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Search strategy, data extraction, risk of bias and applicability, data synthesis and analysis, parent ratings, teacher ratings, youth self-reports, combined rating scales, additional clinician tools, neuropsychological tests, biospecimen, neuroimaging, variation in diagnostic accuracy with clinical setting or patient subgroup, measures for diagnostic performance, available tools, importance of the comparator sample, clinical implications, future research, conclusions, acknowledgments, tools for the diagnosis of adhd in children and adolescents: a systematic review.

FUNDING: The work is based on research conducted by the Southern California Evidence-based Practice Center under contract to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Rockville, MD (Contract 75Q80120D00009). The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) funded the research (PCORI Publication No. 2023-SR-03). The findings and conclusions in this manuscript are those of the authors, who are responsible for its contents; the findings and conclusions do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ or PCORI, its Board of Governors, or Methodology Committee. Therefore, no statement in this report should be construed as an official position of PCORI, AHRQ or of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLOSURES: The authors have indicated they have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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Bradley S. Peterson , Joey Trampush , Morah Brown , Margaret Maglione , Maria Bolshakova , Mary Rozelle , Jeremy Miles , Sheila Pakdaman , Sachi Yagyu , Aneesa Motala , Susanne Hempel; Tools for the Diagnosis of ADHD in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics 2024; e2024065854. 10.1542/peds.2024-065854

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Correct diagnosis is essential for the appropriate clinical management of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents.

This systematic review provides an overview of the available diagnostic tools.

We identified diagnostic accuracy studies in 12 databases published from 1980 through June 2023.

Any ADHD tool evaluation for the diagnosis of ADHD, requiring a reference standard of a clinical diagnosis by a mental health specialist.

Data were abstracted and critically appraised by 1 reviewer and checked by a methodologist. Strength of evidence and applicability assessments followed Evidence-based Practice Center standards.

In total, 231 studies met eligibility criteria. Studies evaluated parental ratings, teacher ratings, youth self-reports, clinician tools, neuropsychological tests, biospecimen, EEG, and neuroimaging. Multiple tools showed promising diagnostic performance, but estimates varied considerably across studies, with a generally low strength of evidence. Performance depended on whether ADHD youth were being differentiated from neurotypically developing children or from clinically referred children.

Studies used different components of available tools and did not report sufficient data for meta-analytic models.

A valid and reliable diagnosis of ADHD requires the judgment of a clinician who is experienced in the evaluation of youth with and without ADHD, along with the aid of standardized rating scales and input from multiple informants across multiple settings, including parents, teachers, and youth themselves.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental conditions in youth. Its prevalence has remained constant at ∼5.3% worldwide over the years, and diagnostic criteria have remained constant when based on rigorous diagnostic procedures. 1 Clinical diagnoses, however, have increased steadily over time, 2 and currently, ∼10% of US children receive an ADHD diagnosis. 3 Higher rates of clinical compared with research-based diagnoses are because of an increasing clinician recognition of youth who have ADHD symptoms that are functionally impairing but do not fully meet formal diagnostic criteria. 4 The higher diagnostic rates over time in clinical samples also results from youth receiving a diagnosis incorrectly. Some youth, for example, are misdiagnosed as having ADHD when they have symptoms of other disorders that overlap with ADHD symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, which occurs in many other conditions. 5 Moreover, ADHD is more than twice as likely to be diagnosed in boys than in girls, 3 in lower-income families, 6 and in white compared with nonwhite youth 7 ; differences that derive at least in part from diagnostic and cultural biases. 8 , – 11  

Improving clinical diagnostic accuracy is essential to ensure that youth who truly have ADHD benefit from receiving treatment without delay. Similarly, youth who do not have ADHD should not be diagnosed since an incorrect diagnosis risks exposing them to unbeneficial treatments. 12 , 13 Clinician judgement alone, however, especially by nonspecialist clinicians, is poor in diagnosing ADHD 14 compared with expert, research-grade diagnoses made by mental health clinicians. 15 Accurately diagnosing ADHD is difficult because diagnoses are often made using subjective clinical impressions, and putative diagnostic tools have a confusing, diverse, and poorly described evidence base that is not widely accessible. The availability of valid diagnostic tools would especially help to reduce misdiagnoses from cultural biases and symptom overlap with ADHD. 12 , 16 , – 19  

This review summarizes evidence for the performance of tools for children and adolescents with ADHD. We did not restrict to a set of known diagnostic tools but instead explored the range of available diagnostic tools, including machine-learning assisted and virtual reality-based tools. The review aimed to assess how diagnostic performance varies by clinical setting and patient characteristics.

The review aims were developed in consultation with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, the topic nominator American Academy of Pediatrics, key informants, a technical expert panel (TEP), and public input. The TEP reviewed the protocol and advised on key outcomes. Subgroup analyses and key outcomes were prespecified. The review is registered in PROSPERO (CRD42022312656) and the protocol is available on the AHRQ Web site as part of a larger evidence report on ADHD. The systematic review followed Methods of the (AHRQ) Evidence-based Practice Center Program. 20  

Population: age <18 years.

Interventions: any ADHD tool for the diagnosis of ADHD.

Comparators: diagnosis by a mental health specialist, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other provider, who often used published scales or semistructured diagnostic interviews to ensure a reliable DSM-based diagnosis of ADHD.

Key outcomes: diagnostic accuracy (eg, sensitivity, specificity, area under the curve).

Setting: any.

Study design: diagnostic accuracy studies.

Other: English language, published from 1980 to June 2023.

We searched PubMed, Embase, PsycINFO, ERIC, and ClinicalTrials.gov. We identified reviews for reference-mining through PubMed, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Campbell Collaboration, What Works in Education, PROSPERO, ECRI Guidelines Trust, G-I-N, and ClinicalKey. The peer reviewed strategy is in the Supplemental Appendix . All citations were screened by trained literature reviewers supported by machine learning ( Fig 1 ). Two independent reviewers assessed full text studies for eligibility. The TEP reviewed studies to ensure all were captured. Publications reporting on the same participants were consolidated into 1 record.

Literature flow diagram.

Literature flow diagram.

The data abstraction form included extensive guidance to aid reproducibility and standardization in recording study details, results, risk of bias, and applicability. One reviewer abstracted data and a methodologist checked accuracy and completeness. Data are publicly available in the Systematic Review Data Repository.

We assessed characteristics pertaining to patient selection, index test, reference standard, flow and timing that may have introduced bias, and evaluated applicability of study results, such as whether the test, its conduct, or interpretation differed from how the test is used in clinical practice. 21 , 22  

We differentiated parent, teacher, and youth self-report ratings; tools for clinicians; neuropsychological tests; biospecimens; EEG; and neuroimaging. We organized analyses according to prespecified outcome measures. A narrative overview summarized the range of diagnostic performance for key outcomes. Because lack of reported detail in many individual studies hindered use of meta-analytic models, we created summary figures to document the diagnostic performance reported in each study. We used meta-regressions across studies to assess the effects of age, comorbidities, racial and ethnic composition, and diagnostic setting (differentiating primary care, specialty care, school settings, mixed settings, and not reported) on diagnostic performance. One researcher with experience in use of specified standardized criteria 23 initially assessed the overall strength of evidence (SoE) (see Supplemental Appendix ) for each study, then discussed it with the study team to communicate our confidence in each finding.

We screened 23 139 citations and 7534 publications retrieved as full text against the eligibility criteria. In total, 231 studies reported in 290 publications met the eligibility criteria (see Fig 1 ).

Methodological quality of the studies varied. Selection bias was likely in two-thirds of studies; several were determined to be problematic in terms of reported study flow and timing of assessments (eg, not stating whether diagnosis was known before the results of the index test); and several lacked details on diagnosticians or diagnostic procedures ( Supplemental Fig 1 ). Applicability concerns limited the generalizability of findings ( Supplemental Fig 2 ), usually because youth with comorbidities were excluded. Many different tools were assessed within the broader categories (eg, within neuropsychological tests), and even when reporting on the same diagnostic tool, studies often used different components of the tool (eg, different subscales of rating scales), or they combined components in a variety of ways (eg, across different neuropsychological test parameters).

The evidence table ( Supplemental Table 10 , Supplemental Appendix ) shows each study’s finding. The following highlights key findings across studies.

Fifty-nine studies used parent ratings to diagnose ADHD ( Fig 2 ). The most frequently evaluated tool was the CBCL (Child Behavior Checklist), alone or in combination with other tools, often using different score cutoffs for diagnosis, and evaluating different subscales (most frequently the attention deficit/hyperactivity problems subscale). Sensitivities ranged from 38% (corresponding specificity = 96%) to 100% (specificity = 4% to 92%). 24 , 25  

Diagnostic performance parent and teacher ratings. For a complete list of scales see Supplemental Appendix.

Diagnostic performance parent and teacher ratings. For a complete list of scales see Supplemental Appendix .

Area under the curve (AUC) for receiver operator characteristic curves ranged widely from 0.55 to 0.95 but 3 CBCL studies reported AUCs of 0.83 to 0.84. 26 , – 28 Few studies reported measurement of reliability. SoE was downgraded for study limitation (lack of detailed reporting), imprecision (large performance variability), and inconsistent findings ( Supplemental Table 1 ).

Twenty-three studies used teacher ratings to diagnose ADHD ( Fig 2 ). No 2 studies reported on rater agreement, internal consistency, or test-retest reliability for the same teacher rating scale. The highest sensitivity was 97% (specificity = 26%). 25 The Teacher Report Form, alone or in combination with Conners teacher rating scales, yielded sensitivities of 72% to 79% 29 and specificities of 64% to 76%. 30 , 32 reported AUCs ranged from 0.65 to 0.84. 32 SoE was downgraded to low for imprecision (large performance variability) and inconsistency (results for specific tools not replicated), see Supplemental Table 2 .

Six studies used youth self-reports to diagnose ADHD. No 2 studies used the same instrument. Sensitivities ranged from 53% (specificity = 98%) to 86% (specificity = 70%). 35 AUCs ranged from 0.56 to 0.85. 36 We downgraded SoE for domain inconsistency (only 1 study reported on a given tool and outcome), see Supplemental Table 3 .

Thirteen studies assessed diagnostic performance of ratings combined across informants, often using machine learning for variable selection. Only 1 study compared performance of combined data to performance from single informants, finding negligible improvement (AUC youth = 0.71; parent = 0.85; combined = 0.86). 37 Other studies reported on limited outcome measures and used ad hoc methods to combine information from multiple informants. The best AUC was reported by a machine learning supported study combining parent and teacher ratings (AUC = 0.98). 38  

Twenty-four studies assessed additional tools, such as interview guides, that can be used by clinicians to aid diagnosis of ADHD. Sensitivities varied, ranging from 67% (specificity = 65%) to 98% (specificity = 100%); specificities ranged from 36% (sensitivity = 89%) to 100% (sensitivity = 98%). 39 Some of the tools measured activity levels objectively using an actometer or commercially available activity tracker, either alone or as part of a diagnostic test battery. Reported performance was variable (sensitivity range 25% to 100%, 40 specificity range 66% to 100%, 40 AUCs range 0.75–0.9996 41 ). SoE was downgraded for imprecision (large performance variability) and inconsistency (outcomes and results not replicated), see Supplemental Table 4 .

Seventy-four studies used measures from various neuropsychological tests, including continuous performance tests (CPTs). Four of these included 3- and 4-year-old children. 42 , – 44 A large majority used a CPT, which assessed omission errors (reflecting inattention), commission errors (impulsivity), and reaction time SD (response time variability). Studies varied in use of traditional visual CPTs, such as the Test of Variables of Attention, more novel, multifaceted “hybrid” CPT paradigms, and virtual reality CPTs built upon environments designed to emulate real-world classroom distractibility. Studies used idiosyncratic combinations of individual cognitive measures to achieve the best performance, though many reported on CPT attention and impulsivity measures.

Sensitivity for all neuropsychological tests ranged from 22% (specificity = 96%) to 100% (specificity = 100%) 45 ( Fig 3 ), though the latter study reported performance for unique composite measures without replication. Specificities ranged from 22% (sensitivity = 91%) 46 to 100% (sensitivity = 100% to 75%). 45 , 47 AUCs ranged from 0.59 to 0.93. 48 Sensitivity for all CPT studies ranged from 22% ( specificity = 96) to 100% (specificity = 75%). 49 Specificities for CPTs ranged from 22% (sensitivity = 91%) to 100% (sensitivity = 89%) 47 ( Fig 3 ). AUCs ranged from 0.59 to 0.93. 50 , 51 SoE was deemed low for imprecise studies (large performance variability), see Supplemental Table 5.

Diagnostic performance neuropsychological tests, CPTs, activity monitors, biospecimen, EEG.

Diagnostic performance neuropsychological tests, CPTs, activity monitors, biospecimen, EEG.

Seven studies assessed blood or urine biomarkers to diagnose ADHD. These measured erythropoietin or erythropoietin receptor, membrane potential ratio, micro RNA levels, or urine metabolites. Sensitivities ranged from 56% (specificity = 95%) to 100% (specificity = 100% for erythropoietin and erythropoietin receptors levels). 52 Specificities ranged from 25% (sensitivity = 79%) to 100% (sensitivity = 100%). 52 AUCs ranged from 0.68 to 1.00. 52 Little information was provided on reliability of markers or their combinations. SoE was downgraded for inconsistent and imprecise studies ( Supplemental Table 6 ).

Forty-five studies used EEG markers to diagnose ADHD. EEG signals were obtained in a variety of patient states, even during neuropsychological test performance. Two-thirds used machine learning algorithms to select classification parameters. Several combined EEG with demographic variables or rating scales. Sensitivity ranged widely from 46% to 100% (corresponding specificities 74 and 71%). 53 , 54 One study that combined EEG with demographics data supported by machine learning reported perfect sensitivity and specificity. 54 Specificity was also variable and ranged from 38% (sensitivity = 95%) to 100% (specificities = 71% or 100%). 53 , – 56 Reported AUCs ranged from 0.63 to 1.0. 57 , 58 SoE was downgraded for study imprecision (large performance variability) and limitations (diagnostic approaches poorly described), see Supplemental Table 7 .

Nineteen studies used neuroimaging for diagnosis. One public data set (ADHD-200) produced several analyses. All but 2 used MRI: some functional MRI (fMRI), some structural, and some in combination, with or without magnetic resonance spectroscopy (2 used near-infrared spectroscopy). Most employed machine learning to detect markers that optimized diagnostic classifications. Some combined imaging measures with demographic or other clinical data in the prediction model. Sensitivities ranged from 42% (specificity = 95%) to 99% (specificity = 100%) using resting state fMRI and a complex machine learning algorithm 56 to differentiate ADHD from neurotypical youth. Specificities ranged from 55% (sensitivity = 95%) to 100% 56 using resting state fMRI data. AUCs ranged from 0.58 to over 0.99, 57 SoE was downgraded for imprecision (large performance variability) and study limitations (diagnostic models are often not well described, and the number and type of predictor variables entering the model were unclear). Studies generally did not validate diagnostic algorithms or assess performance measures in an independent sample ( Supplemental Table 8 ).

Regression analyses indicated that setting was associated with both sensitivity ( P = .03) and accuracy ( P = .006) but not specificity ( P = .68) or AUC ( P = .28), with sensitivities lowest in primary care ( Fig 4 ). Sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy were also lower when differentiating youth with ADHD from a clinical sample than from typically developing youth (sensitivity P = .04, specificity P < .001, AUC P < .001) ( Fig 4 ), suggesting that clinical population is a source of heterogeneity in diagnostic performance. Findings should be interpreted with caution, however, as they were not obtained in meta-analytic models and, consequently, do not take into account study size or quality.

Diagnostic performance by setting and population.

Diagnostic performance by setting and population.

Supplemental Figs 3–5 in the Supplemental Appendix document effects by age and gender. We did not detect statistically significant associations of age with sensitivity ( P = .54) or specificity ( P = .37), or associations of the proportion of girls with sensitivity ( P = .63), specificity ( P = .80), accuracy ( P = .34), or AUC ( P = .90).

We identified a large number of publications reporting on ADHD diagnostic tools. To our knowledge, no prior review of ADHD diagnostic tools has been as comprehensive in the range of tools, outcomes, participant ages, and publication years. Despite the large number of studies, we deemed the strength of evidence for the reported performance measures across all categories of diagnostic tools to be low because of large performance variability across studies and various limitations within and across studies.

We required that studies report diagnoses when using the tool compared with diagnoses made by expert mental health clinicians. Studies most commonly reported sensitivity (true-positive rate) and specificity (true-negative rate) when a study-specific diagnostic threshold was applied to measures from the tool being assessed. Sensitivity and specificity depend critically on that study-specific threshold, and their values are inherently a trade-off, such that varying the threshold to increase either sensitivity or specificity reduces the other. Interpreting diagnostic performance in terms of sensitivity and specificity, and comparing those performance measures across studies, is therefore challenging. Consequently, researchers more recently often report performance for sensitivity and specificity in terms of receiver operating characteristics (ROC) curves, a plot of sensitivity versus specificity across the entire range of possible diagnostic thresholds. The area under this ROC curve (AUC) provides an overall, single index of performance that ranges from 0.5 (indicating that the tool provides no information above chance for classification) to 1.0 (indicating a perfect test that can correctly classify all participants as having ADHD and all non-ADHD participants as not having it). AUC values of 90 to 100 are commonly classified as excellent performance; 80 to 90 as good; 70 to 80 as fair; 60 to 70 as poor; and 50 to 60 failed performance.

