ADHD: Signs, symptoms, types, and treatments
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
What Is ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsiveness. It’s estimated that 6.1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and about one-third of children with ADHD carry their diagnosis into adulthood.
Types of ADHD
The symptoms of ADHD can present themselves in three different ways. These three types of ADHD are known as:
- Predominantly inattentive type (previously known as ADD): Difficulty paying attention, trouble with follow-through, easily distracted
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type: Fidgeting, interrupting others, constantly moving, lack of patience
- Combined presentation: A mix of symptoms from both types
What’s the Difference Between ADD and ADHD?
ADD stands for attention deficit disorder, which is an outdated term that was once used to describe what is presently known as the inattentive subtype of ADHD.
Today, we know that ADHD is an umbrella term for different presentations of the same disorder, regardless of the specific combination of inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive symptoms a person presents with.
Signs & Symptoms of ADHD
According to the DSM-5, there are 18 total symptoms of ADHD: nine for the predominantly inattentive type and nine for the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type. Your child must exhibit at least six symptoms (or five for people 17 years or older) for at least six months in order to receive an ADHD diagnosis.
ADHD Symptoms: Predominantly Inattentive Type
- Lacks attention to detail
- Struggles to pay attention to tasks for prolonged periods of time
- Often appears not to be listening, even when directly addressed
- Lacks follow-through/easily side-tracked
- Struggles with organization
- Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort
- Frequently loses things
- Easily distracted
- Is forgetful
ADHD Symptoms: Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type
- Gets up when they should remain seated
- Unable to play quietly
- Seems to be constantly in motion
- Talks constantly
- Offers answers before the person is finished asking their question
- Is impatient
ADHD Symptoms: Combined Type
You must have enough symptoms of both types (six of each for children, five of each for adults) for your doctor to diagnose you with a combined presentation of ADHD.
What Causes ADHD?
There are multiple risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing ADHD, including:
- Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)
- Pregnancy risk factors (drug and alcohol use of the mother, exposure to environmental toxins, poor nutrition, premature birth)
It’s important to note that ADHD is not simply “bad” behavior, nor is it simply the result of “bad” parenting. You can’t cause your child to develop ADHD by feeding them too much sugar or letting them watch too much TV. ADHD is a mental disorder caused by physiological factors.
Getting Diagnosed with ADHD
Most people with ADHD are diagnosed during childhood. In fact, ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders in the U.S.
Children are most commonly diagnosed when they enter school, but doctors can diagnose ADHD in children as young as two years old. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the average age of diagnosis is six years old. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.
What Does ADHD Look Like for Children?
It’s important for your child to receive a professional diagnosis of ADHD from their doctor.
Symptoms of ADHD can often appear similar to the average traits of childhood. Most children, for example, go through periods of development in which they are restless, loud, or easily distracted. If your child doesn’t sit quietly in school, that doesn’t automatically mean they have ADHD.
There are also other disorders that display similar symptoms to ADHD, such as autism or certain learning disabilities. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six in 10 children with ADHD also have at least one other mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Your doctor will evaluate your child’s specific symptoms to determine whether or not ADHD is the most accurate diagnosis.
Some people with ADHD don’t receive a diagnosis until adulthood. However, to receive a diagnosis as an adult, an individual needs to have had symptoms of ADHD before the age of 12. Just over four percent of adults in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with ADHD.
Some research has suggested that ADHD is underdiagnosed in adults, particularly among women, who often present with primarily inattentive symptoms and may have learned to hide their symptoms more successfully than men. Symptoms of adult ADHD may also be less noticeable than childhood ADHD.
What Does ADHD Look Like for Adults?
Adults must meet the same symptom criteria as children to receive an ADHD diagnosis, although they only need to exhibit five traits instead of six. However, the scenarios in which those symptoms play out for adults are different than those for children. Examples of adult ADHD include:
- Missing deadlines at work
- Not paying attention during meetings
- Starting tasks but struggling to finish them
- Hyperfocusing on a single task and neglecting others
- Frequently losing or misplacing things
- Taking over conversations
- Engaging in impulsive or risky behavior
- Speaking without thinking first
Most treatments for ADHD involve medication, therapy, or some combination of both.
Which Medications Work for ADHD?
Stimulants are the most common type of medication prescribed to treat ADHD. This can take some parents by surprise, especially if their child has predominantly hyperactive-impulsive symptoms. If their child is constantly moving around and restless, it can sound counterintuitive to give them a stimulant, a term associated with an increase in energy.
Essentially, ADHD is caused by an imbalance of certain chemical messengers in the brain, which makes it difficult for people with ADHD to focus or regulate their emotions. Stimulants work by increasing those chemicals and making it easier for people with ADHD to focus and stay calm. Common ADHD stimulants include prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin.
Stimulants come in one of three categories: short-acting, intermediate-acting, or long-acting. The type of stimulant you’re prescribed determines how often you take your medication, ranging from multiple times a day to once a day.
Types of Therapy for ADHD
Therapy is also a useful resource for ADHD. People with ADHD can learn new skills that help them manage their symptoms in healthier ways. Common types of therapy for people with ADHD include:
- Behavioral therapy (also known as behavioral modification): Draws on the use of reinforcement to increase positive behaviors and discourage unwanted or unhelpful behaviors
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps clients address unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that can lead to dysfunctional patterns of behavior
Successful therapies for ADHD may also involve training for parents, spouses, teachers, or family members of the client. This allows the client’s support system to better understand ADHD and encourage the client in healthier behaviors.
The first step toward getting treatment for ADHD is to see your primary care physician (PCP). Your regular doctor can help determine if your symptoms point to ADHD or a different diagnosis. They can also prescribe medications and refer you to a therapist.
You can also choose to seek therapy on your own. Maybe you received an ADHD diagnosis as a child and were prescribed medication for it, but you never went to therapy. If you’re interested in trying therapy for ADHD, click here to find ADHD therapists near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.