The Upside Of ADHD As An Adult

Remember when ADHD was the childhood disability du jour in the ’90s and early aughts? Though it first appeared in the DSM-II in 1968, awareness of it percolated under the radar for years, and, even as it began seeping into the public consciousness in the ’80s, critics still often wrote it off as a crutch for “bad behavior.” But, by around 2000, ADHD had been legitimatized—not only had it become a hot topic in playground-bench convos, but virtually every other kid, so it seemed, was on Ritalin. Today, though the stigma of childhood ADHD has diminished substantially, adult ADHD is still often scoffed at, “acknowledged” with a wink and a nod (“You’re just spacey”)—or dismissed altogether. In fact, it wasn’t until just last year that the DSM (fifth edition) updated and expanded the diagnostic criteria for ADHD to provide more accurate guidelines for diagnosing adults. Though there are similarities, the symptomatic threshold for adults is lower than for children, who need to present with six symptoms, while adults need five.

Still, to those who don’t realize how much effort it takes for an adult with ADHD to get the same work done, “some behaviors may seem like laziness, low intelligence, or an excuse for poor performance,” says Linda Walker, a professional certified coach specialized in coaching ADHD adults ( and the author of With Time to Spare: The Ultimate Guide to Peak Performance for Entrepreneurs, Adults with ADHD and other Creative Geniuses.  

Though it’s a recognized disability, which means, says Maureen Empfield, MD, a psychiatrist who practices in Mount Kisco, that it is “covered under the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act],” studies show, says Walker, “that only 15 percent of adults with ADHD know they have it,” but they still suffer the consequences. And, since it still bears an unrelenting rep as an “excuse diagnosis,” telling your employer may not always be wise, “unless,” says Empfield, “it becomes an issue of job performance.” 

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Clearly, the effects of ADHD on job performance can be very real. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (September 2009) determined that adults with untreated ADHD lost an average of 22 days of productivity per year, while an earlier University of Massachusetts study reported that 44.6 percent of untreated “ADHDers” experienced behavioral problems at work; 17.4 percent had been fired; 17.3 percent had been forced to quit because of hostility; 32.6 percent quit due to boredom; and 11.1 percent had been disciplined by their bosses. 

Still, says Empfield, “ADHD is not always a hindrance.” In fact, there are numerous careers at which adults with ADHD can—and do—excel, often more successfully than their non-ADHD peers. Since one of the hallmarks of ADHD is “hyperfocus,” careers that require intense focus for long periods of time—such as writing, editing, and art—are often great options. The caveat: ADHD adults usually can hyperfocus only in areas they enjoy. So packing sardines for eight hours a day or working on an automotive assembly line may not be great choices. “Repetitive tasks generally do not bring out their strengths,” says Empfield. Studies show that many adults with ADHD “are divergent, out-of-the-box thinkers, creative problem-solvers,” notes Walker. “The employer who knows how to tap into the strengths can really reap the benefits.”

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