Adult ADHD: What Are Functional Impairments?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 14, 2022
4 min read

The symptoms of adult ADHD can snowball into problems or challenges that impact your daily life. These issues are called functional impairments.

Impairments can take a toll on you at home, at work, and socially. You might notice them, or people around you might point them out.

The good news is that if you have them, treatment can help get your life back on track.

An example of an ADHD symptom is getting easily distracted. An impairment is how that symptom interacts with the demands of the world, says Ari Tuckman, PsyD, co-chair of the National Conference Committee for the nonprofit organization CHADD.

An impairment is about the end result and how it affects your life, Tuckman says. The symptoms of ADHD can cause impairments across all different parts of life, he says.

David W. Goodman, MD, director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland, offers some examples.

If you have trouble managing time or can’t keep track of time: You might run late to work, have trouble finishing assignments on time, or underestimate how long it takes to do your work. You may rush to complete tasks and make careless errors.

Other people at work may notice these things. That can lead to poor job performance reviews. You might get put on probation or lose your job.

If you have trouble managing money: You might spend impulsively, putting charges on your credit cards. You may pay your bills late, or you might forget them under a stack of other paperwork.

That can create financial problems, like running up debt or a worse credit score.

If you can’t pay attention: Your mind could drift during conversations. You could lose track of what someone else says, or you forget what they said. And if other people need to repeat instructions for you, that could frustrate them.

As a result, other people may be more likely to walk away from you. They might decide that you’re unreliable, inconsistent, and undependable.

If you’re easily distracted: You could run a red light while driving your car.

That could lead to an accident that gets you or someone else hurt. Or if your car is in the shop for a while getting repaired, you could have trouble getting to work. And if you can’t get to work, it could affect your job.

If you have ADHD as an adult, that means it started when you were a child.

Impairments tied to it can show up in childhood, too. For instance, maybe you got bad grades in school or had trouble socializing with other kids.

But those impairments might become more obvious to you – or to people around you – as you get older, when the demands in your life go up, Goodman says. Think: high school, college, jobs, bills, marriage, children.

Research shows that adult ADHD is linked to different kinds of impairments, especially if you don’t get it diagnosed and treated. It can make you more likely to:

  • Get into car accidents
  • Get worse grades in college, take a long time to finish, or drop out
  • Lose jobs or be unemployed
  • Have trouble managing money, leading to financial problems
  • Have unstable relationships and marriage problems, leading to higher rates of separation and divorce

If you’re an adult now and had ADHD as a child, research suggests you’re more likely than those who didn’t have childhood ADHD to engage in behaviors that lead you to being arrested, convicted, or incarcerated. Some of that behavior may involve low-level offenses, like peeing in the alley behind the bar or impulsively shoplifting, Tuckman says.

Up to 80% of adults with ADHD also have at least one other psychiatric condition, research suggests. Those conditions can include mood and anxiety disorders.

Impairments can stem from ADHD, but they can also be an outgrowth of other psychiatric illnesses that can happen along with ADHD, Goodman says.

Impairments are often what motivate adults to get professional help for their ADHD, Tuckman says. Treatment for ADHD helps people with the disorder take charge of their impairments.

If you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD and you wonder if you might have it, a good first step is to learn about it.

Next, you could search for a mental health clinician, like a psychiatrist or a psychologist. It’s important to choose one who has training and experience treating adults with ADHD, Goodman says.

If they diagnose you with adult ADHD, they’ll make a treatment plan just for you. They may recommend things like:

  • Medication to ease your ADHD symptoms
  • Techniques to help you get organized and manage your time better
  • Talk therapy to improve your thinking-related habits and skills and to help you manage any other mental health conditions
  • Sessions with a professional called an ADHD coach, who can give you advice on how to tackle your daily tasks in a goal-oriented way.

If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and you’re struggling with impairments, talk to your doctor or mental health clinician. Tell them what you’re going through. They can help you figure out the best treatment plan.