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ADHD Adult Diagnosis

Seeking an ADHD diagnosis as an adult is becoming more and more common - but why is this happening now? What’s it like to discover ADHD as an adult?


I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until my 30s, and neither were many of the people I work with. Being diagnosed as an adult is a weird process of questioning who you are, the ways you exist in the world, whether you’re making it up, and eventually how anyone could have missed what starts to feel more and more obvious. There can be excitement, joy, and relief in finally understanding what you’ve always experienced… and also confusion, anger, and grief as you look back on the struggles you faced for years before you could advocate for yourself.


 

In This Article:

 


An orange book cover reading "how to adult" next to a silver keyboard, and a smartphone below them.


What’s it like to be diagnosed as an adult?


Usually? Complicated. Some people are introduced to their ADHD by accident - stumbling upon an article, or a meme, or someone else’s story, that hits a little too close to home. You might start doing some googling or watching videos and start to build up a feeling of “Wait a second, this is me!” Other people might get hints from loved ones, coworkers, your own clients (this one happened to me!) that “maybe you should look up ADHD…” and feel the pieces start to click into place. I’ve heard lots of jokes about someone seeing multiple friends get diagnosed and then starting to wonder for themselves. Less funny are the people who casually mention the possibility to their parents, and get “oh yes, I always thought so” or “your teachers suggested we see someone but you seemed fine” as a response.


However the spark gets lit, and it can take anywhere from months to years, once the thoughts start they’re very hard to ignore. Having supportive friends and family can make it easier to be open about your feelings, and getting second opinions can be very affirming. For people who are isolated, or whose connections don’t know much about ADHD or don’t believe in it, it can be a much harder process.


Getting the actual diagnosis is often long, expensive, and sometimes confusing to navigate. Personally I spent months on a waitlist to get an expensive ADHD assessment, and only afterwards did I find out that being assessed isn’t the same as being diagnosed, and I was actually back at square one: needing to find a psychiatrist, get on a waitlist, and rebuild some savings in the meantime. (This varies further depending on which state in Australia you’re in - some places require a GP referral, others don’t.)  It’s been called “the least ADHD-friendly process imaginable” and it’s true.


What’s with the jump in adult diagnosis?


It feels like I’m meeting new people who have been recently diagnosed, or are thinking about it, every day. There’s been a lot of new voices in ADHD advocacy, and online influencers too, so it can all feel like it’s coming out of nowhere. But in some ways, it’s been a long time coming.


The increase isn’t just about age, it’s also about gender. The rates of ADHD diagnosis in children has a much higher rate of boys than girls (same is true for Autism), let alone gender-nonconforming folks. A lot of women with ADHD find they were able to ‘mask’ in school to hide their traits, or they were simply labelled daydreamers, lazy, or absent-minded. People with more “visible” or “disruptive” traits, like getting up and moving around, or aggression, were more likely to be noticed than the kid who was quietly struggling in the back.


As these kids grew up, ADHD research and advocacy grew with them, and now as adults we have more information than we used to, that helps us understand parts of ourselves in new ways. The information is better, more comprehensive, more inclusive, and more available than it used to be.


There’s still work to do- the criteria for ADHD is still heavily child-focused (questions about what parents and teachers notice vs internal experience), but there’s new research and voices every day.


A pale tan stuffed teddybear with a stethoscope being held on its chest by a pale hand.

What’s different about a childhood diagnosis compared to as an adult?


The thing about ADHD is that we don’t ‘gain’ it at some point, we’ve had it all along. Which means that most of us have a “pre-diagnosis” period where our needs might not have been noticed, or acknowledged. For children this period is much shorter. Their diagnosis means earlier access to supports and medication. It can also mean stigma - being labelled as “ADHD” can have its own problems depending on what people believe about it. But children without the diagnosis often gain their own labels: “lazy” “thoughtless” “careless” “unmotivated”. For many adults, their diagnosis means reflecting back on the beliefs they held about themselves because the people around them didn’t understand their brain.


What’s Next?


The surge in adult ADHD diagnoses tells us that people are becoming more aware that their differences aren’t because they’re “just weird” or inherently bad. (it also tells those of us in Melbourne that the lockdowns were very rough for ADHD folks who lost all their support systems). The journey from self-discovery to diagnosis is riddled with challenges, but it's also a pathway to understanding and acceptance - whether it’s a professional diagnosis or a personal one.


If you related to any of this or suspect you might have ADHD, don't hesitate to reach out to loved ones, services, or get in touch with me to talk more. You get to decide the pace and the direction of your journey, and to have people who will support you wherever you choose to go.

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