I’m a health and business writer, author, mom of two grown adults, and the founder of a business that helps adults with learning and attention differences gain confidence, get hired, and ask for what they need to do their best work.

I see patterns, make connections, and find workarounds that others don’t. My relationships—at home and at work—have benefited from my creativity, energy, and unusual skill set. But my biggest strength is sometimes also my biggest challenge.

I was diagnosed as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, dyscalculia, and sensory processing disorder in my 40s. In some ways, mine is a classic story, particularly because ADHD can be challenging to diagnose in girls and adults.

It’s common to hear of parents learning of their child’s diagnosis and thinking, “Wow, that sounds a lot like me”. That’s what happened when I took my then 7-year-old son to an amazing neuropsychologist.

Thanks to her guidance, we learned the positives before the negatives. She explained that ADHD is a genetic, neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that the part of the brain involved in planning, focus, and follow through works differently than it does in people who are neurotypical.

But in a classroom, or at work, these traits can look like laziness or an inability to learn. They are not. As a child, I was often described by teachers as “stubborn and moody;” a “daydreamer”. As an adult that morphed into another common theme—not performing up to my potential.

I wish someone had helped me to understand what I am about to explain to you now.

ADHD Has an Upside: Our Quirks Are Also Strengths

ADHD is not a one-size-fits-all explanation for behavior and difficulties. The disorder puts you at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use, and suicide. Factors like stress, boredom, disinterest, lack of sleep, being hungry, feeling overwhelmed by noise, or lack of downtime impact how well we adapt to certain work and social environments.

What I know now is that people of all ages can learn and succeed not in spite of, but often because of, their creativity, empathy, imagination, sense of humor, and experience managing stress.

What people don’t hear enough: ADHD and all its unruly bedfellows can be managed and even make some people better at coping in extreme situations, such as a global pandemic, lockdowns, or layoffs. Effective strategies include accommodations at work (like wearing noise-canceling headphones to block out distracting noise) or school (like receiving extra time to complete tests). Tutoring, therapy, coaching, peer support, and medication (usually some combination of all of those) along with a hearty dose of patience, all work well, too.

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ADHD is not a trend or a fad. About 1 in 5 Americans live with learning/attention disabilities. That includes children, adolescents, and adults.1 Those numbers are likely even higher since many are undiagnosed due to factors like stigma and lack of access to care and treatment.

People with ADHD will have at least two or three of the following challenges: difficulty staying on task, paying attention, daydreaming or tuning out, organizational issues, and hyper-focus, which causes us to lose track of time. ADHD-ers are often highly sensitive and empathic. Over the years, I’ve been called quirky and weird—and while that’s true that’s not a negative for me. I’ll keep my quirks, thank you very much.

Navigating the Choppy Waters of ADHD

There is no standard diagnostic test for ADHD. Most clinicians use neuropsychological tests to see where on a spectrum of skills and behaviors a person fits in. But it can be more art than science, which makes for a lot of grey areas.

Edward Hallowell, MD, psychologist, and author of the best-selling ADHD guide Driven to Distraction, also has ADHD. He famously describes it as having the brain of a Ferrari with the brakes of a bicycle. (I would add that there are a lot of cool things about Ferrari’s, of course, but if that’s how you roll, you’re going to need better brakes.)

Even today, the simplest things—finding my way back to a lecture hall from the bathroom or getting nauseated by the noise of a colleague chewing loudly at lunch—agitate me. But I find workarounds (leaving a trail of rubber bands on the floor for navigation purposes or humming to drown out the chewing, for instance) and work hard to compensate for any shortcomings.

To help neurotypicals (that means you) understand us, I’ve created a composite of an ADHD adult. My hope is that in reading this you will gain respect for these differences, see value in our quirks and talents, and be more sensitive to how we think, feel, work, and experience life.

Adult ADHD Show and Tell

A good place to start is by watching Jessica McCabe TedX talk, Failing at Normal which is both humorous and educational. (Jessica is also the host of a popular YouTube channel, How to ADHD.)  Then, read on for an insider look at the ADHD experience, with the help of a few online tools. If it explains a lot—or sounds like someone you love—seek a medical diagnosis. Getting the care and treatment you need to thrive with ADHD requires it.

#1. Adult ADHD Symptom: Staying on Task

Concentrating on one task until it is finished is an issue that we all have at times because our minds are naturally disorderly places. The ADHD brain, however, hatches new plans and ideas constantly and can easily skip and jump from one idea to the next, forgetting to loop back to the original task, as average people might. Being online can be especially challenging for ADHD-ers (hello information rabbit hole). I set timers or limit myself to allowing only a fixed number of tabs open on my computer (eight is fine; 10 is too many). There are other tricks, old-fashioned tools like paper planners and calendars, and apps, like RescueTime and Freedom, that are designed to keep us productive.

To be clear, adults don’t need babysitters—we need prompters, tools, and allies, and the confidence to ask for them. With proper support, ADHD-ers are big thinkers and do extraordinary work. We just need a little help getting through tasks we may find boring.

What it feels like: On a busy day, it’s not unusual for me to overestimate how much I can get done. I sometimes start up to five tasks during the day—writing thank you notes at breakfast, chopping vegetables for soup at lunch, researching a new smartphone, and creating a spreadsheet of expenses in the afternoon. They are all works in progress, which is fine until a deadline pops up (the mailman arrives for those letters or the soup is still just a pile of vegetables). I give myself two days to complete tasks, one day to start and one day to finish, so I am not constantly berating myself for not finishing them.

What you can do: Doing tasks I don’t enjoy for long periods of time trips my brain’s “off” switch, signaling it’s time for a short break, some exercise, or food.