Most research is available on parental ratings. Overall, AUCs for parent rating scales ranged widely from “poor” 58 to “excellent.” 59 Analyses restricted to the CBCL, the most commonly evaluated scale, yielded more consistent “good” AUCs for differentiating youth with ADHD from others in clinical samples, but the number of studies contributing data were small. Internal consistency for rating scale items was generally high across most rating scales. Test-retest reliability was good, though only 2 studies reported it. One study reported moderate rater agreement between mothers and fathers for inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms. Few studies included youth under 7 years of age.

AUCs for teacher rating scales ranged from “failed” 33 to “good.” 34 Internal consistency for scale items was generally high. Teacher ratings demonstrated very low rater agreement with corresponding parent scales, suggesting either a problem with the instruments or a large variability in symptom presentation with environmental context (home or school).

Though data were limited, self-reports from youth seemed to perform less well than corresponding parent and teacher reports, with AUCs ranging from “failed” for CBCL or ASEBA when distinguishing ADHD from other patients 33 to “good” for the SWAN in distinguishing ADHD from neurotypical controls. 36 , 37  

Studies evaluating neuropsychological tests yielded AUCs ranging from “poor” 60 , 61 to “excellent.” 50 Many used idiosyncratic combinations of cognitive measures, which complicates interpretation of the results across studies. Nevertheless, extracting specific, comparable measures of inattention and impulsivity from CPTs yielded diagnostic performance ranging from “poor” to “excellent” in differentiating ADHD youth from neurotypical controls and “fair” in differentiating ADHD youth from other patients. 42 , 60 , 62 No studies provided an independent replication of diagnosis using the same measure.

Blood biomarkers yielded AUCs ranging from “poor” (serum miRNAs) 63 to “excellent” (erythropoietin and erythropoietin receptors levels) 52 in differentiating ADHD from neurotypical youth. None have been independently replicated, and test-retest reliability was not reported. Most EEG studies used machine learning for diagnostic classification. AUCs ranged from “poor” 64 to “excellent” when differentiating ADHD youth from neurotypical controls. 65 Diagnostic performance was not prospectively replicated in any independent samples.

Most neuroimaging studies relied on machine learning to develop diagnostic algorithms. AUCs ranged from “poor” 66 to “excellent” for distinguishing ADHD youth from neurotypically developing controls. 57 Most studies used pre-existing data sets or repositories to retrospectively discriminate youths with ADHD from neurotypical controls, not from other clinical populations and not prospectively, and none assessed test-retest reliability or the independent reproducibility of findings. Reporting of final mathematical models or algorithms for diagnosis was limited. Activity monitors have the advantage of providing inexpensive, objective, easily obtained, and quantified measures that can potentially be widely disseminated and scaled.

Studies of combined approaches, such as integrating diagnostic tools with clinician impressions, were limited. One study reported increased sensitivity and specificity when an initial clinician diagnosis combined EEG indicators (the reference standard was a consensus diagnosis from a panel of ADHD experts). 67 These findings were not independently replicated, however, and no test-retest reliability was reported.

Many studies aimed to distinguish ADHD youth from neurotypical controls, which is a distinction of limited clinical relevance. In clinically referred youth, most parents, teachers, and clinicians are reasonably confident that something is wrong, even if they are unsure whether the cause of their concern is ADHD. To be informed by a tool that the child is not typically developing is not particularly helpful. Moreover, we cannot know whether diagnostic performance for tools that discriminate ADHD youth only from neurotypical controls is determined by the presence of ADHD or by the presence of any other characteristics that accompany clinical “caseness,” such as the presence of comorbid illnesses or symptoms shared or easily confused with those of other conditions, or the effects of chronic stress or current or past treatment. The clinically more relevant and difficult question is, therefore, how well the tool distinguishes youth with ADHD from those who have other emotional and behavioral problems. Consistent with these conceptual considerations that argue for assessing diagnostic performance in differentiating youth with ADHD from those with other clinical conditions, we found significant evidence that, across all studies, sensitivity, specificity, and AUC were all lower when differentiating youth with ADHD from a clinical sample than when differentiating them from neurotypical youth. These findings also suggest that the comparison population was a significant source of heterogeneity in diagnostic performance.

Despite the large number of studies on diagnostic tools, a valid and reliable diagnosis of ADHD ultimately still requires the judgement of a clinician who is experienced in the evaluation of youth with and without ADHD, along with the aid of standardized rating scales and input from multiple informants across multiple settings, including parents, teachers, and youth themselves. Diagnostic tools perform best when the clinical question is whether a youth has ADHD or is healthy and typically developing, rather than when the clinical question is whether a youth has ADHD or another mental health or behavioral problem. Diagnostic tools yield more false-positive and false-negative diagnoses of ADHD when differentiating youth with ADHD from youth with another mental health problem than when differentiating them from neurotypically developing youth.

Scores for rating scales tended to correlate poorly across raters, and ADHD symptoms in the same child varied across settings, indicating that no single informant in a single setting is a gold-standard for diagnosis. Therefore, diagnosis using rating scales will likely benefit from a more complete representation of symptom expression across multiple informants (parents, school personnel, clinicians, and youth) across more than 1 setting (home, school, and clinic) to inform clinical judgement when making a diagnosis, thus, consistent with current guidelines. 68 , – 70 Unfortunately, methods for combining scores across raters and settings that improve diagnosis compared with scores from single raters have not been developed or prospectively replicated.

Despite the widespread use of neuropsychological testing to “diagnose” youth with ADHD, often at considerable expense, indirect comparisons of AUCs suggest that performance of neuropsychological test measures in diagnosing ADHD is comparable to the diagnostic performance of ADHD rating scales from a single informant. Moreover, the diagnostic accuracy of parent rating scales is typically better than neuropsychological test measures in head-to-head comparisons. 44 , 71 Furthermore, the overall SoE for estimates of diagnostic performance with neuropsychological testing is low. Use of neuropsychological test measures of executive functioning, such as the CPT, may help inform a clinical diagnosis, but they are not definitive either in ruling in or ruling out a diagnosis of ADHD. The sole use of CPTs and other neuropsychological tests to diagnose ADHD, therefore, cannot be recommended. We note that this conclusion regarding diagnostic value is not relevant to any other clinical utility that testing may have.

No independent replication studies have been conducted to validate EEG, neuroimaging, or biospecimen to diagnose ADHD, and no clinical effectiveness studies have been conducted using these tools to diagnose ADHD in the real world. Thus, these tools do not seem remotely close to being ready for clinical application to aid diagnosis, despite US Food and Drug Administration approval of 1 EEG measure as a purported diagnostic aid. 67 , 72  

All studies of diagnostic tools should report data in more detail (ie, clearly report false-positive and -negative rates, the diagnostic thresholds used, and any data manipulation undertaken to achieve the result) to support meta-analytic methods. Studies should include ROC analyses to support comparisons of test performance across studies that are independent of the diagnostic threshold applied to measures from the tool. They should also include assessment of test-retest reliability to help discern whether variability in measures and test performance is a function of setting or of measurement variability over time. Future studies should address the influence of co-occurring disorders on diagnostic performance and how well the tools distinguish youth with ADHD from youth with other emotional and behavioral problems, not simply from healthy controls. More studies should compare the diagnostic accuracy of different test modalities, head-to-head. Independent, prospective replication of performance measures of diagnostic tools in real-world settings is essential before US Food and Drug Administration approval and before recommendations for widespread clinical use.

Research is needed to identify consensus algorithms that combine rating scale data from multiple informants to improve the clinical diagnosis of ADHD, which at present is often unguided, ad hoc, and suboptimal. Diagnostic studies using EEG, neuroimaging, and neuropsychological tests should report precise operational definitions and measurements of the variable(s) used for diagnosis, any diagnostic algorithm employed, the selected statistical cut-offs, and the number of false-positives and false-negatives the diagnostic tool yields to support future efforts at synthetic analyses.

Objective, quantitative neuropsychological test measures of executive functioning correlate only weakly with the clinical symptoms that define ADHD. 73 Thus, many youth with ADHD have normal executive functioning profiles on neuropsychological testing, and many who have impaired executive functioning on testing do not have ADHD. 74 Future research is needed to understand how test measures of executive functioning and the real-world functional problems that define ADHD map on to one another and how that mapping can be improved.

One of the most important potential uses of systematic reviews and meta-analyses in improving the clinical diagnosis of ADHD and treatment planning would be identification of effect modifiers for the performance of diagnostic tools: determining, for example, whether tools perform better in patients who are younger or older, in ethnic minorities, or those experiencing material hardship, or who have a comorbid illness or specific ADHD presentation. Future studies of ADHD should more systematically address the modifier effects of these patient characteristics. They should make available in public repositories the raw, individual-level data and the algorithms or computer code that will aid future efforts at replication, synthesis, and new discovery for diagnostic tools across data sets and studies.

Finally, no studies meeting our inclusion criteria assessed the consequences of being misdiagnosed or labeled as either having or not having ADHD, the diagnosis of ADHD specifically in preschool-aged children, or the potential adverse consequences of youth being incorrectly diagnosed with or without ADHD. This work is urgently needed.

We thank Cynthia Ramirez, Erin Tokutomi, Jennifer Rivera, Coleman Schaefer, Jerusalem Belay, Anne Onyekwuluje, and Mario Gastelum for help with data acquisition. We thank Kymika Okechukwu, Lauren Pilcher, Joanna King, and Robyn Wheatley from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Jennie Dalton and Paula Eguino Medina from PCORI, Christine Chang and Kim Wittenberg from AHRQ, and Mary Butler from the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center. We thank Glendy Burnett, Eugenia Chan, MD, MPH, Matthew J. Gormley, PhD, Laurence Greenhill, MD, Joseph Hagan, Jr, MD, Cecil Reynolds, PhD, Le'Ann Solmonson, PhD, LPC-S, CSC, and Peter Ziemkowski, MD, FAAFP who served as key informants. We thank Angelika Claussen, PhD, Alysa Doyle, PhD, Tiffany Farchione, MD, Matthew J. Gormley, PhD, Laurence Greenhill, MD, Jeffrey M. Halperin, PhD, Marisa Perez-Martin, MS, LMFT, Russell Schachar, MD, Le'Ann Solmonson, PhD, LPC-S, CSC, and James Swanson, PhD who served as a technical expert panel. Finally, we thank Joel Nigg, PhD, and Peter S. Jensen, MD for their peer review of the data.

Drs Peterson and Hempel conceptualized and designed the study, collected data, conducted the analyses, drafted the initial manuscript, and critically reviewed and revised the manuscript; Dr Trampush conducted the critical appraisal; Ms Brown, Ms Maglione, Drs Bolshakova and Padkaman, and Ms Rozelle screened citations and abstracted the data; Dr Miles conducted the analyses; Ms Yagyu designed and executed the search strategy; Ms Motala served as data manager; and all authors provided critical input for the manuscript, approved the final manuscript as submitted, and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

This trial has been registered at PROSPERO (identifier CRD42022312656).

COMPANION PAPER: A companion to this article can be found online at https://www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2024-065787 .

Data sharing statement: Data are available in SRDRPlus.

attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

area under the curve

Child Behavior Checklist

continuous performance test

functional magnetic resonance imaging

receiver operating characteristics

strength of evidence

technical expert panel

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  • CAREER COLUMN
  • 13 May 2020

The ADHD paper that triggered a backlash, and what it taught me

  • Anita Thapar 0

Anita Thapar is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cardiff University, UK.

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

In September 2010, I and two colleagues held a press conference on a paper we were about to have published in The Lancet . The paper was a genome-wide analysis that showed a higher burden of rare chromosomal deletions or duplications in people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than in those unaffected by the condition (N. M. Williams et al. Lancet 376 , 1401–1408; 2010).

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01433-2

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REVIEW article

The lived experiences of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a rapid review of qualitative evidence.

\r\nCallie M. Ginapp*

  • 1 Yale School of Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States
  • 2 Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
  • 3 Connecticut Mental Health Center, New Haven, CT, United States
  • 4 Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, Wethersfield, CT, United States
  • 5 Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
  • 6 Department of Neuroscience, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States
  • 7 Wu Tsai Institute, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common condition that frequently persists into adulthood, although research and diagnostic criteria are focused on how the condition presents in children. We aimed to review qualitative research on lived experiences of adults with ADHD to characterize potential ADHD symptomatology in adulthood and provide perspectives on how needs might be better met. We searched three databases for qualitative studies on ADHD. Studies ( n = 35) in English that included data on the lived experiences of adults with ADHD were included. These studies covered experiences of receiving a diagnosis as an adult, symptomatology of adult ADHD, skills used to adapt to these symptoms, relationships between ADHD and substance use, patients’ self-perceptions, and participants’ experiences interacting with society. Many of the ADHD symptoms reported in these studies had overlap with other psychiatric conditions and may contribute to misdiagnosis and delays in diagnosis. Understanding symptomatology of ADHD in adults may inform future diagnostic criteria and guide interventions to improve quality of life.

Introduction

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has an estimated prevalence of 7% among adults globally ( 1 ). ADHD has historically been considered a disorder of childhood; however, 40–50% of children with ADHD may meet criteria into adulthood ( 2 ). Diagnostic criteria for ADHD include symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness present since childhood ( 3 ). These criteria are largely based on presentations in children, although diagnostic criteria have changed over time to better but not completely encompass considerations of experiences of adults ( 3 , 4 ).

Although adult ADHD is highly treatable with stimulant medication ( 5 ), adults with ADHD often have unmet needs. Substance use disorders (SUDs) are approximately 2.5-fold more prevalent among adults with versus without ADHD ( 6 , 7 ). Adults with ADHD are particularly likely to be incarcerated, with 26% of people in prison having ADHD ( 8 ). As diagnosis of ADHD has increased considerably in recent decades ( 9 ), there are likely many adults with ADHD who were not originally diagnosed as children. In more recent years, ADHD is still frequently underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed as other psychiatric conditions such as mood or personality disorders ( 10 ). Even when patients are diagnosed with ADHD as children, many patients lose access to resources when transitioning from child to adult health services ( 11 ) which may contribute to less than half of people with ADHD adhering to stimulant medication ( 12 ).

Non-pharmacological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have shown promise with helping adults manage their ADHD symptoms, although such symptoms are not completely ameliorated by therapy ( 13 – 15 ). A more thorough understanding of the symptoms adults with ADHD experience and the effects that these symptoms have on their lives may allow for more efficacious or targeted therapeutic interventions.

Qualitative research may provide insight into lived experiences, and findings from such studies may direct future research into potential symptoms and therapeutic interventions. The aim of this review is to describe the current qualitative literature on the lived experiences of adults with ADHD. This review may provide insight into the symptomatology of adult ADHD, identify areas where patient needs could be better met, and define gaps in understanding.

Search strategy

Using rapid review methodology ( 16 ), PubMed, PsychInfo, and Embase were searched on October 11th, 2021 with no date restrictions. The search terms included “ADHD” and related terms as well as “qualitative methods” present in the titles or abstracts. The full search ( Supplementary Appendix 1 ) was conducted with the help of a clinical librarian. The search yielded 417 articles which were uploaded to Endnote X9 where 111 duplicates were removed. The remaining 307 articles were uploaded to Covidence Systematic Review Management Software for screening, with one additional duplicate removed. The search also yielded a previous review on the lived experiences of adults with ADHD ( 17 ). The ten articles present in this review were also uploaded to Covidence where two duplicates were removed resulting in 314 unique articles.

Study selection

Studies reporting original peer-reviewed qualitative data on the lived experience of adults with ADHD, including mixed-methods studies, were eligible for inclusion. “Adult” was defined as being 18 years of age or older; studies that included adolescent and young adult participants were only included if results were reported separately by age. Studies that included some participants without ADHD were included if results were reported separately by diagnosis. Any studies with adult participants who were exclusively reflecting on their childhood experiences with ADHD were considered outside this study’s scope, as were studies on family members, medical providers, or other groups commenting on adults with ADHD. Articles could be from any country, but needed to have been published in English. Individual case studies were not included due to concerns with generalizability.

Twenty percent of titles and abstracts were screened by two reviewers for meeting the inclusion criteria. Studies were not initially excluded based on participants’ ages as many titles and abstracts did not specify age. One reviewer screened the remaining abstracts; a second reviewer screened all excluded abstracts. For full-text screening, ten articles were screened by both reviewers to ensure consistency. One reviewer screened the remaining articles; a second reviewer screened all excluded articles.

