ADHD: What are the signs and symptoms and how easy is it to get diagnosed?

·6-min read
ADHD diagnosis. (Getty Images)
Getting an accurate ADHD diagnosis is vital. (Getty Images)

As attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) assessments are often hard to secure on the NHS due to long waiting lists, many are turning to private clinics. But, as a new Panorama investigation suggests, this can risk leading to an inaccurate diagnosis.

The prescribing of ADHD drugs has been steadily increasing over the years. Between July and September 2022, there was a 19.3% rise in medications issued compared to the same period in 2021 – and a 67.5% rise compared to 2017/18, according to NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) data for England.

An estimated 170,000 patients were prescribed at least one drug for ADHD between July and September last year, compared to 141,000 patients in the same period in 2021.

However, despite these rising figures, charity ADHD UK still estimates that more than two million people in the UK have ADHD but haven't been diagnosed.

Celebrities such as Johnny Vegas, Sam Thompson and Olivia Attwood have opened up about their own experiences of ADHD, helping to boost awareness.

Read more: Johnny Vegas on being diagnosed with ADHD: ‘It answers a lot of questions’

Sam Thompson and Olivia Attwood are among the celebrities to talk about ADHD. (Getty Images)
Sam Thompson and Olivia Attwood are among the celebrities to talk about ADHD. (Getty Images)

Sam Thompson explored whether he has ADHD in an E4 documentary that aired earlier this month, after his girlfriend Zara McDermott said he'd been displaying signs for years.

As he approached his 30th birthday, the former Made in Chelsea star made the decision to finally get tested for ADHD and explore what a possible diagnosis might mean for him.

He said he is known by those close to him for his impulsiveness, for forgetting appointments and losing things like car keys.

Olivia Attwood previously discussed being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, revealing how it impacts her everyday life. The former Love Island contestant, 32, spoke about the condition while appearing on ITV's Loose Women, explaining that she was diagnosed while seeking treatment for anxiety and depression.

But what exactly do we know about the condition so far?

Read more: Woman diagnosed with ADHD at 44: 'I thought it only affected young boys'

Woman with fidget spinner. (Getty Images)
Fidgeting and restlessness are just some of the many different ADHD symtpoms. (Getty Images)

Read more: Why so many women are only diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood

What is ADHD?

Many think of ADHD as a childhood condition, but a growing number of people in the UK are being diagnosed with the condition in adulthood.

According to the NHS, ADHD is a condition that affects people's behaviour. People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse.

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but it has been shown to run in families.

Research has also identified a number of possible differences in the brains of people with ADHD when compared with those without the condition.

"ADHD is at its core an attention problem, and when our attentional processes malfunction, that can impact on many different areas of the way we function as people," explains consultant psychiatrist, Dr Paul McLaren.

"Typically ADHD is thought of as the restless pupil who cannot sit at a desk to complete a piece of work."

However, there are different types, and signs of the neurobehavioral disorder may vary across genders.

Watch: Shaun Ryder opens up about how his ADHD led to his drug abuse.

What are the symptoms of adult ADHD?

While symptoms are similar for both adults and children, elements can differ or change as we get older.

"Adult symptoms of ADHD also tend to be far more subtle than childhood symptoms," the NHS explains.

Some specialists have suggested the following as a list of symptoms associated with ADHD in adults:

  • carelessness and lack of attention to detail

  • continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones

  • poor organisational skills

  • inability to focus or prioritise

  • continually losing or misplacing things

  • forgetfulness

  • restlessness and edginess

  • difficulty keeping quiet, and speaking out of turn

  • blurting out responses and often interrupting others

  • mood swings, irritability and a quick temper

  • inability to deal with stress

  • extreme impatience

  • taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others – for example, driving dangerously

ADHD symptoms in women may be more subtle, including anxiety and low self-esteem, according to the Priory.

Read more: Three reasons your to-do list is not getting done if you have ADHD

The symptoms of adult ADHD are similar to that in children but more difficult to define. (Getty Images)
The symptoms of adult ADHD are similar to that in children but more difficult to define. (Getty Images)

How is ADHD treated?

Although there's no cure for ADHD, it can be managed with the right support, alongside medication, if necessary.

Dr Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health recommends getting a clear diagnosis before seeking treatment.

"Unfortunately an incorrect diagnosis of ADHD can be made if a thorough assessment has not taken place. Missing a case of ADHD or diagnosing it when it is not present can be equally damaging," he explains.

"If you’re worried about yourself or your child, talk to your GP and ask for an evaluation. Medication may be prescribed to relieve the symptoms and there are also many other ways to reduce the impact of ADHD symptoms including talking therapies and lifestyle management."

Signs and symptoms of ADHD in children

According to the NHS, the symptoms of ADHD in children and teenagers are well-defined.

Children may have symptoms of inattentiveness, as well as hyperactivity and impulsiveness (or just one category).

Inattentiveness (difficulty concentrating and focusing)

The main signs are:

  • having a short attention span and being easily distracted

  • making careless mistakes – for example, in schoolwork

  • appearing forgetful or losing things

  • being unable to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming

  • appearing to be unable to listen to or carry out instructions

  • constantly changing activity or task

  • having difficulty organising tasks

Hyperactivity and impulsiveness

The main signs of are:

  • being unable to sit still, especially in calm or quiet surroundings

  • constantly fidgeting

  • being unable to concentrate on tasks

  • excessive physical movement

  • excessive talking

  • being unable to wait their turn

  • acting without thinking

  • interrupting conversations

  • little or no sense of danger

Speak to your GP, who can refer you or your child for a specialist assessment. To be diagnosed as a child you must have six or more symptoms of inattentiveness, or six or more of hyperactivity and impulsiveness, among other criteria.

In some cases, an adult may be diagnosed with ADHD if they have five or more of these symptoms, among other criteria. For more information, see the NHS website.

This article was first published in June 2021 and has been updated