Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that usually appears in childhood. Its symptoms fall into three categories: predominantly hyperactive, predominantly inattentive, and combined type.

For a host of reasons, some people aren’t diagnosed with the condition when they are children. Getting an accurate diagnosis as an adult can be life-changing. When untreated, the condition can cause serious health, career, and relationship problems.

Here’s what to know about the process of getting an ADHD diagnosis as an adult.

Research reviews show that worldwide, between 2.58 and 5.76 percent of adults have significant ADHD symptoms.

Some of these adults have undoubtedly missed an early diagnosis, but there’s also a prevailing question among researchers who study adult ADHD: Can ADHD develop during adulthood, or are all adults with ADHD simply undiagnosed as children?

Studies offer conflicting evidence. Some experts say it’s possible for ADHD to emerge for the first time in adulthood. Others say the symptoms were overlooked when the person was younger.

When you’re an adult, symptoms may look a little different from the ones associated with childhood ADHD.

Adult ADHD often involves:

  • not being able to prioritize and organize
  • having trouble starting tasks and projects
  • not managing your time well
  • losing the ability to follow through on tasks that call for prolonged mental effort
  • having chaotic surroundings or life circumstances
  • losing objects and forgetting deadlines or appointments
  • acting on impulse, even in risky situations
  • feeling stressed and overwhelmed by everyday demands
  • becoming frustrated easily
  • feeling restless and uneasy
  • misusing substances

If these symptoms feel familiar, you may want to talk with a health professional about a diagnosis. Although there is no cure for ADHD, the right treatment can bring balance to your personal and professional life.

Yes. ADHD can be diagnosed by any licensed physician, including a family doctor, internist, or specialist, such as a neurologist or psychiatrist.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can also diagnose ADHD and, like physicians, can prescribe medication to treat the condition.

Licensed mental health professionals such as psychologists and therapists can also diagnose adult ADHD, but they’ll refer you to a physician, nurse practitioner (in some states), or physician assistant for medication.

An ADHD diagnosis, in childhood or adulthood, isn’t as simple as having an MRI or a blood test. Instead, your diagnosis will be based on a thorough evaluation of your symptoms and medical history.

To receive an ADHD diagnosis, you must have at least five different symptoms. They must affect you in at least two different settings (school, work, home, etc.).

Your healthcare professional might use a behavior rating scale to find out how often you experience symptoms of adult ADHD in your daily life. Some common scales include:

Once you’ve received a diagnosis, your healthcare professional may use scales like these from time to time to track how well your treatments are working.

Other possibilities

ADHD shares symptoms with several other health conditions. Chronic stress, sleep disorders, and other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder can all look like ADHD in adults.

For that reason, you may need extra tests to rule out other causes for your symptoms. You may also need to take a test that evaluates your cognitive abilities to determine whether you have a learning disability to address.

Boys are more likely than girls to receive ADHD diagnoses during childhood.

Some researchers believe this is because boys are a little more likely to have hyperactivity and impulsivity symptoms. These symptoms are easier to spot than distraction and inattention, which are slightly more common among girls.

It’s also possible that girls build compensation skills that mask their ADHD symptoms. For that reason, many girls with ADHD do not receive diagnoses during childhood.

As adults, women often recognize their symptoms and seek treatment. It’s often because ADHD has caused problems in new social situations, higher education, work, or parenting.

Hormone changes can also influence how and when ADHD symptoms show up or get worse. Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can alter ADHD symptoms, causing them to interfere with productivity and relationships in more noticeable ways.

Getting an accurate diagnosis is vital for women with ADHD because, if left untreated, the condition more often leads to:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • substance use
  • acts of self-harm

Race influences ADHD diagnoses among children and adults. In a 2021 study involving more than 238,000 children, researchers found that Black, Hispanic, and Asian children received ADHD diagnoses less often than non-Hispanic white children.

Among children with an ADHD diagnosis, non-Hispanic white children were more also likely to be treated with medication than Black, Hispanic, or Asian children.

These racial disparities continue into adulthood. When researchers in 2019 analyzed more than 59,000 ADHD cases in a large health insurance cohort, they found that non-Hispanic white people received ADHD diagnoses more often than Black, Hispanic, and Asian people.

All the people in the 2019 study had private health insurance, so researchers felt the differences weren’t because some study participants didn’t have access to healthcare services. Instead, researchers said the disparities may have existed because:

  • people have different perspectives on mental health care
  • racial bias can cause healthcare professionals to view behaviors as “unhealthy” in some people and “normal” in others
  • people may be more or less willing to use medical services
  • symptoms may be misdiagnosed as another health condition

Researchers did note that ADHD diagnoses are on the rise in all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

There are several short online tests to check for symptoms of adult ADHD. These tests ask how often you experience many of the hallmark ADHD symptoms, like interrupting others, fidgeting, losing track of your things, and feeling overwhelmed by complicated tasks.

These tests can be eye-opening and may give you the spark to seek support, such as:

Though you are the expert on your own symptoms, only a professional diagnosis can create a treatment plan that includes medications. ADHD also overlaps significantly with other mental health conditions, and a professional can help make sure you get an accurate diagnosis.

ADHD is often considered a childhood health condition, but for many people, it continues into adulthood. Diagnosing this neurodevelopmental difference usually involves a thorough medical history and a physical exam to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.

Sex, gender, and race disparities can make it harder to get an accurate diagnosis. Women and People of Color are diagnosed with ADHD less often, and as a result, may not get the treatment and support they need until much later in life.

You can use an online tool to get an idea of whether your behaviors and feelings indicate that you may have ADHD, and then talk with a healthcare or mental health professional about what you learned.

Medication and other treatments can help relieve ADHD symptoms and give you a better quality of life.