It’s Time to Debunk This Widespread Myth About Adult ADHD

Here’s the truth about “adult-onset ADHD.”

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Many adults feel a sense of relief when they hear they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. For many, they’ve struggled with symptoms like disorganization, lack of focus, or impulsivity for years, and those symptoms may even be holding them at work or in their relationships. (Find out more signs of adult ADHD here.)

But even if you get diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood, that doesn’t mean your symptoms started for the first time in adulthood. “Probably the most common misconception about adult ADHD is that there is such a thing as ‘adult-onset ADHD,’ and that it never existed before,” says Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.

In other words, adults diagnosed with ADHD likely had symptoms as children but never received a formal diagnosis then. Symptoms of ADHD may have been more subtle during childhood, or the challenges and expectations during adulthood (paying bills, meeting work deadlines, etc.) may make symptoms more pronounced. “As we get older, we are required to do more things, balance more things, have more responsibilities, and do it on our own,” says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, psychologist in New York City. “We might not have had the same issues as a kid as we do as an adult to stay focused and stay on task.”

Certain types of ADHD may be more difficult to recognize during childhood. The inattentive subtype of ADHD often goes unnoticed in young girls, and individuals and their families may not recognize the problem until adulthood. (Learn about inattentive ADHD in children.)

Some adults with ADHD are first diagnosed with learning disorders or mental health disorders, and may learn they have  ADHD while in treatment for another mental health concern, like depression, substance addiction, or anxiety, according to a 2018 study in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology.

Others may not recognize the signs of ADHD until they have children themselves. (ADHD is highly genetic and tends to run in families.) “It’s really, really common for parents to come in for an evaluation for their child, and they realize those very same symptoms that we’re talking about in the office were symptoms they experienced as a child themselves,” says Dr. Samuels.

While learning your ADHD diagnosis in adulthood may ease your mind, it also comes with its fair share challenges. It might be tough to learn new strategies and coping techniques to assist your organization, time management, and focus, when you’re an adult facing a laundry list of tasks. The stakes might feel higher.

Still, treatment, including medication and therapy, is available, and you can learn to manage, and even thrive, with your ADHD. Here are ways to stay organized at work with ADHD. Or perhaps maintaining your home life is your struggle. Find out how to have a more organized morning routine with ADHD.