Learning Differences
February 4, 2019

What ADHD Looks Like in Children and Adults

While we may often think about the hyperactive side of ADHD, we forget, or may not realize, that there’s a whole other subtype, inattentive, which looks like nearly the opposite of the image just described. There’s a combined subtype as well! And all three types have different ways of presenting in children and adults.

Kahina Beasley (Louis), Psy.D.
What ADHD Looks Like in Children and Adults

When you think about ADHD, what image first comes to mind?

This might be depend on your age, experiences, and whether or not you have children. But a typical image that comes to mind for people might be a child running wild, bouncing in and out of their seat, touching everything in the room. Sound familiar? That’s hyperactivity! But it may or may not be ADHD and it definitely doesn’t encompass the full scope of possibilities with ADHD, let alone what it might look like in an adult. While we may often think about the hyperactive side of ADHD, we forget, or may not realize, that there’s a whole other subtype, inattentive, which looks like nearly the opposite of the image just described.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which basically means that it develops during the time period of a child’s brain (neuro) development (developmental). It’s biological in nature, so many of the behaviors you might see are not intentional. They’re not just children “acting up” or “not trying hard enough.”

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder has three subtypes.

You can look at the full name of the disorder as a description of what those are:

  • “Attention-Deficit” points to the Inattentive Subtype
  • “Hyperactivity” points to the Hyperactive/Impulsive Subtype
  • “Deficit/Hyperactivity” points to the Combined Subtype

So, already, we can see some differences from that image earlier.

The Inattentive type can look like difficulty concentrating, making careless mistakes, “zoning out” or daydreaming, not hearing when people are calling them, forgetting/losing things, and avoiding hard work. It’s almost like a “silent” ADHD in a way and that’s why it seems to get less attention. People with the Inattentive subtype may go under the radar though they are still having a really difficult time completing what they need to do.

In childhood, the impact is most seen in how it affects school. The child may receive low grades because they’re not able to pay close enough attention to the lessons or to complete their assignments in time. They may also lose their books, assignments, or other belongings and get in trouble by teachers or caregivers for not following directions.

As adults, ADHD-Inattentive can look very similar. If the adult is in college or other education programs, they may see the same challenges of having trouble focusing on the lessons or taking longer than their peers to complete assignments. At work, they may miss deadlines, seriously procrastinate, be very disorganized, or make frequent mistakes on their tasks. They may get poor feedback from their supervisors or on their annual reviews, and for jobs that are very structured/meticulous, they may even be let go. This isn’t what everyone knows of ADHD, but it can have very significant effects.

The Hyperactive/Impulsive type, on the other hand, gets all the recognition! Why? Because people see it much more clearly in others. They may also have more trouble managing the behaviors associated it. This type is more like the image we’ve been referring to, and can look like that in addition to the following: being really fidgety or moving constantly, having trouble waiting their turn, talking a lot and interrupting others, and being loud during activities.

In childhood, this can cause a lot of challenges in school or in places like church, camp, or after school care. They may get a lot of calls home from their teachers, for example, and it can really interfere with their schoolwork. They may also get kicked out of activities or settings for not following the rules, though it’s important to know that this is not due to a simple defiance, but rather things like having trouble waiting their turn or moving around when they should be seated quietly.

For adults, ADHD-Hyperactive can be a little more subtle, as adults have had years to learn ways to better manage their own behaviors, either by interventions they received as a child or by increased self-awareness and action, the same way we all might find ways to manage some of our more challenging traits. So while they may not be up out of their seat constantly at work, they might still be fidgety (pen tapping, leg shaking) or may need to take more walking breaks to release some energy. They may still be impatient when waiting their turn, like in grocery store lines or in traffic, and can have some challenges in social relationships. This can be due to impulsive behaviors that may cause rifts in friendships/romantic relationships.

Then you have the Combined type, which is just like what it sounds: You have a mix of both. Sometimes you may be inattentive, other times struggling with hyperactivity, and your symptoms can vary depending on the day, activity, setting, etc.

Even though adult ADHD may look a bit different from child ADHD, it is important to know that ADHD does not begin in adulthood (or adolescence)! In order to be considered to have ADHD as an adult, you must have had enough symptoms before age 12 to meet criteria. This can be tricky to remember clearly sometimes as an adult.

Working alongside a licensed psychologist by completing a psychological evaluation for ADHD is the way to go if you want more clarity or if you need any type of documentation. For more information, or to schedule an evaluation with Strengths and Solutions, contact us today for a free consultation.