Quality appraisal

Quality appraisal was completed by one reviewer using the Joanna Briggs Institute critical appraisal checklist for qualitative research ( 18 ). Half of included studies did not state philosophical perspectives, two-thirds did not locate researchers culturally or theoretically, nearly one-third did not include specific information about ethics approval, and only two studies commented on reflexivity ( Supplementary Appendix 2 ). Given the varied quality appraisal results and the small body of literature, all studies were included regardless of methodological rigor.

Data extraction

Data extracted included general study characteristics and methodology, participant characteristics (sample size, demographics, and country of residence), study aims, and text excerpts of qualitative results. Study characteristics were entered into a Google Sheets document. PDFs of all studies were uploaded into NVivo 12, and results sections were coded using grounded theory ( 19 ). One reviewer extracted and coded data; a second reviewed extracted data for thematic consistency.

Study characteristics

One-hundred-and-seventy-three articles were deemed relevant in title and abstract screening. Of these, 35 were included after the full-text review ( Figure 1 ). Articles were published between 2005 and 2021, and methodology mostly consisted of individual interviews (91%), with other studies utilizing focus groups (14%). Eight studies focused on young adults (18–35 years), and three were specific to older adults (>50 years). Two had exclusively male participants, and three had exclusively female participants. Nineteen were conducted in Europe, nine in North America, and three in Asia. No studies included participants from Africa, South America, or Oceania. In six studies, participants had current or prior SUDs, six studies focused on college students, four included participants diagnosed in adulthood, and two included highly educated/successful participants ( Table 1 ).

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Figure 1. PRISMA flow diagram showing the search strategy for identifying qualitative studies on the lived experience of adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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Table 1. Article characteristics of included studies.

An overview of the identified themes is described in Figure 2 , and Table 2 provides a summary of main findings. Several of the themes overlap with each other, and such areas are identified in the main text.

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Figure 2. Schematic diagram of the domains of features linked to the lived experiences of adults with ADHD.

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Table 2. Summary of results.

Adult diagnosis

Assessment and diagnosis of adult ADHD were reported as laborious and included prior misdiagnoses ( 20 – 22 ), lack of psychiatric resources ( 23 ), and physicians’ stigma regarding adult ADHD ( 24 ). Participants were often diagnosed only after their children were diagnosed ( 23 , 24 ). However, after receiving a diagnosis, relief was commonly reported initially. Adults noted that receiving a diagnosis helped explain previously seemingly inexplicable symptoms and feelings of being different, and allowed for participants to blame themselves less for perceived shortcomings ( 24 – 31 ).

Identity changes were another reported finding after diagnosis, both positive and negative. Some participants reported experiencing existential questioning of their identities ( 25 , 26 ); others reported feeling increased levels of self-awareness ( 26 , 28 ). Some participants reported having initial doubts about the validity of their diagnoses ( 26 , 28 ). Some reported experiencing emotional turmoil and concerns about the future ( 25 , 26 , 29 ). A commonly reported late step involved acceptance, both of themselves and their diagnoses, sometimes coupled with increased interest in researching ADHD ( 24 , 25 , 28 , 29 , 32 ). A ubiquitous finding was participant regret that they had not been diagnosed earlier, largely because of the many years they had gone without understanding their condition or receiving treatment ( 22 , 24 , 26 – 30 ). In one study, participants who had been diagnosed as children had better emotional control and self-esteem ( 33 ). No studies reported participant regret about their ADHD diagnosis.

Symptomatology of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Consistent with current diagnostic conceptualizations, difficulties with attention and concentration were described. These difficulties hindered completion of daily life tasks at home, school, and work ( 24 , 27 , 28 , 32 , 34 – 37 ). Some participants reported not experiencing a pervasive deficit of attention, but rather only struggling when the topic was not of personal interest and could sustain attention on interesting tasks for long periods of time ( 33 , 38 – 42 ). Attention could be influenced by the environment; for example, attention worsened in distracting environments or improved in intense, stimulating environments ( 40 , 41 ).

Impulsivity was widely reported and reflected in risk-taking including reckless driving, unprotected sex, and extreme sports ( 20 , 24 , 28 , 33 , 36 , 43 ). Impulsive spending was noted ( 20 , 36 – 38 , 44 ). Impulsive speech (“blurting out”) was common and often led to strained interpersonal relationships ( 24 , 32 , 33 , 36 , 37 , 40 ).

Fewer studies described participants’ struggles with hyperactivity, such as with staying still or not being constantly busy ( 24 , 34 , 36 ). Hyperactivity was reported as an internal symptom by some participants, noted as inner feelings of restlessness ( 22 , 36 , 37 , 39 ), or described as resulting in excessive talking ( 36 ). This more subtle hyperactivity was mostly reported by women or older adults.

Chaos, lack of structure, and emotions

Living in chaos was often reported, whether involving internal feelings of being unsettled ( 28 ), or external aspects such as turbulent schedules or disorganized living spaces ( 22 , 24 , 27 , 36 ). Participants often struggled with maintaining structure in daily routines, resulting in irregular sleeping and eating, difficulty completing household tasks, and strained social lives ( 36 – 38 , 43 , 44 ). Increased autonomy in adulthood was often perceived as difficult to manage compared to more highly structured childhoods.

Although lacking from current diagnostic criteria, emotional dysregulation was often noted. Participants reported experiencing extreme emotional reactions to interpersonal conflicts such as terminations of romantic relationships or receiving negative feedback at work ( 24 , 34 , 38 , 40 ). Negative feelings of anxiety and agitation were common ( 22 , 24 , 29 , 31 , 33 , 34 , 36 , 38 , 44 ), as was difficulty with controlling, recognizing, naming, and managing emotions ( 30 , 40 , 41 , 44 ). One study noted that emotional lability has positive aspects since participants’ emotional highs were higher ( 45 ).

Positive aspects of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Not all aspects of ADHD were perceived as negative. Impulsivity was reported by some as fun and spontaneous ( 26 , 37 , 45 ), struggles with attention were reported as promoting creativity and motivating focus on details ( 21 , 33 , 40 , 41 , 45 ), and hyperactivity was described as providing energy to pursue one’s passions ( 40 , 45 ). Learning to live with ADHD-related impairments was reported as promoting resilience and humanity ( 45 ), and increased tendencies to keep calm in chaotic settings ( 40 ). Ability to maintain focus for extended periods on topics of personal interest was sometimes seen as helpful, although unpredictable ( 33 ).

Adapting to symptoms

Coping skills.

Participants reported compensatory organizational strategies that increased structure in their daily lives. Creating regimented sleeping, eating, working, and relaxing schedules ( 30 , 35 , 42 , 44 , 46 ), and keeping to-do lists or using reminder apps ( 24 , 32 , 37 , 40 , 42 , 46 ) were frequently-reported strategies. Some participants reported thriving without formal structure while working from home since they were able to maintain daily routines and were free from distractions ( 34 ).

Participants reported being able to adjust their environment to best suit their needs, whether that be decreasing distracting stimulation ( 32 , 46 ) or cultivating a highly stressful and stimulating environment ( 39 ). Creating space for physical activity was reported as a helpful outlet for hyperactivity ( 24 , 33 , 39 , 43 , 46 ). Having awareness of their diagnosis allowed newly-diagnosed participants to attribute their symptoms to their disorder, thereby decreasing self-blame ( 24 , 26 , 32 ). In one study, participants engage in self-talk to modify their behavior ( 32 ). Participants reported implementing social skills to prevent interrupting others and adjusting their social circles to accommodate their symptoms ( 24 , 35 , 46 ).

Substance use was also described as a coping strategy, although there were also drawbacks associated with using substances. Such findings are discussed under “substance use.”

Stimulant medications were commonly used to help manage ADHD symptoms; participants reported that stimulants facilitated task prioritization, goal achievement, and productivity often to “life-changing” extents ( 22 , 24 – 27 , 29 , 32 , 35 , 40 , 46 – 48 ). Stimulants were sometimes reported as assisting with social and emotional functioning by promoting calmness ( 22 , 24 , 30 , 40 ). Some participants took their medications on an as-needed basis, choosing to take them only when they had much work ( 20 , 27 , 32 , 33 , 47 ). In one study, participants reported feeling pressured to sell their medication, and in another, participants reported increasing their dosages to stay up all night in order to better complete school work ( 27 , 47 ).

Participant ambivalence or hesitation to take stimulants was reported due to therapeutic and adverse effects. Reported adverse effects included “not feeling like oneself,” resulting in difficulties with socializing and creativity ( 22 , 27 , 35 , 40 , 47 ), somatic effects such as appetite suppression and insomnia ( 22 , 27 , 35 , 40 , 47 ), unpleasant emotions including irritability and numbness ( 35 , 40 , 47 ), and rebound symptoms and withdrawal side effects when the medications wore off ( 29 , 47 ).

Outside support

Studies noted participants adapting to living with their symptoms by receiving formal accommodations at work and school. Reported workplace accommodations included reduction of auditory distractions and bosses who would provide organizational advice or extra reminders about due dates ( 24 , 25 , 40 ). Reported accommodations in college consisted of separate testing environments and extra time on examinations. However, inaccessibility of disability offices, limited willingness of professors to comply with accommodations, and lack of participant engagement with accommodations due to not wanting to seem different resulted in many participants not utilizing such resources ( 27 , 32 ).

Individual therapy was reported as helpful for managing symptoms and acquiring self-knowledge, especially therapeutic interventions designed for ADHD and CBT ( 22 , 23 , 27 , 41 ). However, some participants reported minimal benefits from seeing therapists who did not specialize in ADHD, and CBT was reported to need improvement to be specially tailored to adults with ADHD such as being more engaging or being reframed as ADHD coaching ( 22 , 27 , 33 ). Community care workers added structure to some participants’ lives and aided with motivation in one study ( 42 ).

In some studies, participants expressed desires to be involved with support groups for adults with ADHD in order to learn new coping skills and find community, but not knowing where to access such services ( 28 , 40 ). Those who had participated in ADHD support or focus groups reported feeling validated and less isolated, as well leaving with improved strategies for symptom management ( 24 , 31 , 41 , 49 ). Support was also reported in personal relationships. Having a supportive partner often helped participants tremendously with organization and life tasks, especially for men married to women ( 24 , 43 ). A close friend or family member encouraging accountability and creating a sense of togetherness was viewed as advantageous ( 32 , 42 ).

Substance use and addiction

Reasons for substance use.

The SUDs were commonly reported among adults with ADHD and often seen as a form of self-medication. In every study that discussed self-medication, participants reported using substances to feel calm and relaxed; substances included nicotine/tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine ( 20 , 24 , 32 , 46 , 50 – 52 ). Nicotine/tobacco, marijuana, ecstasy (MDMA), and methamphetamine were used to help improve focus, particularly before diagnosis and subsequent to stimulant treatment ( 20 , 24 , 32 , 51 , 52 ). Participants also reported using substances to help feel “normal” as they facilitated social interactions and helped complete activities of daily life ( 20 , 50 , 52 ). One study described college males’ experiences with video game addictions which resulted in neglecting schoolwork ( 32 ).

The tendencies of people with ADHD to make impulsive decisions were suggested as linking ADHD and substance use ( 20 , 52 ). Substance use worsened ADHD symptoms, most notably impulsivity ( 44 , 52 ). One study attributed high rates of substance use to participants with ADHD being less fearful and more rebellious than individuals without ADHD ( 50 ).

Although discontinuing substance use was regarded as a difficult process with frequent relapses, participants considered their quality of life to improve after quitting ( 30 , 44 , 53 ). Nicotine withdrawal was reported to worsen ADHD symptoms, and participants desired smoking-cessation programs specifically tailored for those with ADHD ( 53 ). Even after discontinuation of substance use, participants reported difficulties accessing stimulant medication due to their substance-use histories ( 52 ).

Stimulants and use of other substances

Findings relating stimulant use and use of other substances were mixed. Prescription stimulant usage was reported as a protective factor against use of other substances. Participants who had previously been self-medicating reported that when they had been on stimulants, they did not need other substances to help them feel calm and focused ( 46 , 47 , 50 , 52 ). Stimulants were reported to decrease cigarette cravings ( 50 ). In one study, a participant commented that her stimulant prescription generated a hatred of taking pills, which she reported subsequently prevented her from using drugs ( 54 ).

Some participants reported stimulant prescriptions as increasing risk of substance use. Some reported that stimulants directly increased nicotine cravings ( 50 ). Indirect connections were reported, such as feelings of social exclusion due to being labeled as medicated or due to participants feeling used to taking drugs since childhood ( 54 ). Other participants reported no connection between stimulant medication and use of other substances ( 50 , 54 ).

Perceptions of self and diagnosis

Self-esteem.

Participants often reported experiencing low self-esteem which they attributed to feeling unable to keep up with work or school, being told they were not good enough by others, and frequently failing at life goals ( 24 , 27 – 29 , 33 , 36 , 37 , 41 , 43 ). Low self-image was typically worse in childhood and improved over time, especially after receiving a diagnosis ( 28 , 36 , 43 ). In one study, some participants did not see themselves as having any flaws despite repeatedly being told otherwise, possibly due to being distracted from the emotional impact of these remarks ( 29 ).

Views of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Some participants viewed ADHD as a personality trait or difference as opposed to a disorder or disability ( 31 , 32 , 39 , 41 , 45 ). Some participants reported finding the ADHD diagnosis limiting and not wanting the disorder to define who they were ( 27 , 28 ). When asked if they would want their ADHD “cured” in one study, participants’ responses ranged from “definitively yes” to “definitely no.” Many reported feeling ambivalent as they described both positive and negative aspects of ADHD ( 20 ).

Interactions with society

Relationships with others.

Difficulties building and maintaining relationships with others were regularly reported. Participants reported that impulsivity hindered their social interactions due to their tendencies to make inappropriate remarks, engage in reckless behaviors, and agree to engagements without thinking through consequences, resulting in being associated with people to whom they did not want to be linked ( 20 , 22 , 32 , 33 , 36 , 43 ). Reported organizational struggles contributed to participants frequently being late and having cluttered living spaces ( 24 , 38 ). Participants reported misunderstanding social norms and hierarchies and being hesitant about starting conversations ( 28 , 30 , 40 , 43 ). They reported feeling overwhelmed by others’ emotions and unsure how to respond to them ( 44 ). Some participants reported choosing to hide their ADHD diagnoses, and the resultant barrier made socializing feel exhausting ( 24 ). Participants reported that these factors made sustaining long-term relationships especially difficult ( 22 , 31 , 38 , 43 ).

Feeling different from others was widely reported, most notably in childhood ( 20 , 24 , 27 , 29 , 31 , 32 ). This experience was described as feeling misunderstood, like a misfit, abnormal, and/or like there was something wrong with them ( 20 , 24 , 27 , 29 , 33 , 43 , 45 , 50 ). Participants reported consciously pretending to be normal as an attempt to fit in ( 28 , 41 ). Some participants reported seeing themselves as more brave or rebellious than their peers, which sometimes resulted in positive self-images ( 24 , 36 , 50 ). A strong desire to advocate for “the underdog” in interpersonal relationships was described by some women ( 31 ). In one study, most participants did not describe feeling different from others, but reported having felt misunderstood as children ( 36 ).

Participants with ADHD who also had children diagnosed with ADHD reported that their approaches to their children’s diagnoses were shaped by their own ADHD experiences. Parents reported uniform support of diagnostic testing, although the best time for testing was not agreed-upon ( 26 , 48 ). Opinions on starting their children on stimulants varied, ranging from enthusiastic support to viewing medication as a last resort, even among participants who had responded positively to stimulants themselves ( 48 ). Most participants reported supporting shared decision-making with the child.

Outside perceptions of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Participants reported their social networks often expressed preconceived notions about the diagnosis, such as ADHD being “fake” or restricted to children ( 27 – 29 , 37 , 41 ). Stigma about ADHD was reported as having prevented many from disclosing their diagnosis both personally and professionally ( 24 , 26 , 28 , 29 , 32 ). Increased awareness and education about ADHD were desired by participants to help them function better in society ( 28 , 41 ).

Societal expectations

Some studies discussed participants’ difficulties with meeting societal expectations. Participants reported struggling to keep up with daily tasks such as maintaining their living spaces, paying bills and remembering to eat ( 28 , 33 , 35 , 41 ). These difficulties were reported to result in exasperation, low self-esteem, and exhaustion ( 29 , 33 ).

Education and occupation

Academic underachievement was widely reported; most studies focused on postsecondary education. Some participants reported having to try harder than their peers for the same results ( 28 , 35 ), while others reported that they fell behind due to not putting in much effort ( 24 , 27 ). Reports of low motivation to complete assignments until the last minute, as it then became easier to focus, led to missed deadlines ( 32 , 35 , 38 ). Participants reported difficulties paying attention in class ( 24 , 27 , 32 , 35 ), struggling with reading comprehension ( 27 , 32 ), and needing extra tutoring ( 24 , 28 ). Participants reported these difficulties prevented them from “reaching their potential” as they were unable to complete advanced courses or degrees necessary for their careers of choice ( 20 , 22 , 31 , 37 , 39 ). A third of participants in one study noted that they did not struggle academically ( 31 ). Reported coping mechanisms for mitigating academic impairment included medications ( 35 , 47 ), active engagement with materials facilitated by small class sizes or study groups ( 23 , 35 ), and studying from home with fewer distractions ( 34 ). Formal academic accommodations are discussed under the outside support subheading of adapting to symptoms.

