What Does High-Functioning Adult ADHD Look Like?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 01, 2021
4 min read

Growing up, Dusti Arab of Portland, OR, was a gifted student who did well in school. But as an adult, “I would hit a snag in a project and be completely unable to move forward,” she says. “I'd throw myself into one thing after another, trying to find a magic solution that would keep me focused, but nothing stuck for long.”

In 2020, some memes about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) caught Arab’s eye. Although it had never crossed her mind that she could have it, Arab went to see a doctor.

When she was diagnosed with ADHD, Arab felt a sense of relief. “It was like the clouds parted and the sun came out. It wasn't all in my head -- and it wasn't just me,” she says.

ADHD in kids gets talked about a lot. But adults can have it, too. When you have only mild symptoms, or you have more severe symptoms that you manage well, you have what’s called “high-functioning” ADHD.

ADHD is often first spotted in childhood. Many kids who have it find it hard to sit still and focus. They may act on impulse without thinking things through.

In grown-ups, it can be different.

“Many adults can have ADHD and not realize it,” says Denise Leung, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. “The symptom profile is different in adults compared to children.”

Adults with ADHD are often less hyperactive and impulsive than kids, but have more trouble staying focused on a task.

Other signs of adult ADHD include:

  • Being disorganized
  • Poor sense of time
  • Trouble knowing what to do first
  • Not being able to multitask
  • Feeling restless
  • Putting off or not finishing projects
  • Mood swings
  • Getting easily stressed
  • Finding it hard to listen when someone else is talking
  • Struggling to remember things or follow directions
  • Having so many thoughts that it’s hard to follow just one

Everyone deals with these issues at some point, but they can become habits for adults with ADHD.

You could have high-functioning ADHD for years before you ever get diagnosed. That lag time can happen because:

  • If you did well in school, your parents and teachers may not have realized other ADHD symptoms were an issue.
  • You may have another mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, that gets more notice.
  • You have extra support or strategies that help lessen your symptoms.

There’s no single test that confirms you have ADHD. A psychologist or other mental health expert will ask you in-depth questions about your symptoms and how they affect you. In some cases, they may also talk to your family members to get a better idea of how you function.

Every ADHD trait has a positive aspect, says Edward M. Hallowell, MD, a psychiatrist in the Boston metro area and the author of ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction -- from Childhood Through Adulthood.

For instance, “the flip side of distractibility is curiosity. The flipside of impulsivity is creativity, and the flipside of hyperactivity is energy,” says Hallowell, who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult.

When you have ADHD, “your brain is like a Ferrari engine, but you only have bicycle brakes,” says Hallowell. “We don’t have a deficit of attention -- we have a bunch of attention. The challenge is to control it.”

Plenty of things can help, including:

Medication. Many different drugs can reduce ADHD symptoms. You’ll need to work with your doctor to find the kind and dose that helps you the most. “When medication works, it’s like a pair of eyeglasses. You can focus and see the details,” Hallowell says.

Take frequent breaks. “Avoid working for long periods of time if possible,” Leung says. Use a timer so you remember to get up from your chair and take breaks.

Find ways to stay organized. “There are a number of tools that adults with ADHD can use to better manage their condition,” says Vinay Saranga, MD, a psychiatrist in Apex, NC.

For instance, you can set deadlines for yourself, try to work in a space that’s free of distractions, and break big tasks down into smaller, bite-sized steps.

Have a plan. “Follow a daily routine that’s consistent,” Leung says. Keep a place in your home for items that you need every day, like your wallet and keys.

Keep an open mind. “Boredom is kryptonite for people with ADHD,” Hallowell says. If you can, look for a job that excites you and that you’re inspired to do.

Try counseling. A type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy can help you be more aware of, and learn to change, negative thoughts. It can also help your self-esteem. Other types of therapy can teach you to better manage your time, deal with stress, and get organized.

Understand ADHD. “Don’t just accept the caricature of an accident-prone, forgetful person,” Hallowell says. “People with ADHD are pioneers and dreamers.”

Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, musician Adam Levine, and TV host Ty Pennington are some of the well-known people who’ve talked about living with the condition.

“I call ADHD a ‘good news’ diagnosis,” Hallowell says. “Once you get diagnosed, things can only get better.”

That’s been true for Arab. Today, she’s writing a book that she’s been talking about for years and has a waitlist for ADHD Business, an online program she started that offers support and coaching to small business owners who also live with ADHD.

“My ADHD is a superpower,” Arab says. “I can adapt quickly, act on ideas without missing a beat, and connect the dots in unconventional and interesting ways.”