The mention of ADHD conjures the image of a six-year-old bouncing off the furniture or staring out the window of his classroom, ignoring his assignments. What most people don’t know is that approximately four percent of American adults (as many as 9 million people) are also affected by these disorders.

The hyperactivity associated with children with ADHD is not as prevalent in adults, so an adult is more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD primarily inattentive presentation. Yet it can still wreak havoc on social interactions, careers, and marriages, and trigger dangerous behaviors, such as gambling and alcohol or drug abuse.

ADHD presents differently in adults than it does in children, which may explain why so many cases of adult ADHD are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. Adult ADHD disrupts what are called the “executive functions” of the brain, such as judgment, decision-making, initiative, memory, and the ability to complete complex tasks. Impaired executive functions can spell disaster for scholastic and professional achievement, as well as sustainable, stable relationships. Adult ADHD is often misdiagnosed as depression or an anxiety disorder, and can be overlooked as the source of such symptoms. Depression and anxiety often accompany ADHD because difficulty with executive brain functions can trigger both.

Adult ADHD is characterized by the inability to stay on task or to take on tasks that require sustained concentration, forgetting appointments, habitual lateness, and poor listening skills. The condition also reveals itself in one’s communication style. Adult ADHD triggers a compulsion to finish other people’s sentences or to interrupt someone while they are talking. For example, a high level of impatience when waiting in line or in traffic is another potential sign of adult ADHD. What may be considered high-strung, nervous behavior or quirky character traits might actually be adult ADHD at work.

Adults with ADHD also had the condition as children, though it may have been misdiagnosed as a learning disability or conduct disorder. Perhaps the disorder presented itself during childhood in too mild a form to raise any flags and it took the demands of adult life to unmask the condition. Or perhaps the adult’s childhood had passed by the time ADHD was recognized as a viable medical condition. In any case, if left undiagnosed and untreated, ADHD and its frequent companions, depression and low self-esteem, can prevent the sufferer from reaching his or her full potential.

If the aforementioned signs and symptoms of ADHD sound familiar or representative of issues you’ve experienced, you may consider checking them against the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale Symptom Checklist. The World Health Organization and the Workgroup on Adult ADHD developed the list, which physicians often use in dialogue with patients seeking help for ADHD symptoms. At least six symptoms, in specific degrees of severity, must be verified for an ADHD diagnosis.

The following are a sample of questions from the Checklist. Choose one of these five responses for each: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Very Often.

  • “How often do you have difficulty keeping your attention when you are doing boring or repetitive work?”
  • “How often do you have difficulty waiting your turn in situations when turn-taking is required?”
  • “How often are you distracted by activity or noise around you?”
  • “How often do you feel overly active and compelled to do things, like you were driven by a motor?”
  • “How often do you have problems remembering appointments or obligations?”
  • “How often do you interrupt others when they are busy?”

If you answered “Often” or “Very Often” for several of these questions, consider making an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation.

Although not used for clinical diagnoses, Dr. Kathleen Nadeau, director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center in Maryland, developed a sample Attention Span Test for adults with ADHD. Rate the following sample statements from Dr. Nadeau’s questionnaire on a scale from 0 (not at all like me) to 3 (just like me):

  • “It is hard for me to listen for long periods of time at meetings.”
  • “I jump from topic to topic in conversation.”
  • “My home and office are cluttered and messy.”
  • “I often start reading books but rarely finish them.”
  • “I pick up and drop hobbies and interests.”
  • “Meal planning is challenging for me.”

A high score on a majority of the questions, combined with experiences of marked difficulty with focus and concentration, may suggest adult ADHD. Make an appointment with your doctor or psychiatrist for a professional diagnosis.