Occupational struggles were commonly reported, with many studies detailing participant underemployment or unemployment and high job-turnover rates ( 22 , 31 , 33 , 37 , 41 , 43 ). Difficulties with punctuality and keeping up with tasks and deadlines were reported to generate tensions in the workplace ( 20 , 22 , 24 , 33 , 35 , 39 ), and participants reported frequently being bored and unable to stay focused on their responsibilities, with noisy workplaces promoting distractibility ( 20 , 24 , 33 , 35 , 39 , 40 ). Some studies noted difficulties understanding and navigating social hierarchies in the workplace ( 20 , 40 ). In one study, participants reported feeling unable to maintain work-life balance, overworking until they felt burnt out ( 36 ). Working in fields of intrinsic interest, multitasking, and self-employment were reported strategies used to achieve occupational success ( 24 , 31 , 40 ). Having an understanding employer who could assist with task delegation and understand their needs was described as promoting positive workplace dynamics ( 25 , 33 , 40 ). Clearly defied roles and working with others helped some participants remain engaged in work ( 42 ). College students often reported part-time jobs as rewarding, with responsibilities helping them manage their academic pursuits ( 35 ).

Accessing services

Adults described difficulties accessing healthcare for ADHD. Most reported having to fight to receive a diagnosis and medication due to perceptions of stigma from physicians about adult ADHD ( 22 ). After diagnosis, participants often felt they did not receive adequate counseling or follow-up, especially when seeing general practitioners ( 22 , 26 ). Many participants reported not seeing physicians regularly for medication management due to bureaucratic difficulties ( 21 ); college students reported often having their former pediatricians refill prescriptions without regular appointments ( 47 ). Many participants in one study had little knowledge of ADHD services available to them despite regular appointments ( 32 ).

This review characterizes the current literature on the lived experiences of adults with ADHD. This includes experiences of having been diagnosed as an adult, symptomatology of adult ADHD, skills used to adapt to ADHD symptoms, relationships between ADHD and substance use, individual perceptions of self and of having received ADHD diagnoses, and social experiences interacting in society.

Similar themes were noted in a previous review on lived experiences of adults with ADHD consisting of ten studies, three of which were included here ( 17 ). Such themes included participants feeling different from others, perceiving themselves as creative, and implementing coping skills. There were also other similar findings from a review of eleven studies on the experiences of adolescents with ADHD ( 55 ). Overlapping themes included participants feeling that ADHD symptomatology has some benefits, experiencing difficulties with societal expectations, emotions and interpersonal conflicts, struggling with identity and stigma, and having varying experiences with stimulants. The overlaps in findings from these two reviews suggest there are shared experiences between adolescents and adults with ADHD. Unique from previous reviews on lived experiences of people with ADHD are the present qualitative findings of experiences of having received diagnoses in adulthood, reflections on ADHD and substance use, occupational struggles, attention dysregulation, and emotional symptoms of ADHD.

The relationship between ADHD effects and poor occupational performance has been previously described. People with ADHD often struggle with unemployment and underemployment and functional impairment at work ( 56 – 58 ). The findings of this review suggest that adults with ADHD may benefit from workplace accommodations and from decreased stigma around adult ADHD.

Findings suggest that people with ADHD often experience attention dysregulation as opposed to attention deficits, per se . This notion builds on previous clinical observations ( 59 ) and quantitative literature ( 60 , 61 ) documenting that adults with ADHD may hyperfocus on tasks of interest. These findings suggest that inattention does not fully capture the attentional symptoms of the condition and suggest a possible need for updated diagnostic criteria.

Emotional dysregulation was described by many studies in this review, and there were no studies in which participants denied struggling with emotions. These findings provide support for a conceptual model of ADHD that presents emotional dysregulation as a core feature of ADHD, as opposed to models stating that emotional dysregulation is a subtype of ADHD or simply that the domains are correlated ( 62 ). Debates exist regarding whether or not specific clinical aspects of disorders constitute core or diagnostic features ( 63 ). The DSM-5 and ICD-11 have viewed differently the criteria for specific disorders, including with respect to engagement for emotional regulation or stress-reduction purposes [e.g., behavioral addictions like gambling and gaming disorders, and other behaviors relating to compulsive sexual engagement ( 3 , 64 , 65 )]. Because emotional dysregulation is often overlooked as being associated with ADHD, patients experiencing such symptoms may be mistaken for having other conditions such as mood or personality disorders. Appreciating the emotional symptoms of ADHD may help psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers more accurately diagnose ADHD in adults and decrease misdiagnosis.

The recurrent themes of difficulty naming and recognizing emotions found here suggest that ADHD may be associated with alexithymia. One study found that 22% of adults with ADHD were highly alexithymic but their mean scores on the rating scale for alexithymia were not significantly different from controls ( 66 ). Parenting style, attachment features, and ADHD symptoms have been found to predict emotional processing and alexithymia measures among adults with ADHD ( 67 ). More research is needed into the relationship between ADHD symptoms and alexithymia.

There was considerable heterogeneity in wishes regarding cures for ADHD (suggesting both perceived benefits and detriments) and stimulant use being association with SUDs. From a clinical perspective, both points will be important to understand better. With regard to the latter, ADHD and SUDs frequently co-occur; one meta-analysis found that 23% of people with SUDs met criteria for ADHD ( 68 ). Furthermore, youth with ADHD are seven-fold more likely than those without to experience/develop SUDs; however, early treatment with stimulants appeared to decrease this risk ( 69 ). Understanding better motivations for substance use in adults with ADHD as may be gleaned through considering lived experiences may help decrease ADHD/SUD co-occurrence and improve quality of life.

This review highlights gaps in the qualitative literature on adult ADHD. Nearly all included studies took place in Europe, North America or Asia; there is a dearth of qualitative research on ADHD in the Global South. Although most studies did not report race, those that did often had a majority of White participants. Racial/ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis may contribute to the relatively low diversity of study participants ( 9 ), and such disparities are further reason to expand research focused on non-White individuals with ADHD. Most studies focused on young or middle-aged adults and most participants were male; more research is needed on how ADHD may impact older adults and other gender identities. Although long considered to disproportionately affect male children at approximately 3:1 ( 70 ), ADHD in adults has been reported to have gender ratios of 1.5:1 ( 71 ). Among the adult psychiatric population, some studies have found no gender difference in prevalence or up to a 2.5:1 female predominance ( 72 ). This finding suggests that women often may not receive diagnoses until adulthood and there may be strong links with other psychopathologies in women. The lived experience of women with ADHD should be further examined; this insight may help to understand why women often go undiagnosed and experience other psychiatric concerns.

Future qualitative studies should explore how ADHD symptoms change over the lifespan as this was not addressed in any of the included studies. There were very few findings relating to how adults with ADHD conceptualize the condition and how their diagnosis interacts with their identities. Some studies reported on difficulties adults with ADHD have with accessing services; further exploration is needed into how the medical community can better meet the needs of this population. Findings from this review may be used to inform future ADHD screening tools. The Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS) is a widely used screening tool that covers symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity ( 73 ). This review suggests that symptoms may be more expansive than what is included in the ASRS and that questions on attentional dysregulation and hyperfocusing, emotional dysregulation, internal chaos, low self-esteem, and strained interpersonal relationships could be tested for validity for inclusion. The Conners’ Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS) includes questions on emotional lability and low self-esteem in addition to symptoms covered by the ASRS ( 74 ), although the scale has been found to have high false-positive and false-negative rates ( 75 ). Further studies are needed to develop screening tools that capture the lived experience of adults with ADHD while maintaining appropriate sensitivity and specificity. This review may also inform tailoring CBT and other therapeutic interventions for ADHD. For example, CBT may help develop skills for volitional hyperfocusing on productive tasks instead of feeling pulled away from daily activities.

This study has limitations. Being a rapid review, it was not an exhaustive search of the available literature and may have missed some relevant studies that would have been identified by a systematic search. The search strategy consisted of ADHD and qualitative research methods; studies that did not include “qualitative” in their titles or abstracts may not have been identified. This may explain why the previous review on the lived experiences of adults with ADHD ( 17 ) included studies not identified by this search. Although a formal quality appraisal was completed, all studies were included regardless of the quality assessment as to not further narrow the review. For example, studies were not excluded based on how they verified ADHD diagnosis as many studies did not specify if or how this was completed. Although restricting studies based on quality metrics may have made the present findings more robust, the amount of data that would have been excluded would have been considerable and may have resulted in omitting important findings. These variable quality metrics not only limit the findings of the present review, but also speak to limitations in the methodological rigor of qualitative research on adult ADHD.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a relatively common diagnosis among adults. Exploration of the lived experiences of adults with ADHD may illuminate the breadth of symptomatology of the condition and should be considered in the diagnostic criteria for adults. Understanding symptomatology of adults with ADHD and identifying areas of unmet need may help guide intervention development to improve the quality of life of adults with ADHD.

Author contributions

CG and MP contributed to the conception of the review. CG and GM-G performed the abstract and full text screening. CG performed the data synthesis and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. GM-G, GA, KB, and MP contributed to the revising and editing the manuscript. All authors read and approved the submitted version.

This work was supported by the Yale School of Medicine Office of Student Research One-Year Fellowship and the K12 DA000167 grant.

Acknowledgments

We would like to express gratitude to clinical librarian Courtney Brombosz for her assistance in developing the search strategy.

Conflict of interest

MP has consulted for and advised Opiant Pharmaceuticals, Idorsia Pharmaceuticals, BariaTek, AXA, Game Day Data, and the Addiction Policy Forum; has been involved in a patent application with Yale University and Novartis; has received research support from the Mohegan Sun Casino and Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling; has participated in surveys, mailings or telephone consultations related to drug addiction, impulse control disorders or other health topics; and has consulted for law offices and gambling entities on issues related to impulse control or addictive disorders.

The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Supplementary material

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Keywords : ADHD, qualitative research, lived experiences, adult, emotional dysregulation, attentional dysregulation

Citation: Ginapp CM, Macdonald-Gagnon G, Angarita GA, Bold KW and Potenza MN (2022) The lived experiences of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A rapid review of qualitative evidence. Front. Psychiatry 13:949321. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.949321

Received: 20 May 2022; Accepted: 27 July 2022; Published: 11 August 2022.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2022 Ginapp, Macdonald-Gagnon, Angarita, Bold and Potenza. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Callie M. Ginapp, [email protected] ; Marc N. Potenza, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Persistence of Parent-Reported ADHD Symptoms From Childhood Through Adolescence in a Community Sample. Journal of Attention Disorders . 2016 Jan;20(1):11-20 Joseph R. Holbrook, Steven P. Cuffe , Bo Cai, Susanna N. Visser, Melinda S. Forthofer, Matteo Bottai, Andrew Ortaglia, Robert E. McKeown Read key findings |  Read summary

ADHD and psychiatric comorbidity: Functional outcomes in a school-based sample of children. Journal of Attention Disorders. Published online November 25, 2015. Stephen P. Cuffe, Susanna N. Visser, Joseph R. Holbrook, Melissa L. Danielson, Lorie L. Geryk, Mark L. Wolraich, Robert E. McKeown Read summary

Diagnostic experiences of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. National Health Statistics Report, 81, 1-7, published online September 3, 2015. Susanna N. Visser, Benjaming Zablotsky, Joseph R. Holbrook, Melissa L. Danielson, & Rebecca H. Bitsko Read key findings |  Read article [PDF – 230KB]

Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder among Children with Special Health Care Needs Journal of Pediatrics, 2015; 166:1423-30. Susanna N. Visser, Rebecca H. Bitsko, Melissa L. Danielson, Reem M. Gandhour, Stephen J. Blumberg, Laura Schieve, Joseph R. Holbrook, Mark L. Wolraich,  Stephen P. Cuffe. Read key findings |  Read article

The impact of case definition on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder prevalence estimates. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 2015, 54(1): 53–61. Robert E. McKeown, Joseph R. Holbrook, Melissa L. Danielson, Stephen P. Cuffe, Mark L. Wolraich, Susanna N. Visser Read key findings |  Read summary

Trends in the Parent-Report of Health Care Provider-Diagnosed and Medicated ADHD Disorder: United States, 2003—2011. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry;  2014,53(1):34–46.e2. Susanna N. Visser, Melissa L. Danielson, Rebecca H. Bitsko, Joseph R. Holbrook, Michael D. Kogan, Reem M. Ghandour, Ruth Perou, Stephen J. Blumberg Read key findings |  Read article |  Listen to a podcast by the journal discussing the study

Convergent validity of parent-reported attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis: A cross-study comparison. JAMA Pediatrics 2013; 167(7):674-675. Susanna N. Visser, Melissa L. Danielson, Rebecca H. Bitsko, Ruth Perou, Stephen J. Blumberg Read key findings |  Read article

The prevalence of ADHD: Its diagnosis and treatment in four school districts across two states Journal of Attention Disorders. October 2014; 18 (7), 563-575. Mark L. Wolraich, Robert E. McKeown, Susanna N. Visser, David Bard, Steven Cuffe, Barbara Neas Lorie L. Geryk, Melissa Doffing, Matteo Bottai, Ann J. Abramowitz, Laoma Beck, Joseph R. Holbrook, Melissa Danielson Read article

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“Being ADHD”: a Qualitative Study

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  • Published: 20 January 2022
  • Volume 6 , pages 20–28, ( 2022 )

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  • Rosalind Redshaw   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4965-4000 1 &
  • Lynne McCormack 1  

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is well recognised as a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development; however, little is known about the subjective experience of “being ADHD”. This phenomenological idiographic study explored how nine individuals with ADHD make sense of their life experiences, ability to function, and ideas about self in the context of ADHD.

Semi-structured interviews were used to collect data from nine participants aged 29 to 54. Audio recordings of interviews were then transcribed and analysed according to the protocols of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA).

Three themes emerged (1) otherness; (2) pixies, monkeys, and living in the moment; and (3) Challenging “broken”. Themes encompass the experience of being different to others, mechanics of daily functioning, and advantages of being ADHD.

A tendency to live in the moment was consistent across the nine participants in this study and aligns with quantitative research showing differences in the processing of temporal information in ADHD. The effects of this tendency on day-to-day functioning are linked to typical symptoms of ADHD, as well as perceived advantages. Participants attributed an uncommon degree of energy, optimism, adventurousness and curiosity, and novel problem-solving ability to their ADHD, adding to existing literature that suggests there are advantages to this unique mental architecture. Identifying positive aspects to ADHD offers clinicians and educators a pathway for mitigating the negative effects on self that flow from the challenges of ADHD.

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Acknowledgements

We are extremely grateful to the participants who took part in this research for their time and efforts.

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RR: designed and executed the study, independently and jointly analysed the data, and wrote the paper. LM: trained RR in IPA, independently and jointly analysed the data, and collaborated with the design and writing of the study and editing of the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rosalind Redshaw .

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Redshaw, R., McCormack, L. “Being ADHD”: a Qualitative Study. Adv Neurodev Disord 6 , 20–28 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-021-00227-5

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March 26, 2024

Altered brain connections in youth with ADHD

At a glance.

  • Youth with ADHD have elevated brain activity connecting the frontal cortex with the information processing centers deep in the brain.
  • Understanding the brain regions involved in ADHD symptoms could help point toward directions for new approaches to treatment.

Brain images with red and yellow areas.

People living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can struggle with focus and self-control. The condition’s symptoms may interfere with daily functioning in both children and adults. ADHD can make it hard for kids to succeed in school, and for adults to thrive in the workforce and in personal relationships.

ADHD is a brain condition that requires a professional diagnosis to help guide treatment. Drugs that increase the levels of certain chemicals in the brain help some people with ADHD. But they don’t work for everyone, and can have unacceptable side effects.

To design better treatments for ADHD, scientists need to understand more about how the brain works in people with the condition. Researchers have wondered if differences in the neural connections between the brain’s frontal cortex, which sits in the front of the brain, and regions deep within the brain, called subcortical regions, may underlie some symptoms of ADHD. The frontal cortex plays a role in attention and control of unwanted behaviors. The subcortical regions are involved in learning, movement, reward, and emotion.

Previous studies used a type of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look for such connections in children with symptoms of ADHD. fMRI can measure changes in brain activity in real time. But these studies have been small and returned conflicting results.

An NIH research team re-analyzed fMRI images collected in six previous studies. Altogether, those studies had obtained fMRI images from more than 1,696 youths with ADHD, aged 6 to 18, as well as almost 7,000 without the condition. In addition to using a large number of images, the researchers strictly defined the brain areas being measured. This allowed for more accurate comparisons between individual fMRI scans. Results were published March 13, 2024, in the American Journal of Psychiatry .

