What Does Undiagnosed ADHD Look Like In Adults?

It is estimated that a large percentage of the adult population has ADHD that is undiagnosed.

There are three types of ADHD, namely the Inattentive Type, Hyperactive/Impulsive Type, or a combination of the two. While children experience the same symptoms, they often look different in an adult. In children, symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity tend to be more disruptive and apparent in classroom settings. This can in turn create a wide variety of problems in a person’s life, ranging from academic struggles to relationship conflicts.

To better understand the condition and the effects it can have on an individual’s life, it can be helpful to look at what undiagnosed ADHD might look like in an adult.


Hyperactivity is often a major symptom of ADHD. In children, this symptom often manifests as an inability to sit still. Kids might fidget or squirm, talk excessively, interrupt others, and always seem to be in motion.

In adults the symptoms look different. People feel restless or unable to relax. Or they might feel tense, anxious, or on edge most of the time. Adults always seem to have almost boundless energy, but it can make it difficult to sit through work meetings or other activities.


Adults with ADHD often seem disorganized or even scattered. These organizational struggles can affect many areas, from prioritizing tasks to keeping track of personal items. Common signs of organization problems can include:
• Always looking for items they cannot find
• Haphazard approach to projects, where tasks are often left incomplete
• Clutter and messiness in their home, office, car, and other areas under their control
• Difficulty in putting things in order
• Dropping items where they are and not sorting them out
• Losing important papers e.g. bills, documents, bank statements
• Misplacing items
• Sorting objects into visible piles instead of putting them where they belong
• Storing things in locations that do not make sense

This disorganization can also affect speech and thoughts. Adults with undiagnosed ADHD may have problems organizing what they want to say or may lose track of what they are saying as they are speaking. It also affects their ability to stick to a routine, remember appointments, and complete projects in an orderly fashion.

Problems with Motivation

Another common sign of ADHD is a tendency to struggle with what feels like poor motivation. ADHD causes deficits in executing functioning, which are the mental skills needed to plan, organize, initiate and sustain activity. Because of the lack of these skills, people with ADHD may want to start a task but struggle to get started. It is common to feel overwhelmed by too many details or too much information. Finding a place to start seems overwhelming or impossible, so people simply lose their initiative before they begin.

In another case, a person might start a task but struggle to stay focused on it. And now knowing how to organize the project into manageable stages can make it that much more difficult to stick with. People with ADHD may start a project only to abandon it later.

Unfortunately, this leads to adults with undiagnosed ADHD being labeled as lazy, unmotivated, and uncaring. Such labels are hurtful and can impact a person’s self-image and self-esteem. A person with ADHD might look at their own list of projects they started and never ended and may think it is a sign that they are lazy.

Lack of Focus

Adults with ADHD may struggle to focus on tasks that they find boring, repetitive, or uninteresting. These individuals may even get lost in projects that do interest them. Because of differences in the brain structure of people who have ADHD, they often find it very difficult to feel motivated to stay focused when the task is uninteresting or unrewarding.

A person without ADHD may be just as bored, but they can motivate themselves through it and focus long enough to get it done. A person with ADHD may simply lack this focus. This lack of focus is the most noticeable for time-consuming, predictable, or repetitive tasks. Reading a book, and completing household chores are some examples. Projects that take a long time to pay off like learning a new language or playing a new instrument can also lead to problems with focus.

However, undiagnosed ADHD in adults can also often be characterized by periods of hyper-focus. They will become extremely engrossed in one thing, often for hours at a time and they may neglect other important tasks in order to focus on the thing that is currently holding their attention.


This is a common theme among adults with ADHD, but these symptoms can seem confusing for those who have received a diagnosis. These symptoms can lead to problems like:
• Starting a task and forgetting what they were doing
• Losing things even if they were just using them
• Forgetting important dates or appointments
• Retelling stories that they have already told someone because they do not remember telling them
• Momentarily walking away from a task and then forgetting that they were working on it.

A person with ADHD may often not realize they have forgotten something until someone tells them, or they come across the project they were working on. This also contributes to conflict with family members and friends who may misinterpret the behavior as a lack of care or responsibility.

Like other ADHD symptoms, research suggests that forgetfulness stems from the differences in how the brain works. People with ADHD are less able to filter out irrelevant distractions so they can focus on what is important. This negatively impacts the ability to both encode new memories and retrieve old ones.

Time Management Issues

Adults with ADHD that have not yet been diagnosed often struggle with time management. They may always be late, unsure of what needs to be done when, and unclear about how much time they have left to finish important tasks. This may be because people with ADHD may experience something known as time blindness. They struggle to sense the passing of time, which means they have a hard time recognizing how much time has passed. These time problems often result in issues such as:
• Chronic lateness
• Feeling like time is passing too quickly or slowly
• Problems making and sticking to schedules
• Problems noticing how long ago events occurred
• Trouble knowing how much time will be needed to finish a task

Time management can create serious problems in a person’s life. Always being late for work for instance can hurt a person’s professional reputation. Chronic lateness can also affect relationships and people do not often understand the reason why they struggle with time management. This can also contribute to feelings of frustration and poor self-image

Shifting Emotions

ADHD people may also experience symptoms of emotional deregulation, which means they may struggle to control their emotional responses. Some of the ways that this might be expressed include:
• Having problems calming down when they are angry
• Overreacting to relatively small stresses
• Becoming very frustrated by minor annoyances
• Difficulty focusing on anything other than their emotions
• Experiencing sudden shifts in moods or outbursts of anger

Unfortunately, the problems with emotional regulation are often misunderstood. It can also contribute to the underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of ADHD. A mental health professional might look at these symptoms and, without knowing about other ADHD symptoms the person may be experiencing, conclude that the person has another condition such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or depression.

This also means that the person experiencing these intense emotions may not understand why they cannot seem to moderate their feelings. Other people in this person’s life might conclude they are overly sensitive, temperamental, or aggressive.


Indecisiveness is a common problem for many adults but it can be particularly troublesome for those who have ADHD. It can manifest in a variety of ways, including:
• An inability to commit to a decision
• Feeling overwhelmed when making choices
• Letting others make decisions
• Worrying about making the wrong choice

Other symptoms of the condition, such as memory problems, distractibility, and inattention, contribute to this problem by making it hard for people to focus on the options and information they need to make these decisions. Adults with ADHD often struggle with working memory, the type of memory that allows people to hold and manipulate information long enough to think about and act upon it.

Getting a Diagnosis

If you suspect you might have undiagnosed ADHD, talk to Laurian Ward for guidance. For many adults, getting a diagnosis can be a relief and life-changing. It often helps explain the struggles and problems that a person may have been dealing with all their life.

It is never too late to get treatment and counseling for your condition, and you may find that medication and lifestyle modifications can help you better manage some of the symptoms that make it difficult in day-to-day life.

A Word from Laurian Ward

ADHD often goes undiagnosed and untreated because the symptoms often look different in adulthood than in children. Other factors include lack of awareness and the masking or self-medicating of symptoms can also play a role. Symptoms of ADHD also frequently resemble other conditions and the presence of co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety can further complicate the diagnosis.

If you think you may have ADHD, start by explaining your symptoms and how they impact your life to your healthcare provider. They can diagnose your condition, refer you to another professional and recommend treatment that can help.