Is It Too Late to Get an ADHD Diagnosis?
Many people start to suspect they might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) well into adulthood. But is there a specific time frame for getting diagnosed, or is it too late?
Join us as we explore what a journey of late ADHD diagnosis can look like, debunk myths, and shed light on why it’s so important to understand yourself.
To do this, we need to talk about:
- The significance of seeking an ADHD diagnosis, regardless of age.
- Dispelling common misconceptions about ADHD and age.
- Exploring the impact of late ADHD diagnoses on real people’s lives.
- Practical steps towards managing ADHD symptoms and embracing neurodivergence.
I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at 29. And it changed my life.
I finally understood why I had always struggled with so many things like organization, impulsivity, and focus, even when I was younger.
When I first started to wonder if I had ADHD, I was overwhelmed with confusion, shame, and anxiety. I’d frequently imagine my GP laughing and dismissing my suspicions. But I knew I had to know. And it was the best decision I ever made.
According to experts, many adults are now wondering if they might have always had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
This isn’t surprising. Before, there was so little awareness about this disorder, and it wasn’t fully understood, even by professionals.
Nowadays, largely due to social media and the internet, there’s much more information on what it’s actually like to live with ADHD as an adult from people who’ve already been diagnosed.
Whatever the reason behind your seemingly late decision to get an ADHD diagnosis, getting the right treatment for ADHD is a life-changing experience. It can help you understand why you've been struggling all these years, and give you the tools to manage your adult ADHD symptoms. 🙌
Being aware of what you’re dealing with can also help you better understand and manage other related areas of your mental health, such as low self-esteem, anxiety disorders, or other disorders that can complicate your life.
If you think you have ADHD, you need to consult a professional and get a proper diagnosis to improve your quality of life.
Having undiagnosed ADHD can significantly affect our day-to-day lives.
We may constantly second-guess our seemingly ‘odd’ behavior or tell ourselves that we’re not good enough because we can’t do everything as easily as everyone else.
Seeking diagnosis is all about getting answers, so you can make the necessary changes to becoming the healthiest and happiest version of you.
ADHD Doesn’t Fade Over Time
According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health professionals can diagnose Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as early as three years old.
But whether you’re a little kid, a young adult, or a full-grown adult, you can still be diagnosed with ADHD as long as you present the needed diagnostic criteria as mandated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).
A common myth is that childhood ADHD goes away with time.
That’s because as children with ADHD symptoms mature, they seem to outgrow their ADHD traits and become more independent.
Often, the reality is that their symptoms have evolved and changed with the child’s environment and experiences. Most children with ADHD will continue to have symptoms that affect them into adulthood, particularly if they don’t get the treatment they need.
Many adults continue to experience similar symptoms even if they were diagnosed as a child. In general, the ADHD experience can be pretty similar between adulthood and early childhood ADHD.
Children diagnosed with ADHD may have learned or been taught ways to mask, cope, or manage their symptoms, making the impact less disruptive or visible in adulthood. That’s where the myth comes from.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that there are ADHD symptoms that cannot be easily dealt with or managed quickly; sometimes it can take years.
Many adults who were diagnosed as a child assume they’ll readily have the coping skills to make their lives more manageable and less chaotic. They get complacent, thinking it’s enough to know they have ADHD without seeking treatment.
However, this is often not always the case.
If there’s one thing you take away from this, let it be that ADHD exists at any age, and is a chronic, persistent mental health condition that needs to be addressed.
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A Brief Look at Childhood Diagnosis
Parents will naturally keep an eye on their child’s development, and will often (but not always) be the first to spot signs or symptoms of disabilities, disorders, or mental health conditions.
Often, they’ll get their child tested as soon as possible, so any potential issues can be addressed early. This is ideal as an early diagnosis can reduce the possibility of developing comorbidities, such as learning disabilities or other personality disorders that may also develop.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 million children between the ages of 3-17 have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the United States alone. Even so, there’s still a significant number of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in the adult ADHD population.
On a personal note, whenever I speak to someone who was diagnosed as a kid, I think about how they never had to experience the same challenges I did before my ADHD diagnosis - the fumbling in the dark, not knowing what was wrong with me. They didn’t have to second-guess every struggle they experienced, as they already knew how to manage and treat ADHD.
It’s easy to play the game of ‘what if’, natural even. But not helpful.