The team found that the brains of youth with ADHD had more activity between several subcortical regions and the frontal cortex than those in youth without the condition. The brains of youth with ADHD also showed greater connection between the frontal cortex and part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala helps process emotions and had been suspected to play a role in ADHD.

These results were seen regardless of children’s sex, age, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or estimated intelligence. The differences in brain connectivity also didn’t appear to be affected by the presence or absence of other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. However, the differences found by the researchers were small and likely capture only part of the processes involved in ADHD.

“The findings from this study help further our understanding of the brain processes contributing to ADHD symptoms. Such understanding is a first step in thinking of new ways to help those who find the symptoms cause difficulties in day-to-day life,” says Dr. Philip Shaw, who helped lead the study. “But these brain changes are only part of the story. ADHD is a complex condition, and many other changes in brain connectivity will play a role.”

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References:  Subcortico-Cortical Dysconnectivity in ADHD: A Voxel-Wise Mega-Analysis Across Multiple Cohorts . Norman LJ, Sudre G, Price J, Shaw P. Am J Psychiatry . 2024 Mar 13:appiajp20230026. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.20230026. Online ahead of print. PMID: 38476041.

Funding:  NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institute on Aging (NIA), and Office of the Director (OD); Child Mind Institute; New York State Office of Mental Health; Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene.

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March 28, 2024

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Parental avoidance of toxic exposures could help reduce risk of autism, ADHD in children, observational study suggests

by Steven Lee, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Parental avoidance of toxic exposures could help prevent autism, ADHD in children, new study shows

Autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be preventable if parents avoid toxic exposures and adopt interventions such as environmental house calls, according to a study , published in Journal of Xenobiotics , led by researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio).

Using a validated, self-administered questionnaire now used worldwide to identify individuals with chemical intolerance—the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory (QEESI)—parents and practitioners can determine the risk for each family and learn which exposures to avoid in their own homes where most people spend most of their day, the researchers said.

A population-based survey of nearly 8,000 U.S. adults, using QEESI, found that parents with chemical intolerance scores in the top tenth percentile were 5.7 times as likely to report a child with autism and 2.1 times as likely with ADHD compared with parents in the bottom tenth percentile.

The findings build on a 2015 study by UT Health San Antonio that first linked chemical intolerance in patients with the risk of their children developing autism and ADHD.

"This is the first-ever article in the medical literature showing that chemical intolerance in parents can predict the risk of autism and ADHD in their children, and suggests that reducing exposures prior to and during pregnancy could help prevention," said Claudia S. Miller, MD, MS, professor emeritus with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. "Up to now, most interventions have been behavioral or medical, after a child is diagnosed."

Miller is senior author of the study, titled, "Assessing Chemical Intolerance in Parents Predicts the Risk of Autism and ADHD in Their Children." Co-authors include Raymond F. Palmer, Ph.D., and Rodolfo Rincon, MD and specialist, both with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UT Health San Antonio; and David Kattari, a statistician with the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas.

The researchers note that the study is observational, and further research is needed using controlled trials to confirm causality and further explore the proposed mechanism behind chemical intolerance.

Still, they wrote, "The implications of this study, if confirmed, could be significant for preventive measures and early intervention strategies in families with parental chemical intolerance. We recommend that all prospective parents be assessed for chemical intolerance at an early age."

Mast cells and autism

Physician-researcher Miller in 1996 first proposed a two-stage disease process of initiation by exposure and then triggering of symptoms called TILT, for Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance, as the mechanism behind chemical intolerance. She has served as a physician/environmental consultant on exposures.

Her published papers have explored the impact of pesticides, the Gulf War, breast and other implants, 9/11, toxic molds, combustion products from fires, and indoor air pollutants in so-called "sick" homes, schools and workplaces, including the EPA's own headquarters building in Washington, D.C.

The new study comes amid a backdrop of a 317% increase in the prevalence of autism since 2000, now occurring in one of every 36 children in the country, the researchers note, citing data originating from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the prevalence of ADHD has risen to one in eight children, also according to the CDC.

Miller and colleagues in 2021 discovered a strong association between chemical intolerance and "mast cells," considered the immune system's first responders that originate in the bone marrow and migrate to the interface between tissues and the external environment where they then reside.

When exposed to "xenobiotics," foreign substances like chemicals and viruses, they can release thousands of inflammatory molecules called mediators. This response results in allergic-like reactions, some very severe. These cells can be sensitized by a single acute exposure to xenobiotics, or by repeated lower-level exposures. Thereafter, even low levels of those and other unrelated substances can cause the mast cells to release the mediators that can lead to inflammation and illness.

In their latest study, the researchers determined that the high chemical intolerance scores among parents of children with autism, coupled with the 2021 finding of mast-cell activation as a plausible biomechanism for chemical intolerance, suggest that:

  • The QEESI can identify individuals at increased risk.
  • Environmental counseling, such as personalized environmental house calls to assess risks at home, may reduce personal exposures to possible triggers such as pesticides, fragrances and tobacco smoke, particularly during pregnancy and childhood.
  • The global rise in autism and ADHD may be due to fossil-fuel-derived and biogenic toxicants epigenetically "turning on" or "turning off" critical mast cell genes that can be transmitted trans-generationally.

The researchers conclude that once mast cells are sensitized, diverse xenobiotics that never bothered the person previously and do not bother most people trigger multisystem symptoms that wax and wane over time. And they believe that persistent activation and triggering of mast cells may underlie the brain inflammation in autism.

"The potential role of environmental toxicants in influencing epigenetics and mast cell function is a complex and emerging area of research," they wrote. "Acknowledging the need for further evidence, we hope this study contributes to an improved understanding of the potential role of environmental factors in the global rise of autism and ADHD."

The authors created tools for patients, practitioners and researchers, described in their "TILT Tutorial on Chemical Intolerance, Autism, and ADHD" , available along with other resources at https://TILTresearch.org .

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ADHD in adults: Know the symptoms

Kimberly Gill , Anchor

DETROIT – Adult ADHD and its signs are often missed.

Despite many wanting to be tested, issues like insurance or long wait times can turn people off from being properly diagnosed.

There’s another option that’s affordable and faster.

  • The risk of self-diagnosis, treatment for ADHD on social media
  • Why ADHD is underdiagnosed in adult women -- and what you can do about it
  • Here are some benefits of seeking help for adults who have ADHD in Metro Detroit

For Susan Pontack, it was her adult son who recognized some of the signs and symptoms and encouraged her to be tested for ADHD.

“He said, ‘Mom, I hope you take this the right way, but you know I watch you and you get to the end of the day and you’re like, I got nothing done and you worked all day,’” Pontack recalled. “And it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything done but I would start all of these projects but because I hated the details of it, I wouldn’t finish them and then I would feel so overwhelmed about what I didn’t get done.”

Pontack has a successful career as a functional medicine consultant. She admits adhd never even crossed her mind, but in hindsight, she realized how much harder she had to work at everything than her peers.

“Like when I had a research paper to do, life stopped,” Pontack said. “What I realized is that I could overprepare and know it by heart and be ready for anything. But it was the situations where I couldn’t overprepare that I would get anxious about.”

So she did some research and contacted Dr. Joel Young at the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine . That’s where she took a computerized assessment. The results helped her understand why she struggled with everyday tasks.

The assessment is called Mind Metrix . It was developed by Dr. Young and a team of psychologists and researchers at the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine. It’s a series of questions and takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete. It can be done at any computer and the results are immediate. When shared with a primary care physician, the results can help them work toward an appropriate treatment plan that could include coaching, therapy or medication.

Pontack encourages anyone who feels they can use help to go get it.

If you suspect you have ADHD, there are several of these online assessments you can take to gain some insight.

While a lot of them are free, the one Pontack took is about $50. It’s cheaper than some of the in-person assessments which can cost hundreds but are often much more in-depth.

The bottom line is to talk to your doctor. For women, even if it’s your gynecologist, they often will be able to help -- especially if you come armed with a snapshot of what you’re experiencing.

Copyright 2024 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.

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image processing —

Playboy image from 1972 gets ban from ieee computer journals, use of "lenna" image in computer image processing research stretches back to the 1970s..

Benj Edwards - Mar 29, 2024 9:16 pm UTC

Playboy image from 1972 gets ban from IEEE computer journals

On Wednesday, the IEEE Computer Society announced to members that, after April 1, it would no longer accept papers that include a frequently used image of a 1972 Playboy model named Lena Forsén. The so-called " Lenna image ," (Forsén added an extra "n" to her name in her Playboy appearance to aid pronunciation) has been used in image processing research since 1973 and has attracted criticism for making some women feel unwelcome in the field.

Further Reading

In an email from the IEEE Computer Society sent to members on Wednesday, Technical & Conference Activities Vice President Terry Benzel wrote , "IEEE's diversity statement and supporting policies such as the IEEE Code of Ethics speak to IEEE's commitment to promoting an including and equitable culture that welcomes all. In alignment with this culture and with respect to the wishes of the subject of the image, Lena Forsén, IEEE will no longer accept submitted papers which include the 'Lena image.'"

An uncropped version of the 512×512-pixel test image originally appeared as the centerfold picture for the December 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine. Usage of the Lenna image in image processing began in June or July 1973 when an assistant professor named Alexander Sawchuck and a graduate student at the University of Southern California Signal and Image Processing Institute scanned a square portion of the centerfold image with a primitive drum scanner, omitting nudity present in the original image. They scanned it for a colleague's conference paper, and after that, others began to use the image as well.

The original 512×512

The image's use spread in other papers throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s , and it caught Playboy's attention, but the company decided to overlook the copyright violations. In 1997, Playboy helped track down Forsén, who appeared at the 50th Annual Conference of the Society for Imaging Science in Technology, signing autographs for fans. "They must be so tired of me ... looking at the same picture for all these years!" she said at the time. VP of new media at Playboy Eileen Kent told Wired , "We decided we should exploit this, because it is a phenomenon."

The image, which features Forsén's face and bare shoulder as she wears a hat with a purple feather, was reportedly ideal for testing image processing systems in the early years of digital image technology due to its high contrast and varied detail. It is also a sexually suggestive photo of an attractive woman, and its use by men in the computer field has garnered criticism over the decades, especially from female scientists and engineers who felt that the image (especially related to its association with the Playboy brand) objectified women and created an academic climate where they did not feel entirely welcome.

Due to some of this criticism, which dates back to at least 1996 , the journal Nature banned the use of the Lena image in paper submissions in 2018.

The comp.compression Usenet newsgroup FAQ document claims that in 1988, a Swedish publication asked Forsén if she minded her image being used in computer science, and she was reportedly pleasantly amused. In a 2019 Wired article , Linda Kinstler wrote that Forsén did not harbor resentment about the image, but she regretted that she wasn't paid better for it originally. "I’m really proud of that picture," she told Kinstler at the time.

Since then, Forsén has apparently changed her mind. In 2019, Creatable and Code Like a Girl created an advertising documentary titled Losing Lena , which was part of a promotional campaign aimed at removing the Lena image from use in tech and the image processing field. In a press release for the campaign and film, Forsén is quoted as saying, "I retired from modelling a long time ago. It’s time I retired from tech, too. We can make a simple change today that creates a lasting change for tomorrow. Let’s commit to losing me."

It seems like that commitment is now being granted. The ban in IEEE publications, which have been historically important journals for computer imaging development, will likely further set a precedent toward removing the Lenna image from common use. In his email, the IEEE's Benzel recommended wider sensitivity about the issue, writing, "In order to raise awareness of and increase author compliance with this new policy, program committee members and reviewers should look for inclusion of this image, and if present, should ask authors to replace the Lena image with an alternative."

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research paper topics on adhd

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Females with ADHD: An expert consensus statement taking a lifespan approach providing guidance for the identification and treatment of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder in girls and women

Susan young.

1 Psychology Services Limited, PO 1735, Croydon, London, CR9 7AE UK

2 Department of Psychology, Reykjavik University, Reykjavik, Iceland

Nicoletta Adamo

3 Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, Kings College London, London, UK

4 Service for Complex Autism and Associated Neurodevelopmental Disorders, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Michael Rutter Centre, London, UK

Bryndís Björk Ásgeirsdóttir

Polly branney.

5 Oxford ADHD and Autism Centre, Oxford, UK

Michelle Beckett

6 ADHD Action, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, UK

William Colley

7 CLC Consultancy, Perth, UK

Sally Cubbin

8 Manor Hospital, Oxford, UK

Quinton Deeley

9 National Autism Unit, Bethlem Royal Hospital, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Beckenham, UK

10 Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, London, UK

Emad Farrag

11 South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Maudsley Health, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Gisli Gudjonsson

12 Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, London, UK

13 Independent Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Private Practice, London, UK

Jack Hollingdale

14 Michael Rutter Centre, South London and Maudsley Hospital, London, UK

15 Koc University, Istanbul, Turkey

16 ADHD Foundation, Liverpool, UK

Peter Mason

17 ADHD and Psychiatry Services Limited, Liverpool, UK

Eleni Paliokosta

18 Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK

Sri Perecherla

19 St Thomas’ Hospital London, London, UK

Jane Sedgwick

20 Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care, King’s College London, London, UK

Caroline Skirrow

21 Cambridge Cognition, Cambridge, UK

22 School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

Kevin Tierney

23 Neuropsychiatry Team, National Specialist CAMHS, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK

Kobus van Rensburg

24 Adult ADHD and AS Team & CYP ADHD and ASD Service in Northamptonshire, Northampton, UK

Emma Woodhouse

25 Compass, London, UK

Associated Data

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.

There is evidence to suggest that the broad discrepancy in the ratio of males to females with diagnosed ADHD is due, at least in part, to lack of recognition and/or referral bias in females. Studies suggest that females with ADHD present with differences in their profile of symptoms, comorbidity and associated functioning compared with males. This consensus aims to provide a better understanding of females with ADHD in order to improve recognition and referral. Comprehensive assessment and appropriate treatment is hoped to enhance longer-term clinical outcomes and patient wellbeing for females with ADHD.

The United Kingdom ADHD Partnership hosted a meeting of experts to discuss symptom presentation, triggers for referral, assessment, treatment and multi-agency liaison for females with ADHD across the lifespan.

A consensus was reached offering practical guidance to support medical and mental health practitioners working with females with ADHD. The potential challenges of working with this patient group were identified, as well as specific barriers that may hinder recognition. These included symptomatic differences, gender biases, comorbidities and the compensatory strategies that may mask or overshadow underlying symptoms of ADHD. Furthermore, we determined the broader needs of these patients and considered how multi-agency liaison may provide the support to meet them.

Conclusions

This practical approach based upon expert consensus will inform effective identification, treatment and support of girls and women with ADHD. It is important to move away from the prevalent perspective that ADHD is a behavioural disorder and attend to the more subtle and/or internalised presentation that is common in females. It is essential to adopt a lifespan model of care to support the complex transitions experienced by females that occur in parallel to change in clinical presentation and social circumstances. Treatment with pharmacological and psychological interventions is expected to have a positive impact leading to increased productivity, decreased resource utilization and most importantly, improved long-term outcomes for girls and women.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental condition described in diagnostic classification systems (ICD-10, DSM-5 [ 1 , 2 ]). It is characterised by difficulties in two subdomains: inattention, and hyperactivity-impulsivity. Three primary subtypes can be identified: predominantly inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined presentations. Symptoms persist over time, pervade across situations and cause significant impairment [ 3 ].

ADHD is present in childhood and symptoms tend to decline with increasing age [ 4 ], with consistent reductions documented in hyperactive-impulsive symptoms but more mixed results regarding the decline in inattentive symptoms [ 5 – 7 ]. This trajectory does not appear to be different in affected males or females [ 6 , 8 ]. A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies published in 2005 showed that up to one-third of childhood cases continued to meet full diagnostic criteria into their 20s, with around 65% continuing to experience impairing symptoms [ 9 ]. More recent studies in large clinical cohorts indicate that persistence of ADHD into adulthood may be much more common. Two studies from child mental health clinics in the UK and the Netherlands have reported persistence in around 80% of children with the combined type presentation into early adulthood [ 10 , 11 ], potentially relating to the high severity of ADHD in this group and the use of more objective ratings [ 12 ]. The proportion meeting full diagnostic criteria for ADHD then continues to decline in adult samples [ 13 ]. Simultaneously, experiences of ADHD symptoms often change over the course of development: hyperactivity may be replaced by feelings of ‘inner restlessness’ and discomfort; inattention may manifest as difficulty completing chores or work-based activities (e.g. filling out forms, remembering appointments, meeting deadlines) [ 1 ].

Psychiatric comorbidity is very common, which may complicate identification and treatment [ 14 ]. In children with ADHD this includes conduct disorder (CD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental coordination disorder, tic disorders, anxiety and depressive disorders, reading disorders, and learning and language disorders [ 15 – 17 ]. Comorbid conditions are also extremely common in adults and include ASD, anxiety and depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance use disorders, personality disorders, and impulse control disorders [ 18 , 19 ].

