What is ADHD?
8 min · Behavior
August 16, 2021

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, and it is usually diagnosed in childhood. The disorder can also last into the person’s adult life.

ADHD affects a person’s ability to pay attention. People with ADHD may have problems as they may act or speak without thinking about the consequences of their actions or due to their impulsive behaviors.

Another common characteristic observed in people with ADHD is that they can be overly active. The term ”hyperactivity” in the disorder’s name means that these individuals can fidget or talk a lot.

Signs of ADHD

The signs of symptoms of ADHD depend on the individual and the severity of the disorder itself. We can categorize the symptoms of ADHD into three types: predominantly inattentiveness, predominantly hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and the combination of the two. Some people may only present one, while others may fall into both of these categories, putting them into the combined presentation type.

Symptoms and signs may change from one person to another, ranging from major symptoms that interfere with daily life to mild symptoms. Sometimes some adults don’t even realize that they have ADHD but are aware that certain everyday tasks can be complex for them. These adults can find it difficult to prioritize tasks or focus on them, and they may not be able to control their impulses, making them impatient.

Some of the ADHD symptoms seen in adults can include impulsiveness, being disorganized, failure to meet deadlines, poor management skills, difficulty focusing on tasks, problems encountered in multitasking, being ” hot-headed,” being prone to mood swings, or excessive activity.

signs of adhd

The following is the shortened form of the DSM-5 criteria published on the CDC’s website. These are used by trained healthcare providers to diagnose or treat ADHD.


People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity–impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development:

  1. Inattention: Six or more symptoms of inattention for children up to age 16 years, or five or more for adolescents age 17 years and older and adults; symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months, and they are inappropriate for developmental level:
  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.

  • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.

  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.

  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).

  • Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.

  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).

  • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).

  • Is often easily distracted

  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.

    1. Hyperactivity and Impulsivity: Six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity for children up to age 16 years, or five or more for adolescents age 17 years and older and adults; symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person’s developmental level:
  • Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.

  • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.

  • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).

  • Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.

  • Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”.

  • Often talks excessively.

  • Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.

  • Often has trouble waiting their turn.

  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)

In addition, the following conditions must be met:

  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.
  • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings, (such as at home, school or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).
  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.
  • The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (such as a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder). The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sometimes ADHD symptoms can be missed. Typically, if the symptoms of ADHD are observed in an ongoing manner, affecting daily life. In adults, diagnosing ADHD can be difficult as ADHD symptoms are similar to those that can come with other common conditions like anxiety.

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Here are some of the most common symptoms and signs of ADHD in children:

  • Interrupting others while they are speaking
  • Having trouble waiting their turn
  • Self-focused behaviors that cause issues with conversations or playing games
  • Having trouble with keeping their emotions on track
  • Being forgetful or losing items often
  • Being prone to outbursts at times that are not appropriate
  • Difficulty in managing their time
  • Fidgeting is one of the most common symptoms
  • Having trouble sitting still, and often getting up and running around
  • Fidgeting may cause the child to play loudly or not in a calm manner
  • Difficulty with organization skills, like not being able to prioritize tasks or assignments
  • Difficulty focusing on a task, like a school project or a house chore
  • Problem with focus or paying attention
  • Being distracted in the classroom due to not being able to focus for extended periods
  • Careless mistakes not because of lack of intelligence but due to difficulty following instructions
  • Staring into space or daydreaming often
  • Difficulty maintaining personal hygiene

What is the Difference Between ADD and ADHD?

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a term that is used commonly to describe certain symptoms including distractibility, inattention, and poor working memory. When you look at ADHD, this term seems like it is used to describe additional symptoms as we mentioned, such as hyperactivity and impulsivity.

The terms ADD and ADHD are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference and they are not the same thing. ADD is an outdated term that was once used to describe people who had difficulty focusing but were not hyperactive. In 2013, the Fifth Edition of DSM (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association changed the criteria to diagnose a person with ADHD.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is colloquially used to refer to one particular type of ADHD called the Predominantly Inattentive Type. It used to be called attention deficit disorder. Technically, ADD is no longer a medical diagnosis utilized by the clinicians, but it is often used to refer to the Predominantly Inattentive Type of ADHD and the symptoms associated with that.

ADHD is a neurological or psychological disorder, and clinicians and doctors have used the term to describe all hyperactive and inattentive types of ADHD. However, the term ADD is still used often by parents or teachers. The symptoms of predominantly inattentive type, formerly known as ADD, include inattention, poor working memory, and distractibility.

difference between add and adhd

How to Test for ADHD

There is no one simple test that tells you whether your child has ADHD or not. Typically, you would have to consult different specialists as your child may be referred to several specialists. If you have any concerns about your child having ADHD, you need to consult your child’s primary care doctor first. Some of the specialists your child may be referred to can be a child psychiatrist, pediatrician, or a specialist who specializes in ADHD, like an occupational therapist.

Depending on the specialist your child is referred to, they will be doing some tests to make an accurate diagnosis. This could be a physical examination so as to rule out other possible causes of the signs and symptoms. The specialist will also make an assessment through a series of interviews with the child and the parents or caregivers. These interviews may also be conducted with other key people in the child’s or adult’s life, like teachers or partners.

Children are diagnosed based on the symptoms and signs specified in the APA’s DSM-5. The children must have 6 or more symptoms of inattentiveness or 6 or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness in order to get diagnosed with ADHD. These symptoms should be displayed continuously for at least 6 months and in at least 2 different settings, such as at school and at home.

In adults, diagnosing ADHD is a little bit more difficult as there is no consensus on whether the list of symptoms used to diagnose children and teenagers can also be used to diagnose adults. The specialist will ask about the symptoms the adult is having at that time. But technically, based on the diagnostic manual, if the adult did not have the symptoms starting from childhood, the diagnosis of ADHD cannot be confirmed. Because currently, it is believed that ADHD can’t develop for the first time in adults.

How to Focus with ADHD

People with ADHD have trouble focusing on tasks and carrying out assignments. Here are some little tips that may help focus with ADHD.

Writing down any critical or major priorities at the beginning of each would help avoid distractions. Looking at this list would help refocus the attention. This tool could help the person see what’s important and on what they should focus.

  • Identify Triggers of Overwhelming

It may be a good idea to identify what causes your brain to shift focus or leave a task half undone. Sometimes, when people with ADHD are hungry or have too many things on their minds, they get overwhelmed and can’t focus on any specific task. At these times, it could be beneficial to identify what triggers this overwhelming sensation, since once they know what causes the lack of focus, then they will be able to see when it’s coming and act accordingly.

  • Break Things Down

This trick could help everyone. Sometimes a task seems too daunting to get started and we get overwhelmed. Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks would prevent this overwhelming feeling and then getting started on the task would not be so tricky, helping the individual focus on it better.

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This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.

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