Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a condition that affects people’s behaviour. People with ADHD can seem restless, impulsive and have problems concentrating.

*Last updated 9 June 2021

Studies show that ADHD may affect certain areas of the brain that allow us to solve problems, plan ahead, understand others' actions, and control our impulses.

Most cases are diagnosed in childhood, but it’s possible to be diagnosed as an adult. ADHD can’t develop for the first time in adults, but you may have had it as a child and not been diagnosed.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

The symptoms of ADHD fall into two groups: inattentiveness, and hyperactivity and impulsiveness. You may have difficulties that fall into one or both categories.

Symptoms of ADHD may present themselves differently. For example, boys with ADHD may be more disruptive in the classroom than girls. Adults are less likely to show hyperactivity.

ADHD in children and teenagers

The main symptoms of inattentiveness include:

  • a short attention span
  • making careless mistakes
  • being forgetful or losing things
  • being unable to stick to boring tasks
  • difficulty listening or carrying out instructions
  • constantly changing activity
  • difficulty organising tasks.

The main symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness include:

  • fidgeting or being unable to sit still
  • lots of physical movement or talking
  • being unable to wait your turn
  • acting impulsively or recklessly
  • interrupting conversations.

Many children have phases where they’re restless or can’t concentrate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have ADHD. But if you think your child’s behaviour is different to most children their age, speak to their teacher or GP about your concerns.

ADHD in adults

While you can’t develop ADHD as an adult, your symptoms may have been missed as a child. Some children grow out of ADHD while others continue to have symptoms.

Adult symptoms tend to be more subtle than those seen in children. They include:

  • difficulty paying attention or focusing
  • being easily distracted by things other people are able to ignore 
  • daydreaming or zoning out
  • struggling to complete tasks
  • lack of attention to detail
  • poor listening skills
  • losing things and being forgetful
  • quickly getting bored and seeking out new experiences
  • impatience, mood swings and irritability
  • risk-taking, for example dangerous driving.

If you have undiagnosed ADHD as an adult, you may find life overwhelming but not know why. You may be stressed out and have problems with work, money and relationships as a result of your ADHD.

ADHD and other mental health problems

If you have ADHD, you’re more likely to experience a mental health problem. These include anxiety, depression, sleep problems, conduct disorder (showing aggressive or antisocial behaviour) and substance abuse.

What causes ADHD?

The causes of ADHD aren’t fully known, but it’s likely a combination of factors – including genetics and brain chemistry – are responsible. Some people may be more likely to develop ADHD, including those born prematurely or with low birth weights, or who have epilepsy or brain damage.

Getting a diagnosis

If you think you or your child could have ADHD, speak to your GP. They can’t formally diagnose you, but they can talk about your concerns and refer you for a specialist assessment if necessary.

The NHS website has more information about getting a diagnosis.

If there’s a long waiting list to see a specialist, you may be able to speed this up by using your right to choose. This lets you choose the organisation that provides your NHS care when you’re referred to a specialist.

If you live in an area where they have an NHS contract, you can be assessed for adult ADHD through Psychiatry UK. As an online service, they have a larger group of specialists to deliver assessments and therefore a shorter waiting list than many other services. They have more information on how to get an assessment on their website.  

Getting support

There are lots of different types of treatment for ADHD. While it can’t be cured, treatment can help relieve the symptoms and make daily life much easier.

Medication

ADHD is often treated with stimulant medication. It can help you concentrate better, be less impulsive and feel calmer.

Therapy

You may be offered:

  • psychoeducation. You discuss how ADHD affects you and how you can cope
  • behaviour therapy. Children are rewarded for trying to control with ADHD and show good behaviour
  • parent training and education programmes. You learn how to talk to and work with your child to improve their attention and behaviour
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). A talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing how you think and behave.

The NHS website has more information about treatment for ADHD.

Ways you can look after yourself

Different things work for different people with ADHD. You could try physical activity, eating well, getting enough sleep and cutting down on alcohol. The ADHD And You website has other tips to help you organise your day such as using checklists and breaking up bigger tasks into smaller chunks.

You could also join a support group. ADHD charity ADHD has a list of groups for children and adults with ADHD – click on your nation to see them.