Prevalence of ADHD is estimated at 7.1% in children and adolescents [ 20 ], and 2.5-5% in adults [ 4 , 21 ], and around 2.8% in older adults [ 22 ]. Sex differences in the prevalence of ADHD are well documented. Clinical referrals in boys typically exceed those for girls, with ratios ranging from 3-1 to 16-1 [ 23 ]. The discrepancy of ADHD rates in community samples remains significant, although it is less extreme, at around a 3-1 ratio of boys to girls [ 4 ]. Nevertheless the discrepancy in the sex-ratio between clinic and community samples highlights that a large number of girls with ADHD are likely to remain unidentified and untreated, with implications for long-term social, educational and mental health outcomes [ 24 ].

This disparity in prevalence between boys and girls may stem from a variety of potential factors. The contribution of greater genetic vulnerability, endocrine factors, psychosocial contributors, or a propensity to respond negatively to certain early life stressors in boys have been proposed or investigated as potential contributors to sexual dimorphism in prevalence and presentation [ 25 , 26 ]. Whilst in childhood there is a clear male preponderance of ADHD, in adult samples sex differences in prevalence are more modest or absent [ 21 , 27 – 29 ]. This may be due to a variety of factors, with potential contributions from the greater reliance on self-report in older samples, greater persistence in females alongside increased levels of remission in males, and potentially more common late onset cases in females [ 25 , 26 , 28 ].

Comprehensive views of the aetiology of ADHD incorporate biological, environmental and cultural perspectives and influences [ 25 ]. Substantial genetic influences have been identified in ADHD [ 30 ]. Individuals who have ADHD are more likely to have children, parents and/or siblings with ADHD [ 31 , 32 ]. The ‘female protective effect’ theory suggests that girls and women may need to reach a higher threshold of genetic and environmental exposures for ADHD to be expressed, thereby accounting for the lower prevalence in females and the higher familial transmission rates seen in families where females are affected [ 33 , 34 ]. Research suggests that siblings of affected girls have more ADHD symptoms compared with siblings of affected boys [ 33 , 34 ].

There is increasing recognition that females with ADHD show a somewhat modified set of behaviours, symptoms and comorbidities when compared with males with ADHD; they are less likely to be identified and referred for assessment and thus their needs are less likely to be met. It is unknown how often a diagnosis of ADHD is being missed or misdiagnosed in females, but it has become clear that a better understanding of ADHD in girls and women is needed if we are to improve their longer-term wellbeing and functional and clinical outcomes [ 35 , 36 ].

This report provides a selective review the research literature on ADHD in girls and women, and aims to provide guidance to improve identification, treatment and support for girls and women with ADHD across the lifespan, developed through a multidisciplinary consensus meeting according to the clinical expertise and knowledge among attendees. To support medical and mental health practitioners in their understanding of ADHD in females, we provide consensus guidance on the presentation of ADHD in females and triggers for referral. We establish specific advice regarding the assessment, interventions, and multi-agency liaison needs in girls and women with ADHD.

In line with previous definitions, we use the terms sex to identify a biological category (male/female), and gender to define a social role and cultural-social properties [ 37 ]. However, we acknowledge the complex differences between the sexes that occur independently of ADHD status [ 38 ], and discuss both biological differences and social roles in the current consensus.

The consensus aimed to provide practical guidance to professionals working with girls and women with ADHD, drawing on the scientific literature and the professional experience of the authors. To achieve this aim, professionals specialising in ADHD convened in London on 30th November 2018 for a meeting hosted by the United Kingdom ADHD Partnership (UKAP; www.UKADHD.com ). Meeting attendees included experts in ADHD across a range of mental health professions, including healthcare specialists (nursing; general practice; child, adolescent and adult psychiatry; clinical and forensic psychology; counselling), academic, educational and occupational specialists. Service-users and ADHD charity workers were also represented. Attendees engaged in discussions throughout the day, with the aim of reaching consensus.

The meeting commenced with presentations of preliminary data obtained from (1) an ongoing systematic review on the clinical and psychosocial presentation of females in comparison with males with ADHD (currently being led by SY and OK); and (2) epidemiological research on sex differences in self-reported ADHD symptoms in population based adolescent cohorts. Following a question and answer session, attendees then separated into three breakout groups. Each group was tasked with providing practical solutions relevant to their assigned topic. Discussions were facilitated by group leaders and summarized by note-takers. Following the small-group work, all attendees re-assembled. Group leaders then presented findings to all meeting attendees for another round of discussion and debate, until consensus was reached. Group discussions included the following themes:

  • 1.1 Presentation in females and what might trigger referral?
  • 1.2 Considering sex differences when conducting ADHD assessments
  • 2.1 Pharmacological
  • 2.2 Non-pharmacological
  • 3.1 Educational considerations
  • 3.2 Other multi-agency considerations

Taking a lifespan perspective, each theme was explored in relation to specific age groups considered to be associated with pertinent periods for environmental and biological change, and change in clinical needs and presentation. Recommendations that differed between age groups are presented separately.

The consensus group incorporated evidence from a broad range of sources. However, the assessment, pharmacological treatment, and multiagency support features reflect clinical practice and legislature in the United Kingdom (UK), and may differ in other countries.

All consensus proceedings, including group and feedback sessions were video-recorded and transcribed. One note-taker was allocated to each breakout group, and notes were subsequently circulated to each breakout group contributor for review and agreement. All materials were sent to the medical writer, who consolidated the meeting transcription, electronic slide presentations and small-group notes. The lead author worked closely with the medical writer to synthesise the consensus report, which was then circulated to all authors for review and feedback. A final draft was circulated to all authors for agreement and approval.

Results and consensus outcome

Presentation of adhd in females.

Although much of the scientific literature indicates an overlap in the clinical presentation of males and females with ADHD, the available evidence often draws on predominantly male samples [ 39 ] due to the higher prevalence of ADHD in males [ 4 ]. Some sex differences have been reported, which are described below, and briefly summarised in Table ​ Table1 1 .

Summary of key points for detection of ADHD in females

ADHD symptoms

Research in population-based samples indicates that for both sexes the hyperactive-impulsive type predominates in pre-schoolers, whereas the inattentive-type is the most common presentation from mid-to-late childhood and into adulthood [ 4 , 21 ]. By contrast, clinical studies typically report a greater prevalence of combined-type ADHD [ 5 , 12 , 22 ]. Early meta-analyses of gender effects have found lower severity of hyperactivity-impulsivity [ 40 ], or all ADHD symptoms (inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity) [ 24 ] in girls than boys, although individual studies show more mixed results [ 8 , 35 , 41 , 42 ].

Inconsistent findings may reflect that clinic referral and diagnosis tends to favour combined subtypes equally across genders, whilst community sampling points to greater prevalence of inattentive type ADHD in girls than in boys [ 43 ]. Hyperactive-impulsive symptoms have been linked to higher clinic ascertainment rates [ 4 ], and may be more commonly seen in boys [ 40 ], with inattention symptoms being less obvious and therefore less likely to be detected. These differences may lead to the perception that females with ADHD are less impaired [ 44 ].

People may experience and respond to the same behaviour of males and females in different ways due to gender-related behavioural expectations [ 42 ]. For example in two studies where teachers were presented with ADHD-like vignettes, when simply varying the child’s name and pronouns used from male to female, boys names were more likely to be referred for additional support [ 45 ] and considered more suitable for treatment [ 46 ]. Parents may also underestimate impairment and severity of hyperactive/impulsive symptoms in girls whilst over-rating these same symptoms in boys [ 47 ]. Compensatory behaviours in girls, such as socially adaptive behaviour, compliance, increased resilience [ 47 ] or coping strategies to mask behaviour [ 48 ] may also contribute to differing perceptions that may in turn prevent referral.

Less is known about the presentation of ADHD in older adults but evidence suggests whilst symptoms tend to decline, ADHD may persist into middle and old age, with a more even male-to-female community prevalence and referral rate with increasing age [ 22 , 49 ].

Comorbidity

Externalising problems are more prevalent in males with ADHD [ 24 ], manifesting as higher rates of comorbid oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD) [ 40 ], characterised by rule-breaking behaviour [ 50 , 51 ] and fights in school [ 36 ]. In adulthood, men with ADHD more commonly show antisocial behaviours characteristic of antisocial personality disorder [ 52 – 54 ]. Whilst these problems are more prevalent in males, they typically remain elevated in individuals with ADHD across both sexes in comparison with the general population. The lower rates of disruptive behavioural problems in females may contribute to lower rates of referral for ADHD assessment and support [ 48 , 55 ].

Compared with males with ADHD, internalising disorders (e.g. emotional problems, anxiety, depression) are more often reported in females [ 24 , 29 , 47 , 51 , 53 , 56 ]. Borderline personality traits in ADHD tend to be associated with women [ 57 ] with hyperactive/impulsive symptoms being associated with self-harming behaviours [ 58 ]. Additionally, women with ADHD have been found to be at higher risk for some adverse outcomes, including greater mental health impairment [ 29 ], severe mental illness (schizophrenia) [ 59 ] and admissions to in-patient psychiatric hospitals in adulthood [ 60 ].

The less overt presentation of ADHD in girls and women may mask the underlying condition due to females not meeting stereotypical expectations of ADHD behaviour. Instead females may be more likely to attract a primary diagnosis of internalising disorders or personality disorders, in turn delaying diagnosis and appropriate treatment [ 45 , 47 , 48 ].

Disordered eating behaviour has been associated with ADHD across both sexes. Whilst individual studies have shown increased disordered eating in girls and women with ADHD [ 53 , 61 ], a meta-analysis of twelve studies identified increased risk of all eating disorder syndromes (bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder), amongst individuals with ADHD, with similar risk estimates for males and females [ 62 ]. Meta-analysis has also confirmed increased co-occurrence of obesity in children and adults with ADHD [ 63 , 64 ], albeit with no difference between males and females.

Consensus meeting attendees highlighted the co-occurrence of somatic symptoms such as pain and fatigue with ADHD in females, based on clinical observation. There is little available research on sex differences in the prevalence of somatic symptoms such as pain and fatigue in people with ADHD. However, elevated ADHD symptoms have been reported in clinical cohorts with fibromyalgia [ 65 ], and chronic fatigue syndrome [ 66 ].

Young people with ADHD are at greater risk for tobacco and alcohol use in mid adolescence [ 67 ]. In adulthood they are more likely to become smokers [ 68 ], engage in higher rates of substance use [ 69 ] and develop alcohol and drug use disorders [ 70 ]. A prospective follow-up study of a nationwide birth cohort using Danish registry data reported that ADHD increased the risk of all substance use disorder (SUD) outcomes [ 71 ], with comparable risks seen for males and females. Females with ADHD (but without any comorbid conditions) had a higher risk of alcohol and cannabis abuse when compared with males.

Associated features, functional problems and impairments

In both children and adults ADHD is commonly accompanied by emotional lability and emotion dysregulation problems (irritability, low frustration tolerance, mood changes) [ 72 – 74 ]. Difficulties of this nature may be more common or severe in girls and women [ 30 , 56 – 58 ] and emotion dysregulation problems are associated with a broad range of impairments in adulthood, including educational, occupational, social, familial, criminal, driving and financial problems [ 75 , 76 ]. In an Icelandic study of ADHD symptoms in university students, poor social functioning best predicted dissatisfaction with life in males, whereas among females the best predictor of life dissatisfaction was poor emotional control [ 77 ].

Cognitive problems are well established in ADHD [ 78 – 80 ], spanning difficulties with executive dysfunction (such as inhibition, planning, working memory and set shifting) and non-executive cognitive domains (e.g. word reading, reaction times, colour or letter naming, response consistency). However, ADHD may also be associated with general impairments in intellectual functioning, which tends to be more prominent in females [ 24 , 40 ]. Subtle social cognition deficits, including facial and vocal emotion recognition, have also been reported in both males and females with ADHD, with no clear sex-related differences [ 81 ].

A similar level of social impairment has been identified for ADHD males and females [ 24 , 40 , 82 ]. Autistic-like symptoms, including social and communication impairments, are common in both girls and boys with ADHD, and although these present at a higher rate in boys, likely influenced by the higher base incidence of ASD in boys, alongside greater difficulties in detecting ASD in girls [ 16 ]

Children with ADHD are more likely to experience rejection and unpopularity and have fewer friendships than their peers [ 83 ] and social problems can persist into adulthood [ 75 ]. Disruption to relationships with parents, siblings and peers has been reported for females with ADHD [ 84 , 85 ]. Girls with ADHD may apply a range of ineffective strategies to resolve their peer relationship problems [ 86 , 87 ], and experience more bullying than their peers [ 88 ], including physical, social-relational, and cyberbullying victimisation [ 23 , 89 , 90 ], whilst in boys physical victimisation appears to be more common [ 91 ]. Peer victimisation has been associated with reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy, and increased anxiety and depression symptoms in young people with ADHD [ 90 , 91 ]. Adverse outcomes have been associated with interpersonal difficulties in females with ADHD including lower satisfaction with romantic relationships [ 92 ] and lower self esteem [ 48 ].

There is some evidence to suggest that elevated symptoms of ADHD are associated with excessive internet use in children and adolescents [ 93 ], as well as adults [ 94 ], but the causal direction of this association is unclear (i.e. elevated ADHD symptoms could trigger excessive internet use, or excessive internet use could lead to elevated symptoms of ADHD) [ 95 ]. Excessive gaming [ 96 ] has also been reported. It is not clear whether this association is stronger in males or females or if it is equivalent across the sexes [ 93 , 94 , 97 ]. A large web-based survey of adult internet behaviours and psychopathology in Norway found that elevated ADHD symptoms were associated with increased addictive technological behaviours, including social media use and gaming [ 98 ]. Overall however, addictive social media use was more common in women [ 98 ].

Throughout adolescence and the transition into adulthood, there is an increase in risk taking behaviour which may be associated with symptoms of hyperactivity and/or impulsivity [ 48 ]. For example, young people with ADHD become sexually active earlier, have more sexual partners and are more frequently treated for sexually transmitted infections [ 99 ]. Rates of teenage, early or unplanned pregnancies are elevated in girls and women with ADHD [ 100 – 102 ]. Pregnant women with ADHD are more likely to smoke up to the third trimester, or be obese or underweight [ 102 ].

A review of ADHD and driving reported that adults with a history of ADHD may be more likely to be unsafe or reckless drivers and have more frequent or severe crashes [ 103 ], albeit with no specific examination of sex differences. One study with data from the US National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, showed that reckless driving was significantly more frequent in men compared with women with ADHD, reflecting the same pattern as seen the general population [ 29 ]. This suggests that reckless driving is likely to be similarly proportionally enhanced in women as in men with ADHD.

Studies specifically reporting driving problems in women with ADHD have shown no significant association between ADHD and driving outcomes [ 68 , 100 , 104 ]. However, results from a prospective follow-up study of a nationwide birth cohort in Danish registers, reported increased mortality rate among individuals with ADHD; when compared with males with ADHD, females with ADHD had an increased mortality rate after controlling for comorbid CD, ODD and SUD [ 104 ]. The excess mortality in ADHD was mainly driven by deaths from unnatural causes, especially accidents. The authors speculate that the gender difference may be driven by females being less likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment than males with the disorder, leading to greater risk of accidental death.

Delinquency and criminality in females with ADHD is more common compared with their non-ADHD peers but less severe or prevalent than reported in males with ADHD [ 85 , 105 , 106 ]. A study examining adult criminal outcomes in children with ADHD, showed males were twice more likely to be convicted than females, but convictions in females occurred at eighteen times the rate seen in the general population [ 106 ]. Prevalence of ADHD in prison populations is estimated at 25%, with no significant differences seen in relation to gender or age [ 107 ].

Triggers for referral

There are multiple potential triggers that may prompt the referral of females for assessment, shown in Table ​ Table2. 2 . Some of these triggers are indicative of other associated conditions and it is the clustering of multiple trait-like symptoms that are pervasive and impairing that is informative, rather than state-like symptoms showing situational change. The decision to refer would also be strongly supported if there is a first-degree relative with ADHD.

Co-occurring functional problems, features or conditions commonly seen in girls and women with ADHD

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 12888_2020_2707_Tab2_HTML.jpg

Legend: Co-occurring functional problems, associated features or conditions commonly seen in addition to ADHD symptoms in girls and women with ADHD, presented along with age-ranges for detection. These may serve as triggers to help to identify individuals who may require assessment for ADHD

The stereotype of the ADHD ‘disruptive boy’ [ 47 ] is likely to influence the likelihood of referral and access to diagnosis and treatment. The key message is not to disregard females because they do not present with the externalising behavioural problems, or the disruptive, hard-to-manage presentation (e.g. engaging in boisterous, loud behaviours) commonly associated with males with ADHD. Females with ADHD may be overlooked and/or their symptoms misinterpreted, particularly for those in highly structured environments, receiving a high level of support, and for those who have developed strategies to mask or compensate for their difficulties.