Reasons Why You Weren’t Diagnosed Earlier
It’s important to recognize that there are many reasons why your ADHD symptoms may have gone unnoticed or put down to ‘usual kid stuff’.
- Your parents didn’t know what to look for
If you’re an adult now, you grew up during a time when ADHD awareness was pretty limited, and no one really knew what they were dealing with or what it even looked like (unless you were a hyperactive boy).
A lot of ADHD symptoms can be internal, affecting our minds and executive function more than our outward behavior. We might have found ourselves in more mischief than others, or been unusually disorganized, but often, it was brushed off as just part of being a kid.
Many parents just didn’t spot the signs because they didn’t have the right knowledge to be able to, and so their children went through life undiagnosed. If you feel let down by this, I totally get it. 💕But often, our parents were just doing their best with the tools they had at the time.
The silver lining for the future is that awareness is at an all-time high, which should mean younger generations face these issues less frequently. This increased awareness also suggests that our children with ADHD are less likely to be overlooked or misunderstood.
- Your psychiatrist didn’t know enough
Not every psychiatrist has had enough (or any) ADHD training. If this is the case, they’ll stick rigidly to the criteria in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).
This isn’t always enough because there are ADHD symptoms that aren’t officially recognized in the criteria, like rejection-sensitive dysphoria or difficulties sleeping.
If these symptoms are the ones that cause the most disruption to your adult life, you may be misdiagnosed because they didn’t check the right boxes. An ADHD specialist, however, should know this.
There are also, unfortunately, still psychiatrists who publicly spread misinformation and try to downplay the effect ADHD can have on lives.
- You experience shame and self-doubt
You may have had suspicions that something was not quite right, but never wanted to admit it - either to yourself or others.
There’s still a lot of shame surrounding most disorders or mental health conditions, and ADHD is no different. It does take courage to seek a diagnosis, especially in adulthood, I admit. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Nobody knows you better than you - so trust your gut.
- Your ADHD was hidden behind other conditions
ADHD can very easily be hidden by mental health conditions, mood disorders (like bipolar disorder), or personality disorders (like borderline personality disorder).
It’s common, especially in teenagers and young adults, to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Often, your GP will stop there and focus on managing those. You may even start taking medication for these.
Although there’s a good chance you also have these mental health conditions, as they are often comorbid with ADHD, treating one without the other will only help you so much. Even then, without an accurate ADHD diagnosis, there is still a chance the mental health condition is a misdiagnosis. This is because various ADHD symptoms like mood swings, problems regulating your emotions, struggle to get household chores done (due to executive dysfunction), and trouble sleeping can all look very much like depression.
Sometimes, when we treat ADHD effectively, many symptoms we thought were due to other mental health disorders improve. That’s why it’s so important to treat both conditions.
The Everyday Consequences of Untreated ADHD & Late Diagnosis
Without an ADHD diagnosis, whether that’s due to limited access to mental health professionals, long waiting lists or not having the financial means to go private, our daily lives come with plenty of struggles and difficulties.
Here are just a few of the day-to-day consequences of our symptoms:
- Overlooking responsibilities, like paying bills.
- Difficulty with household chores, like forgetting to take the washing out of the machine, leaving clothes on the floor, and needing an urgent reason to clean or tidy.
- Poor job performance due to missed deadlines and difficulty focusing.
- Financial burdens from the ADHD Tax. This is what we call all the costs that come from unmanaged ADHD symptoms, such as late fees due to forgetfulness, impulsive spending, or needing to replace belongings you’ve lost or misplaced.
- Struggling to maintain relationships, perhaps because you never reply, or you simply forget they exist until you’re reminded. 😬
- Confusing emotions, such as intense mood swings or catastrophizing over things that might not even bother others.
- Experiencing Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria in response to anything that feels like rejection, such as a delayed reply, a disagreement, criticism, etc.
- Low self-esteem and second-guessing yourself. People with ADHD tend to lack self-trust and will judge themselves harshly when their symptoms cause them to do something they perceive as negative.
- Lack of sleep. People with ADHD often suffer from issues sleeping and insomnia. Part of that is that we can get bursts of energy or creativity right before bed, while others struggle with hyperactive thoughts being too loud to sleep.
