g., washing dishes without cleaning them properly, not sorting clothes before washing resulting in whites getting stained with colour, writing a report without bothering to proof-read for mistakes)

Impulsive behaviours

  • Starting an activity without thinking through the consequences (e.g., pulling apart a leaking tap just before visitors arrive and without having replacement parts on hand, starting a recipe without checking for ingredients).
  • Blurting out hurtful comments to others without seeming to realise
  • Difficulty keeping secrets when asked
  • Difficulty tolerating boredom (opting for stimulating activities)
  • Getting excited about something new then losing interest
  • Overeating and making poor food choices
  • Impulsive use of addictive substances such as smoking, alcohol, illegal substances, gambling, internet pornography
  • Impulsive sex or unprotected sex
  • Engaging in high risk sports or activities (e.g., train-surfing, shopping trolley joy-rides, being pulled on a skate board behind a car, drag racing cars on roadways)
  • Carelessly spending money on unnecessary items resulting in financial strain
  • Difficulty resisting the stimulation of social media, internet, TV, and gaming, especially at bedtime
  • Difficulty delaying rewards (wanting instant gratification)
  • Committing to too many activities at once
  • Driving difficulties (speeding tickets, parking tickets, knowingly driving an unregistered vehicle)

Emotional responses

Some researchers believe that emotional regulation difficulties such as short-lived anger outbursts are a core feature of ADHD for many people who have this disorder, although these symptoms are not currently included in the diagnostic criteria. In additional to emotion regulation issues, ADHD can make life difficult and thus create secondary emotional problems. Emotional difficulties that are frequently associated with ADHD include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Low self-esteem / negative sense of self due to chronic feelings of underachievement
  • Short temper / brief outbursts of rage and anger
  • Bouts of tearfulness or sadness when stress builds up
  • Feeling socially anxious due to regular social mistakes
  • Difficulty tolerating boredom or frustration, or anxiety about one’s ability to complete a task, which in turn can lead to problems with procrastination and avoidance

Other common life difficulties

When ADHD is moderate to severe and left untreated, an adult can experience a wide range of associated difficulties. Ideally, early intervention and adequate treatment will prevent or reduce many of these problems. If ADHD is left diagnosed until later in life, many of these difficulties will already be well established. One of the treatment goals would be to reduce these secondary impairments.

  • Failing to achieve life goals, or taking longer to achieve such goals (e.g., not completing a degree or taking twice as long to complete due to not passing subjects or not handing in work)
  • Working long hours due to inefficiency
  • Missing out on important opportunities due to failure to research or follow procedure (e.g., failing to upload necessary documents for an online job application, failing to apply for a scholarship or grant, not learning about potential internships or other job opportunities)
  • Being sacked or receiving warnings at work for performance issues
  • Problems with career development due to constant job or career changes (e.g., constantly restarting a different career at entry level)
  • Difficulty developing a long term relationship due to getting bored with partners, being unreliable, not putting in adequate effort
  • Arguments with loved ones due to disorganisation or not fulfilling expectations (partner gets fed up with acting like a “mother”)
  • Financial difficulties due to impulsive spending (e.g., running up debt on credit cards and incurring excessive interest charges, not having enough money left to pay for essential services like rent or car registration)
  • Secondary consequences stemming from financial difficulties (e.g., rental eviction, cancellation of phone or electricity, unable to drive unregistered vehicle, unable to borrow money due to poor credit rating, debt collectors, court attendance notices for unpaid parking fines)
  • Legal consequences secondary to impulsive behaviour, more likely if there are associated substance use issues (e.g., being caught for DUI, negligent driving, running a red light, being charged for assault while under the influence of alcohol)
  • Health issues due to not taking care of oneself (e.g., dental decay, cholesterol or high blood sugar from poor diet, unplanned pregnancies, STDs)