It is important to be mindful that environmental demands (including educational, occupational, financial, familial and social functions and responsibilities) increase in number, scope and complexity with age and level of independence, whilst support resources decline [ 108 ]. Many young peoples’ struggles and impairments become apparent as they lose the family and educational scaffolding that was previously in place. Therefore, young people (both males and females) may be particularly vulnerable at times of transition, when symptoms become exposed. Increased functional demands on transition to secondary school (planning ahead, organising work and juggling assignments) may lead them to feel overwhelmed. This may impact on self-esteem and result in learner anxiety and perfectionism in an attempt to compensate. Periods of transition may therefore unmask unidentified ADHD by exposing or exacerbating symptoms, together with the development of internalising problems leading to increased vulnerability.

These environmental changes often occur at a time when girls undergo changes in their physiological and sexual maturation. There is growing recognition that puberty is a phase of high risk for mental health problems [ 109 ]. The developmental changes that occur during puberty and later in adolescence may lead females with ADHD to be particularly psychologically vulnerable if they are not able to access support.

Difficulty coping with more complex social interactions and resolving interpersonal conflict may also trigger cause for concern. As girls with ADHD move into their teenage years, difficulty maintaining friendships often becomes more marked and they may feel rejected and socially isolated. Some respond with bravado to buffer them from social isolation but a ‘brave face’ is unlikely to prevent them from feeling distressed and developing low mood and anxiety. Dysfunctional coping strategies and the lack of a support network may lead them to express these feelings by self-harming behaviours (e.g. cutting) or changes in eating patterns.

The identification of specific educational or learning problems may also be an important trigger for referral. Children may be diagnosed with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, when a diagnosis of ADHD may be more appropriate. Parents/carers and teachers may note the disparity between educational performance (day-to-day classroom contribution) and achievement (end grades).

Many young people with ADHD do not exceed the mandatory minimum level of schooling, and the problems described above may become even more marked when they enter further education and/or leave home. Research suggests that adolescent school girls with elevated ADHD symptoms make significantly fewer plans for their future than their peers, suggesting that they leave this to chance and opportunistic encounters [ 86 ]. Those who enter the world of work may find that their difficulties evolve into employment impairments and limitations. However, as they mature young people may begin to develop greater awareness of their difficulties, leading to an increase in self-referrals.

For both males and females, a comprehensive assessment should be completed to accurately capture the symptoms of ADHD across multiple settings, their persistence over time and associated functional impairments. High rates of comorbidity are typically present. The assessment process is typically tripartite involving the use of rating scales, a clinical interview and ideally objective information from informants or school reports. Key recommendations for enhancing diagnostic assessment in girls and women are provided in Table ​ Table3 3 .

Enhancing ADHD diagnostic assessment in females: consensus recommendations

Rating Scales

Rating scales can obtain perspectives from different informants (e.g. family, teacher, youth worker, occupational health practitioner) in a consistent, quick and easy way. They are not the sole domain of healthcare practitioners and can be applied (with patient consent) by allied professionals, such as social care providers and those working in educational and occupational establishments, to guide whether referral might be merited.

While rating scales are useful aids for clinical assessment and treatment monitoring, findings should be interpreted cautiously if they are used for screening purposes as they are non-specific markers of potential problems [ 110 ]. Rigid adherence to cut-offs may lead to a high proportion of false positives and negatives. There are many rating scales available with varying merits and limitations and some are yet to be updated to reflect revisions to diagnostic criteria. Where possible both informant- and patient-rated scales should be obtained. Rating scales in common use are presented in Table ​ Table4 4 .

Clinical assessment resources which are in common use for ADHD

Rating scale norms are predominantly from male or mixed samples, which may disadvantage their use in females, although some provide female-specific norms (see Table ​ Table4). 4 ). Where female norms are not available, greater emphasis should be placed on collateral information (e.g. parental and school reports). The Nadeau and Quinn checklists may also be used as indication of possible ADHD in girls and women [ 126 , 127 ], providing structured self-enquiry of ADHD symptoms and associated problems, including a range of difficulties such as learning problems, social/interpersonal and behavioural problems.

Since hyperactive and impulsive behaviours tend to decline as patients move into adulthood and impairments associated with inattention are often sustained, it is helpful to re-administer age appropriate scales as young people with ADHD become adults.

The clinical interview

A clinical diagnostic interview, supplemented by a mental state examination, should consider the extent to which the individual’s functioning is age appropriate and obtain examples of how difficulties interfere with functioning and development in home and education/work environments. For children this is usually carried out in the presence of a person close to the child, has known the child for a long time, and is familiar with their developmental history and functioning in different settings (commonly a parent or carer).

Age-appropriate, common co-occurring conditions in females with ADHD should be explored, including ASD, tics, mood disorders, anxiety, and eating disorders. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, body dysmorphic disorder and gender dysphoria may also be explored as possible co-occurring conditions. The assessor needs to consider what is primary (i.e. occurring alongside and independently to ADHD) and what is secondary (i.e. caused or exacerbated by ADHD). It will help to determine whether the presenting problem is trait-like or episodic in nature. Clinicians should be alert to signs of self-harming behaviours (especially cutting), which typically peak in adolescence and early adulthood [ 128 , 129 ]. Substance and alcohol use disorders should also be assessed in teenagers and adults. Sleep problems are commonly seen in both males and females with ADHD [ 130 , 131 ], and it is important to determine whether this primarily relates to symptoms of ADHD or co-occurring anxiety.

Since heritability of ADHD is high, ranging between 70-80% in both children and adults [ 132 ], it is important to be mindful that informants who are family members may also have ADHD (possibly undiagnosed) which may affect their judgment of ‘typical’ behaviour. The assessor should therefore obtain specific examples of behaviour from the informant and use these to make clinically informed judgments, rather than relying upon the informants’ perception of what is typical or atypical.

Semi-structured clinical diagnostic interviews are helpful as they guide the healthcare practitioner to complete a comprehensive developmental and clinical interview, whilst allowing for individual differences to be considered. For example, symptoms relating to excessive talking, blurting out answers, fidgeting, interrupting and/or intruding on others have been reported as more frequently endorsed by women than men with ADHD [ 53 , 55 ] and may be more sensitive to the presentation in females. Small modifications may help to capture more female-centric behaviour (e.g. ‘excessive talking and giggling’ instead of ‘excessive talking’) [ 133 ]. Commonly used diagnostic interviews are presented in Table ​ Table4. 4 . There are three clinical interviews that prompt the assessor to consider the presence of co-existing conditions (which may differ between males and females); ACE, ACE+ [ 134 ] and the DAWBA [ 118 ].

When assessing adults, the clinical interview is usually completed with the affected individual but whenever possible collateral information should also be obtained. This may be from a parent or carer or another close member of the family. If a reliable informant cannot be identified who knew (and can recall) the individual well during their childhood, it may be helpful to obtain information from an informant who currently knows the individual well (e.g. a partner or a close friend who has known them for a significant period time, 5 years or more) in order to supplement self-reported information with a secondary perspective. If available, reports from childhood (for example, school, social service and/or previous clinical reports) are likely to be informative. Importantly, however, it may not be possible to rely on school reports when assessing females, as subtle hyperactive-impulsive symptoms may have been missed by teachers and/or they omit to comment on interpersonal or relationship problems. School reports may comment more on attentional problems (such as daydreaming or lacking in motivation and effort).

Some girls and women with ADHD become competent at camouflaging their struggles with compensatory strategies, which may lead to an underestimation of their underlying problems. Often these strategies have an adaptive or functional purpose, for example, enabling them to remain focused or sustain attention, or to disguise stress and distress. However, not all strategies are helpful. Coping strategies may be less overt, such as avoiding specific events, settings or people, not facing up to problems, spending too much time online or not seeking out help when needed. Teenage and adult females with ADHD may turn to alcohol, cannabis and other substances to manage emotional turmoil, social isolation and rejection. Some may seek to obtain a social network by forming damaging relationships (for example, joining a gang, engaging in promiscuous and unsafe sexual practices, or criminal activities). If there is cause for concern, a risk assessment should be included that enquires into suicidal ideation, the use of illicit drugs, substances and alcohol, antisocial attitudes and behaviours, harm to self and others, bullying and assault, excessive internet use, unsafe sexual practices and exploitation of a sexual, financial or social nature. In some cases, a physical health assessment may be warranted.

With older age and persistent inattentive symptoms, there may be an increasing risk that individuals with ADHD are incorrectly diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Self- perceived ADHD symptoms, and in particular inattention, are found to increase with age in diagnosed adults and perceived symptom severity appears to be exacerbated by concurrent depressive symptoms [ 49 ]. It is not uncommon that adults with ADHD are treated for anxiety and/or depression in the first instance. Clinicians should be mindful that those with treatment resistant anxiety and/or depression should be screened for possible undiagnosed ADHD. Indeed, careful examination of developmental history will elucidate whether symptoms are longstanding and have been exacerbated by situational or biological changes, or whether they represent new-onset symptoms that are less indicative of ADHD.

Objective assessments

Whenever possible, the assessor should obtain collateral information from independent sources. This may include direct observations in a specific setting (e.g. in clinic, at home or at school). A wealth of useful information may be obtained from observing a child in school and speaking directly with teachers. When assessing adults, perusal of school, college and/or employment reports (if available) can be helpful.

Tests that assess executive dysfunction may help to determine deficits in higher order processing skills such as task switching, perseveration, planning, sequencing and organising information. Some have been specifically developed for ADHD populations and focus on assessing attention, impulsivity and vigilance in children and adults. Neuropsychological tests such as the Test of Everyday Attention (TEA) / Test of Everyday Attention for Children (TEACh), may be helpful supplements to the diagnostic process. Those most commonly used in clinical practice include the Conners’ Continuous Performance Test, third edition (CPT 3 [age 8+]) [ 135 ] and the QbTest [ 136 ], the latter including a measure of hyperactivity. QbTest scales have normative data specific to each sex (age 6-60) and may therefore be more sensitive to ADHD in females. The assessor should be mindful that an individual with ADHD may perform relatively well on novel tasks, especially those presented as computerised games providing immediate gratification via rapid feedback. Moreover, findings may lack ecological validity and not reflect performance in the ‘real world’. Neuropsychological assessments are not specific markers of ADHD and should only be used to augment clinical decision making and not be used as stand-alone diagnostic tools.

Interventions and Treatments

Prompt identification and treatment of ADHD is recommended, as there is evidence of long-term functional benefits associated with treatment [ 137 , 138 ]. ADHD is typically treated with psychoactive medication, psychoeducation and therapeutic interventions at all ages, and a stronger treatment effect has been reported with multi-modal treatment [ 138 ]. A brief summary of treatment recommendations is presented in Table ​ Table5 5 .

Treating ADHD in girls and women: key consensus recommendations

In the context of changes in the presentation of ADHD with development and ageing, regular treatment reviews are advised. These can revisit and optimise current pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches, or revisit those patients who previously may not have been suitable for specific treatments or who did not show good response.

Pharmacological management

ADHD is commonly treated with psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate and amphetamine. In certain cases, a nonstimulant such as atomoxetine, an extended-release form of guanfacine or clonidine, or bupropion may be prescribed, especially when stimulants are inappropriate or have been unsuccessful. These medications, with the exception of bupropion are recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance [ 139 ]. A systematic review and network meta-analysis recommended methylphenidate for children and adolescents and amphetamines for adults, taking into account both efficacy and safety [ 140 ]. Larger confidence intervals in relation to the tolerability and efficacy of bupropion, clonidine and guanfacine were reported, indicating less conclusive results with regards to the efficacy and tolerability of these oral medications [ 140 ].

Treatment recommendations do not differ by sex and differ only modestly by age (NICE, 2018 [ 139 ]). The overarching opinion in the consensus group was that there are no differences in the medicines used to treat ADHD in girls and boys. Stimulant medications show good efficacy for improving ADHD symptoms in both children [ 141 ] and adults [ 142 ], and response appears comparable in females and males [ 143 , 144 ]. However girls with ADHD tend to be less likely to be prescribed stimulant treatment than boys with ADHD, and are likely to start treatment at an older age [ 145 ].

The potential benefits of treatment must be viewed in the context of lifetime adverse outcomes associated with poorly managed ADHD described previously. Prompt identification and treatment may help to improve longer-term functional, health and mental health outcomes. Reduced rates of comorbidity (including depression, anxiety disorders, and disruptive behaviour disorders) have been noted in stimulant treated ADHD populations [ 146 , 147 ], although the converse effect has also been reported [ 148 ]. Comorbid ADHD is associated with treatment resistant depression [ 149 ] and regular treatment for ADHD may reduce rates of treatment resistance [ 150 ]. Pharmacological treatment of ADHD is also associated with improved educational [ 146 ] and occupational [ 151 ] outcomes, as well reduced rates of criminality [ 152 ]. Pharmacotherapy for ADHD appears to be a protective factor for obesity [ 64 ], and some limited evidence suggests that it may increase efficacy of weight management strategies (reviewed in [ 153 ]). Additionally, there appears to be a benefit of ADHD treatment with regards to substance use disorders. A study of commercial healthcare claims showed reduced emergency department visits related to substance use disorders when patients were prescribed treatment for ADHD [ 154 ].

Whilst pharmacological treatments themselves should not differ by sex, the way in which they are managed and monitored should occur in a sex-sensitive manner. The consensus group observed that prescribers need to consider ADHD presentations and associated problems in females to appropriately target what medication aims to improve. It may be less helpful to strictly adhere to conventional rating scales or focus on behaviour management to identify treatment-related changes. Instead, treatment response may be better captured through individualised targets, such as measures of emotional regulation, participation in education, and academic attainment. In the UK, all government funded schools have attainment ratings for each child, which could be examined by the prescriber prior to commencement of medications and monitored over time in conjunction with prescribing. Girls with emotional regulation difficulties (for whom internalising difficulties are often a key component of their ADHD) could benefit from measuring changes in emotional lability with medication use.

Parents and carers may not be as aware of the benefits of medication in girls, especially those with inattentive presentations in the absence of challenging or disruptive behaviour. Psychoeducation regarding available treatments and what they are targeting, provided for parents and girls with ADHD themselves, may help to ensure engagement in treatment and improve adherence to treatment regimens. Where required, adherence may be improved by using long-acting stimulant medication in place of short-acting medications [ 155 – 157 ].

In early to late adolescence, recommended treatment regimens in ADHD remain the same as in early childhood, and do not differ between girls and boys. The use of medication should be followed up over time to verify if medications are effective and well tolerated, and to manage the effects of related conditions (e.g. anxiety, depression) if they emerge. Side effects of stimulants need to be considered, particularly the side effect of appetite suppression if eating disorders are a concern [ 158 ].

There is some early evidence to suggest that ADHD medications may differentially affect women depending on progression of their menstrual cycle. Two small studies have shown that hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle (oestrogen and progesterone levels) may impact on the subjective euphoric and stimulating effects of d-amphetamine in healthy women who are not affected by ADHD [ 159 , 160 ]. Changes in subjective ratings of stimulation have also been noted in young women unaffected by ADHD in response to d-amphetamine after application of estradiol patches (commonly used to treat problems associated with menopause) [ 161 ]. Cellular and small neuroimaging studies which show early evidence of a link between dopamine systems (implicated in the aetiology of ADHD) and gonadal hormones (reviewed in 49). In a case study, a woman with ADHD showed positive response to treatment adjustment around the menstrual cycle, which included augmentation with an antidepressant (fluoxetine) during the immediate pre-menstrual period to reduce problems with moodiness, irritability and inattention normally well controlled through stimulant medication alone [ 162 ].

Whilst the evidence above does not support treatment adjustment according to the menstrual cycle, anecdotal clinical accounts were given during the consensus meeting supporting that this approach benefits certain patients. The consensus group noted that this type of regular medication adjustment may be easier to manage for adult women who can take more control of their dosing, rather than adolescent girls who tend to respond better to routine. There were also anecdotal accounts of symptom exacerbation in women during the post-menopausal period. During this time physicians may consider the use of hormone replacement therapy, if deemed beneficial.

As hormonal changes take place during puberty, the postpartum period and the menopause, patients may report changes in their symptoms and re-evaluation of treatment regimens may be helpful. It may be advised that women track their symptoms during these periods to establish patterns which may help support changes to the medication regimen when reviewed by their physician.

There is no evidence to indicate that females in either early, middle or later adulthood should be treated any differently with respect to specific medicines for ADHD symptoms. However, given the complex clinical picture of many adults with ADHD, particularly with regards to the presence of comorbid conditions, prescribers need to be mindful of potential interactions with other drugs. If ADHD treatment improves co-morbid conditions, medication regimens could potentially be simplified.

Women with ADHD are highly likely to suffer from mental illness and SUDs. Clinicians need to be mindful of, and discuss with their patients, the risks around alcohol and drug use whilst on ADHD medications. Affective symptoms (most commonly emotional lability or volatility) associated with ADHD, may be misattributed to depressive disorders. For women with ADHD in whom depressive mood symptoms are apparent but not pervasive, it is advisable to treat the ADHD symptoms first and monitor for improvement. A more consistent low mood may be due to demoralization driven by ADHD and its functional impairments, and may improve with ADHD medication.