So, if you find yourself wondering why you’re struggling so much with things or activities other people have no problem doing, this could be your sign to seek a diagnosis. 🤔
An ADHD diagnosis is the first step in managing this neurodivergent disorder and your symptoms, so let's make sure we’re using it to improve our daily functioning and quality of life. 💪
Getting diagnosed gives us a clearer understanding of ourselves. You finally have all the information you need to start managing your symptoms and treating ADHD the right way.
Comorbid Conditions with Untreated ADHD
Comorbidity is when you experience multiple disorders or conditions at the same time. These are typically chronic or long-term conditions.
People with ADHD rarely just experience ADHD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, overlapping symptoms are common.
For example, someone with untreated ADHD may also have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where repetitive behaviors might replace inattention and hyperactivity.
Another comorbidity is depression, as many people with ADHD often experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness due to their condition.
Learning disabilities can also happen to young adults, especially when they become too distracted, negatively impacting school performance.
Environmental factors may contribute to the development of ADHD comorbidities. A family history of mental disorders, trauma, or abuse can all trigger the development of ADHD comorbidities.
The consequences of these can be severe, for example:
- Anxiety, agoraphobia and self-isolation
- Suicidal thoughts
- Substance abuse and self-soothing with alcohol and drugs
- Risky behaviors like unsafe sex or stealing
- Relationship problems
It’s common for undiagnosed ADHD adults to experience comorbidities like these. You may already have a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. Often, these diagnoses can mask ADHD and prevent us from getting the right help.
It’s important to note that while GPs are experts in your health, their diagnosis may not always be right or tell the full story. You should always speak to a mental health professional or psychiatrist if you have concerns.
A Late Diagnosis is Better Than No Diagnosis
Whatever age you are, if you suspect you have undiagnosed ADHD, address it.
An official diagnosis helps us better understand ourselves and can start us on the right path toward a better and more manageable life. After all, knowledge is power, and a diagnosis can provide us with that power to change our lives for the better.
A late ADHD diagnosis should not stop us from getting the help we need to take charge of our lives. We can still turn things around and use our diagnosis as a stepping stone for our brighter futures.
I know understanding ourselves and looking inward can be uncomfortable, especially if there are things we’d rather hide or shield ourselves from, but for the sake of your mental health, it’s worth it.
Let's not be too hard on ourselves and use our diagnosis as a positive - a stepping stone. A diagnosis gives you better access to ADHD training, ADHD medication, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which can help us understand and manage our ADHD symptoms better.
Today’s the day to book that appointment, and if you need support, please reach out.
- There’s no age limit for diagnosis: ADHD can be diagnosed at any age, and seeking a diagnosis later in life is still valuable and highly recommended.
- ADHD doesn’t fade with age: while coping mechanisms may mask ADHD over time, ADHD symptoms may evolve or be managed differently, but they don’t disappear entirely.
- Getting diagnosed with ADHD can be life-changing: it can provide clarity on past struggles and offer tools (like ADHD medication and behavior therapy) to manage ADHD symptoms and related mental health issues like low self-esteem and anxiety disorders. It can also make it easier to get the right accommodations at school, college/university and work.
- Untreated ADHD has everyday consequences: this can lead to various challenges in daily life, including difficulties with responsibilities, relationships, and emotional regulation.
- ADHD often coexists with other mental health conditions: this can include OCD, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities.
- Late diagnosis matters: regardless of age, late diagnosis can serve as a positive step toward managing ADHD symptoms and accessing appropriate support and interventions.
No matter where you are in life, it’s never too late to seek help and understanding. Embracing an adult ADHD diagnosis can empower you to take control of your journey and take the first step toward a more manageable and fulfilling life.
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Too Late ADHD Diagnosis: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How common is it to experience ADHD misdiagnosis?
Experts believe that many people are not diagnosed with adult ADHD because their symptoms aren't as severe or consistent as the ones seen in children, so the condition is often missed.
How late can ADHD be diagnosed?
You can receive ADHD at any age, no matter how old you are. This is because ADHD is a chronic neurodivergent condition. For this reason, do not get discouraged to seek consultation if you suspect ADHD even if you’re well into adulthood.
Is it possible to develop ADHD later in life?
ADHD cannot develop when a person is well into their adulthood. To be diagnosed, your symptoms must be present before the age of 12. That’s not to say, though, that it does not affect adults. ADHD can and will have an impact in adulthood, especially when it’s undiagnosed or untreated.