Most of us know what attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) looks like in kids — fidgety, hyperactive, trouble getting organized, and lack of focus.
About 60 percent of kids continue to have symptoms of ADHD into adulthood, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. That’s 4.4 percent of the adult population, or about 8 million adults.
ADHD looks a bit different in adults. It may present as restlessness, disorganization, and trouble focusing. ADHD may also come with some unique strengths.
Choosing a career that capitalizes on those strengths and doesn’t depend heavily on areas of weakness may be the key to professional success with adult ADHD. That, along with successful ADHD treatment.
Certain job traits may complement the strengths of some adults with ADHD:
- Lightning pace
- Hands-on creative
- Independent risk-taker
Finding a job that ranks high in one of these qualities, or a combination of them, may be just the thing to lead you to a career that you love. Check out these jobs that might be a fit.
Jobs: Social worker, fitness trainer, religious clergy, psychologist, special education teacher, author, doctor, registered nurse, veterinarian
Jobs in which it’s necessary to be particularly passionate about what you do provide natural motivation and focus. This can really be any field that you have a deep and enduring interest. The sky’s the limit.
Sarah Dhooge lives with ADHD and works as a pediatric speech and language pathologist. “I have a very large caseload of families whose children are newly diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and communication delays/disorders.
“I’m successful at what I do because I love it,” says Dhooge. “I know what it’s like to have ADHD, and I am honest with my families about my own challenges and struggles.”
Social worker Rosetta DeLoof-Primmer also uses her inside knowledge of what it’s like to have ADHD to help her clients. “Having a passion for what I do is extremely important. Without that drive and desire, it would be hard for me,” she says.
Jobs: Detective, police officer, critical care nurse, correctional officer, emergency dispatcher, sports coach, firefighter
Since many people with ADHD are motivated by intensity, jobs with an inherent sense of urgency often work for people with ADHD. Careers in which a life is on the line provide the ultimate sense of urgency.
“People with ADHD tend to work well in a fast-paced, high-intensity environment, like that of an emergency room or ambulance,” says Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a clinical psychotherapist and assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
“My husband has ADHD. He is a trauma doctor, and he thrives in his field. He’s absolutely brilliant at it to the point where he’s so focused nothing else exists. His success must be due to the pace — it’s hectic, nonstop action!”
April Race, a nurse living with ADHD, says, “There’s nothing more exciting than being called in to assist on a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. This job works for me because I only have one patient at a time, I love what I do, and there’s often the added component of adrenaline.”
Jobs: Military, project manager, data analyst, lawyer, software tester, accountant, insurance claims adjuster, bank teller, factory assembly line worker
Some adults with ADHD do best in jobs that are highly structured. A structured job is one where there’s a specific workflow, routine, and clearly defined tasks. There’s not much of a grey area and no question of expectations.
Time management can be one of the most challenging aspects of employment for adults with ADHD, according to CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).
Jobs with built-in structure and routine can help turn that challenge into career success. “Employees with ADHD often thrive in environments where they have clear instructions and directives,” says Sarkis.
An adult with ADHD named Ms. Jones says: “I work for a healthcare software company on the training team. I post online training content and troubleshoot e-learning issues for our customers.
“It’s a lot of strictly following checklists and repeating technical procedures over and over. I cannot function without structure and routines, so this is what makes me successful at it.”
Jobs: ER nurse, trauma doctor/surgeon, EMT, firefighter, schoolteacher, dental assistant, retail clerk
One of the hallmarks of ADHD is that thoughts are constant and fast-changing. Harnessing that attribute can mean success on the job. Many adults with ADHD report that they find pleasure in constant change and thrive in environments in which they have to quickly analyze and adapt.
“Working in preschools and daycares works for me,” says educator Stephanie Wells. “That environment lets me be creative and moving all the time!”
Even certain retail jobs can fit the bill. “I worked for a major bookstore in various jobs for years and loved it,” says Kristi Haseltine-syrek. “I walked in the door and hit the ground running. It’s an extremely fast-paced job that allows creativity, and it is never boring.”
Jobs: Musician, artist, dancer, entertainer, inventor, fashion designer, mechanic, graphic designer, interior decorator, architect
Hands-on jobs that require creativity can be perfect for some people with ADHD. These types of jobs often combine creativity and problem-solving — areas where people with ADHD often excel.
Research supports the idea that people with ADHD are more likely to reach higher levels of creative thought and accomplishment. Those racing thoughts and ideas can often translate beautifully into creative thinking and output.
Jobs: Stockbroker, professional athlete, entrepreneur, commercial diver, construction foreman, software designer, race car driver, airplane pilot
A willingness to take risks and think innovatively are two skills that some people with ADHD have. These attributes can help you succeed as your own boss or in fields requiring a lot of independence.
A caveat: The job has to be in a field you’re passionate about, since jobs requiring independence often involve mastering abilities that people with ADHD struggle with, such as planning, organization, and self-motivation.
If you need any real-world proof, successful entrepreneurs with ADHD include: Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group; David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways; Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinkos; and Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA.
If your ADHD makes it difficult for you to perform on the job, you may want to tell your boss or human resources office that you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. Employers are required to provide accommodations if you’re classified as having a disability.
Two federal laws may protect you in the workplace: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which includes the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).
These laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in higher education and in the workplace. Some state laws may protect you even further.
If you find that your ADHD makes it challenging to get or keep a job, you may want to seek the help of a career counselor. Someone who is trained in mental health counseling and career development may be able to help you identify solutions.
You can ask for a referral to a career counselor from the career office of a college or university near you. You can also try searching the National Board for Certified Counselors’ online database.
If you’ve tried everything and feel that a job is out of reach at this time, you may be able to receive Social Security Disability (SSD) payments. Your doctor would need to provide written proof of your impairment, and you’d have to apply.
The bottom line is that most adults with ADHD find it’s possible to succeed in the workforce. The key is to view your ADHD traits as assets and seek jobs or fields that capitalize on your unique strengths, quirks, and interests.