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#2. Adult ADHD Symptom: Working Memory Challenges

My understanding of big concepts, patterns, and ideas is huge and enviable. My ability to remember names and dates or end a sentence when I am distracted is poor. I’ve been called out for seemingly careless spelling mistakes and not paying attention. It’s not because I don’t give a hoot, it’s that my brain lacks a strong working memory meaning it lacks the ability to retain and remember short-term.2

Spoken information or detail on a screen—rather than on a physical piece of paper—are the most difficult to recall. Heap on a measure of anxiety or depression (which usually exists on some level in people with ADHD) and it becomes even more difficult to summon facts in working memory.

In ADHD adults like me who also struggle due to dyslexia and dyscalculia this can manifest as skipping words or seeing $50,000 as $5000, somewhat problematic when filing your taxes, for example.

What it feels like: I used to be bewildered by my inability to pay attention (especially when I wanted to!) so I began tracking the problem. Noting when and where it occurred helped me understand that my brain melts down in noisy, crowded places. Big meeting halls, bustling airports, busy restaurants—you get the idea. It’s not unusual for me to forget my gate number at the airport and become frustrated when I can’t recall the Wi-Fi system password that was just flashed before me in a slide presentation moments ago.

Grocery shopping when you have ADHD can also be a daunting task. Preparing a list, navigating the aisles, selecting the right brand, size, variety (hold the artificial sweetener, please!), and trying to stay on task all tax the working memory and can trigger sensory overload. This ADHD Simulator video, which I find brain-rattling (I don’t experience food shopping this intensely), you’ll see why a routine trip to the grocery store is anything but routine for people with ADHD.

What you can do:Try noise-canceling headphones if grocery shopping exhausts your brain, or consider having your food delivered.

#3. Adult ADHD Symptom: The Blank Stare

In general, stress and anxiety (and anxiety about being stressed) tax my whole body. Loud noise, intense conversations, five Zoom meetings in a row, pop-up advertising, and other unexpected disruptions are exhausting. Here’s how that causes me to zone out.

What it feels like: Right now, a jackhammer is outside my window busting through the street. Leaf blowers and loud motorcycles are equally unbearable. Tolerating noises like these zaps all the energy in my brain temporarily, literally causing me to stop talking mid-sentence. This deer-in-the-headlights look can also be a reaction to a swirling or distracting graphic or a series of pop-up advertisements on a page. (I use the ‘reader’ function on my computer to read copy without pop-ups).

What you can do: Give yourself a break by doing something you enjoy. My go-to’s are listening to music, exercise, baking, or gardening.

#4. Adult ADHD Symptom: Daydreaming

Not to be confused with zoning out (see above), daydreaming is different. ADHDers are curious by nature. It’s easy for us to get lost exploring passions and seeking answers to our many questions. Our daydreaming might look like a deep dive into Instagram or re-living an awesome vacation.

If I’m not interested in what a person is yammering on about—even if I know it’s an important presentation and I should be paying close attention—my mind starts to wander.

What it feels like: This elementary school classroom simulation offers a look at what struggling to pay attention is like.

What you can do: To keep me focused I’ve trained myself to find at least one thing about the person or presentation that’s interesting. (During a televised debate, for example, I’ll play Candidate Bingo or keep track of how many times a person says a long word, like ‘democratization’. Sometimes that’s all it takes to keep my head in the game.)

#5. Adult ADHD Symptom: Constantly Losing Things

If you’ve ever seen someone wait patiently in line for the Starbucks and then drive off with it on the top of their car, you know these kinds of gaffs can be humiliating—and costly. Another favorite is calling a friend to tell her I’m running late because I can’t find my phone, which I am talking to her on. It’s maddening.

What if feels like: Living with ADHD means constantly fighting distraction, overstimulation, anxiety, and being disorganized. All these challenges (mostly related to working memory deficits) strain our ability to retain information.

If my forgetfulness is causing a serious issue—losing my keys makes me constantly miss important appointments or not remembering where I put a daily medication compromises my health, I practice a routine or ritual to trigger my memory.

What you can do: To help me remember my keys and wallet I place them on a silver tray near the door. (Since the pandemic I’ve added a mask to the tray!) Before I leave I do a body check—umbrella, tote bag, disinfectant, phone, keys, wallet, snack, and….oh, yes, the mask. Do that enough times and it can take as little as 10 seconds to recall what you’re missing.

#6. Adult ADHD Symptom: Not Following Directions

Following directions requires active listening, attention to detail, and staying on task. My ADHD brain also likes to find creative solutions to problems that can be misunderstood as willfulness. Doing things my own way has led to a lot of harsh and unwanted criticism even bullying at work.

What it feels like: In some cases, following directions is not possible for me. My brain doesn’t process directions as quickly as others and I have zero sense of geography and time. I’m constantly begging the lady inside my GPS to ‘say that again’ or shushing my kids because I need to focus when looking for an exit.

Distractions, even the smallest ones, can hinder my ability to use step-by-step instructions, whether I am cooking, putting together a lamp, or behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. This ADHD Struggles Video explains it a bit more.

What you can do: Saying directions out loud sometimes help me. If it is a long set of instructions, I underline each part I’ve completed in pencil, so I know where I’ve stopped if I get distracted. Repeating directions someone else has given you and saying them again can help, as in, “Thanks, sir. It’s a right, left, sharp left.” Then repeat for good measure.

So there you have it. That’s what living with ADHD feels like. Now get out there and start using your ADHD energy, creativity, and unique problem-solving skills to set the world on fire.

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Last Updated: Aug 23, 2021