Symptoms or problems experienced by women with ADHD may also overlap with those indicating a personality disorder, such as BPD. Careful consideration is required to establish the underlying condition(s). This will have follow-on implications for treatments, which differ significantly between personality disorders and ADHD. Biosocial theory suggests that BPD may arise as a function of the interaction of early vulnerabilities (impulsivity and heightened emotional sensitivity) with the environment [ 163 ]. If ADHD symptomatology may predispose individuals to later personality disorders [ 164 ], it is possible that early detection and appropriate treatment could prevent the later development of these conditions [ 165 ]. However, there is no clear empirical evidence supporting this hypothesis at present [ 109 ].

Historically, prescribing ADHD medication during pregnancy or breastfeeding was not advised due to a lack of evidence for safety and risks of unknown adverse effects to the baby. However, a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis reported that exposure to ADHD medication during pregnancy does not appear to be associated with serious adverse maternal or neonatal outcomes [ 166 ]. Nevertheless, the group were cautious regarding this outcome and considered that until these findings have been robustly replicated, prescribing ADHD medication during pregnancy or breastfeeding should be avoided. There may be situations however where risks of not treating ADHD may outweigh potential risks to the foetus and continued prescribing may be necessary subject to more careful obstetric monitoring. In this case, women with ADHD need to be informed of these risks.

Women may find their ADHD symptoms worsen or become particularly difficult to manage while breastfeeding given additional life pressures that occur in the presence of a new baby. Whilst it may be possible to use short acting stimulant medication, timed around breastfeeding to minimise transfer between mother and child [ 167 ], there is minimal scientific evidence to support this approach, and it would be generally safer to advise the cessation of medications during this period altogether. Where ADHD medication is necessary, then an alternative to breastfeeding is needed to minimise any risk to the baby.

Prescribers should be aware that mothers with ADHD may experience difficulties in managing their own symptoms alongside the increased demands from family life, and these difficulties may be augmented by the presence of ADHD in their own children. They may benefit from more frequent evaluations of ancillary support requirements and/or a careful review of medication dosage.

Non-pharmacological management

A number of meta-analyses of data from child and adolescent samples have shown that non-pharmacological interventions targeting cognitive processes show small to moderate effects on ADHD symptom outcomes when rated by individuals who are close to the treatment setting (often parents), but that effects become attenuated or non-significant when outcomes are obtained from individuals who are blinded to the interventions (often teachers) or adequately controlled active or sham conditions [ 168 – 170 ]. Research has documented this effect for specific interventions such as cognitive training (for example, training of attention, memory, inhibitory functions) [ 169 ], and neurofeedback [ 170 ] - although more recent research suggests that effects of neurofeedback are more modest rather than absent when assessed by probably blinded evaluators [ 171 ].

Meta-analyses also show potentially more promising outcomes from non-pharmacological interventions that target behaviours and outcomes beyond ADHD symptoms alone in children and adolescents, with ADHD intervention in children producing a moderate effect on parent stress [ 172 ], and organisational skills interventions which resulted improved ratings from both parents and teachers and with modest improvement in academic function [ 173 ]. Behavioural interventions were found to have a moderate positive effects on a range of outcomes including changes in parenting and conduct problems, even when rated by blinded assessors [ 174 ].

Meta analyses also indicate more promising results from cognitive behavioural therapy, and mindfulness interventions on ADHD symptoms in studies with primarily adult samples, albeit without comparisons from blinded raters [ 175 , 176 ]. Benefits of non-pharmacological treatments in adults are also shown to range beyond improvements in ADHD symptoms, as shown in a recent report from a psychological intervention programme in adults with high levels of ADHD symptoms across three municipalities in Denmark. Participant outcomes were compared with matched controls receiving ‘treatment as usual’ drawn from the Danish Registers at 6 and 12 months post-treatment follow-up. The study showed that participation in the programme was associated with increased employment, education rates and reduced use of cash benefits and social services [ 177 ]

The efficacy of a psychological approach varies across the lifespan and the content of treatment should be tailored to meet the individual presentations and needs of individuals with ADHD [ 178 ]. Regular review of how a person is coping may be especially important at times of key transitions. Since the needs of females with ADHD differ considerably as they mature, the goals of treatment are presented across three age ranges: primary age (5-11 years), secondary age (12-18 years) and adulthood (age 18+).

Primary age

ADHD often places a significant psychological, emotional, and economic burden on families as well as the individual; increased stress and discord in the family unit has been reported [ 179 , 180 ]. Where ADHD affects females, it is also more common in their family members [ 33 , 34 ], resulting in bidirectional effects of ADHD in the mother-child relationship. The aim of non-pharmacological interventions therefore is to support individuals with ADHD and their families to develop and/or improve skills and coping strategies. Psychoeducation and psychological interventions directed at both patient and family are needed to achieve this, as they provide the tools to make helpful changes and achieve positive immediate and long-term functional outcomes.

There are two types of parenting intervention that may be offered to parents/carers in this age-group: (1) parent/carer support interventions, where people can meet and share experiences with others, and (2) parent/carer mediated interventions, sometimes referred to as ‘parent training’. The latter is an indirect intervention as the parent/carer is taught to deliver interventions to their child. Ideally both approaches should integrate a psychoeducational component as this is likely to lead to better outcomes.

Psychoeducation and interventions for girls in this age group should include discussion about the difficulties and challenges they will face at home, in school and in social activities - and how they may respond. At school this may relate to difficulty with sustaining attention, organisation, time management, planning activities, prioritising and organising tasks. They may also require generic skills for coping with interpersonal difficulties and/or social events, conflict management, emotional lability, anxiety and feelings of distress. Some girls may need interventions to address discrete problems, including sleep problems [ 131 ], enuresis [ 181 ], bullying [ 89 , 90 ] and repetitive behaviours such as nail biting [ 182 ]. It is important to emphasise that problems may be less overt in females with ADHD compared with boys due to them being less boisterous and hyperactive, yet their struggles with impulse control may manifest in a different way such as blurting out hurtful things to friends and family in anger, or deliberately self-harming behaviours.

Both group and individual sessions working directly with the child may be helpful additions to parent/carer mediated treatments, although individual treatments may be more appropriate for those with severe symptoms, intellectual limitations and/or those who are unable to tolerate group sessions (e.g. due to lack of confidence, poor social communication). Two specific programmes have been developed for young children with cognitive, emotional, social and/or behavioural problems; one for individual delivery [ 183 ] and the other for group delivery [ 184 , 185 ].

Secondary age

As children mature, they are more likely to receive direct interventions without input from their parents or carers. The best mode of psychological treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) together with psychoeducation (which can be provided to both patients and parent/carers together or independently). Parents and carers need to be aware of the elevated risk of deliberate self-harming behaviour (e.g. cutting), eating disorders, substance abuse, risk-taking behaviours, and vulnerability to exploitation in teenage girls with ADHD. Thus psychoeducation should include indicators that problems of this nature may be developing.

The focus of treatment in this age group should include information and guidance on the need for adherence to medication. There is evidence that adherence to pharmacotherapy declines in the teenage years, although adherence appears to be modestly better in girls than in boys [ 155 , 157 , 186 ]. These changes have been attributed to adverse effects, sub-optimal response, reduction in parent supervision, increased need for autonomy, and social stigma associated with ADHD diagnosis and taking medication [ 155 , 156 ]. It is important to provide psychoeducation to encourage young people with ADHD to understand and take ownership of their diagnosis and treatment, rather than feeling it has been imposed on them. Those diagnosed with ADHD for the first time in their teenage years are likely to require different intervention strategies to those who have been treated pharmacologically earlier in childhood. For example, psychoeducation should include information on the purposes and benefits of particular medications, as well as strategies around self-management.

Problems presenting in younger childhood often become more marked with age due to increasing academic and social expectations. These are important years in terms of a young person’s education and interventions can help to support executive function (e.g. improving skills to address problems with time management, focus, sustaining attention, organisation and planning) which may in turn support their coping in secondary schooling. Teenage girls may particularly benefit from treatment aimed at improving self-concept and identity. This may be achieved by unpacking the association between ADHD, lack of achievement, poor self-efficacy, lack of self-confidence, poor self-image and low self-esteem.

Aside from addressing core ADHD symptoms and executive deficits, specific interventions should focus on developing skills and coping strategies for co-occurring conditions, such as managing poor emotional regulation, low mood and anxiety, controlling the impulse to deliberately self-harm (including skin picking and cutting), eating for pleasure or restricting food. Additional support for new skills required in teenage years, such as managing money, may also be helpful.

In adolescence, young people develop a strong focus on peer relationships and a tendency towards social conformity [ 187 ]. For teenage girls with ADHD, the desire to develop robust and supportive social networks can be strong, and the rejection and social isolation experienced by many may mean that family support is especially valued [ 87 ]. Simultaneously interpersonal conflict with family members is not uncommon, and girls may engage with dysfunctional social groups and activities in an attempt to gain a sense of ‘belonging’ and to be accepted. Girls with ADHD are at increased risk of being victims of bullying [ 23 , 90 ], and social media may provide additional challenges since it offers a public platform for victimisation.

Behavioural and oppositional problems remain elevated in teenage girls with ADHD in comparison with their peers, albeit not as elevated as in boys with ADHD. Girls with ADHD may attract detentions, suspensions or exclusions from school for their conduct or oppositional behaviour. Their behaviours may be more socially motivated (e.g. spiteful, manipulative, threatening behaviours and/or lashing out at peers) rather than overt aggression. Social skills and interpersonal relationship interventions become salient at this age. These may aim to develop coping strategies to regulate emotions, build confidence, raise self-esteem and manage peer pressure, deal with rejection and manage conflict.

Interventions to address impulsivity and associated risk-taking behaviour may be helpful. These problems may manifest in early onset of sexual behaviour. The desire to be accepted into a peer network may be a motivating factor. Girls with ADHD are more likely to be pressurised into sex or engage in risky sexual behaviour. They are also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation or perceived exhibitionism (including internet grooming, ‘sexting’ and posting inappropriate content [ 188 ]). This may result in disproportionate social stigma for adolescents and young women with ADHD, in the face of violations of social expectations of female sexuality (where promiscuity may enhance male but damage female reputations). As girls become sexually active, the need for contraception should be discussed.

Impulsive behaviour is also associated with substance misuse. The risks around substance use and interactions with ADHD medication, including risks for addiction, need to be discussed.

Considerations around pregnancy, the post-partum period and parenting may also be required, since rates of early pregnancy are higher in girls with ADHD. Early pregnancy, may load additional stress and impairment on young girls with ADHD. The consensus group noted difficulties in young ADHD mothers not only in relation to child discipline and behaviour management, but also in relation to the organisational demands of parenting (for example, ensuring bottles are washed, medical and other appointments are kept, child’s clothes are cleaned).

Both individual and group CBT interventions will be helpful in this age-group, the latter providing the opportunity to meet and talk to others who have similar experiences as well as acquire and rehearse social skills in a contained environment.

Many of the functional problems experienced by women with ADHD in relation to educational, social, and risk-related behaviours are a continuation of those present in their teenage years. In adulthood, psychoeducation and CBT interventions should continue to address core ADHD symptoms, executive dysfunction, comorbid conditions and dysfunctional strategies (e.g. substance abuse, deliberate self-harm). However, specific attention may be required to address the more complex situations adult females may face, e.g. multitasking occupational demands, home management and family/parenting responsibilities. It is important to encourage the patient to identify and focus on their strengths and positive attributes rather than solely on perceived weaknesses and failures.

Interventions need to address the potential for women with ADHD to be vulnerable in terms of their sexual behaviour and relationships, to support their sexual health and safety. Social stigma associated with risky sexual behaviour in women may augment social problems and limit occupational opportunities. In combination with low self-esteem, this may render women with ADHD vulnerable to sexual harassment, exploitation, and/or abusive or inappropriate relationships. The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity household survey conducted in England found that 27% of females who experienced extensive physical and sexual violence had ADHD traits [ 189 ].

The bulk of household, and parental and caring duties are often borne by women [ 190 – 192 ], reflecting social and cultural constraints and expectations. These may result in increased impairment and anxiety in relation to these roles and duties in women compared with men. The consensus group identified that the demands placed on mothers often differ from those of fathers and that low self-esteem may be related to perceived failure to reach societal expectations. Mothers may lack confidence or experience feelings of guilt over their perceived inadequacy as a parent. Dysfunctional beliefs of this nature may be reinforced if they have a difficult-to-manage child with ADHD and are offered ‘parent training’ interventions. The group acknowledged that the term ‘parent training’ is unhelpful and may be perceived as pejorative.

However, at the same time harsh, lax or negative parenting styles have been identified to be elevated in mothers with ADHD [ 193 ]. Mothers with ADHD may benefit from life skills coaching, guidance and support in parenting, including ancillary support around parenting strategies. This may be particularly helpful for more vulnerable mothers: those that are young, are sole caregivers for their children, and/or are parenting a child with ADHD. Tailored assessments, support plans and social interventions may help to improve outcomes for this vulnerable group.

Women with ADHD may experience problems in the workplace, such as disorganisation, forgetfulness, inattention, accepting constructive criticism and appraisal, and difficulties managing interpersonal relationships with colleagues. This is likely to be exacerbated in the presence of concurrent intellectual dysfunction and/or other comorbidity. For these types of problems, often a group intervention is helpful and cost-effective. However the decision of whether a group or individualised approach is preferable should be based on careful formulation and individual need. Women may also benefit from targeted support in managing feelings of stress and distress, managing and regulating emotions, coping with rejection and/or feelings of isolation, managing interpersonal conflict, assertiveness training, compromise and negotiation steps, which may help to improve their occupational outcomes and their ability to cope with everyday social interactions.

Multi-agency liaison

This section addresses issues that arise at a broader institutional level. Primarily, support for females with ADHD may be improved through the psychoeducation and training of individuals who work within these institutions. Some may act as referral gatekeepers and, as such, they have the potential to support or hinder the referral process and to positively or negatively influence the progress of young people and adults within these institutions. A brief summary of multi-agency liaison recommendations is presented in Table ​ Table6 6 .

Multi-agency liaison for ADHD in girls and women: key recommendations

Educational considerations and adjustments

ADHD is associated with low educational attainment and academic underachievement [ 99 , 146 , 195 ]. Interventions should focus on supporting attendance and engagement with education to avoid early school leaving, diminished educational attainment, and associated vulnerabilities. Since ADHD is classified as a disability under the UK Equality Act [ 196 ], reasonable adjustments to education provision are mandated (examples may include: additional examination time, academic coaching, rest-breaks during examination, or possibility for part-time study [ 197 ]). Research suggests that simple interventions, including physical adjustments (table set-up, creating a time-out corner), and behaviour management techniques, as well as joint goal setting with primary age children, can help to improve ADHD symptoms, social and emotional functioning, and reduce conduct problems in the classroom [ 198 ]. However, adjustments cannot be put in place unless ADHD is first recognised and diagnosed.

Young people affected by ADHD are at increased risk for repeating grades, dropping out of high school, being suspended or expelled, and failing to obtain school or higher education qualifications [ 85 , 99 , 199 ]. Maintaining strong links with school is key to promoting adolescent health and social development [ 110 ]. Whilst early or unplanned pregnancy is associated with a reduction in educational and occupational opportunities, school achievement problems in adolescent girls with ADHD have also been shown to predate and predict risky sexual behaviour and unplanned pregnancy [ 200 ]. The consensus group noted that exclusion, truancy and school phobia are associated with increased vulnerability of teenage girls with ADHD in relation to later substance misuse, antisocial behaviour, criminality, sexual exploitation and early pregnancy. There is a danger that punitive measures may be harsher for girls who display hyperactive or disruptive symptoms, due to this behaviour constituting a greater violation of social norms and expectations. Excessive punitive measures can lead to loss of engagement with education. Disciplinary problems (e.g. suspensions, verbal or written warnings or expulsions) predict earlier discontinuation of education in boys with ADHD [ 201 ], although disciplinary problems are less commonly reported in girls [ 85 ].

Externalising conditions have a stronger impact on behaviour in class, whilst internalising problems may impact on motivation and ability to engage in education. Girls with ADHD may present as easily distracted, disorganised, overwhelmed and lacking in effort or motivation. Inattention is more highly predictive of educational under-achievement compared with hyperactivity [ 202 , 203 ]. Females who are more likely to have the diagnosis missed or misdiagnosed, may be particularly disadvantaged since treatment with ADHD medication has been found to mediate educational outcome. For example, a large-scale study of cross-sectional and longitudinal data in ~10,000 12-year old twins from the Netherlands Twin Register showed the potential efficacy of treatment on academic outcomes [ 203 ]. Children taking ADHD medication scored significantly higher on an educational achievement test than children with ADHD who did not.

Individuals with ADHD and intellectual impairments, both male and female, present with complex needs that make it harder for them to engage in education. Many young people with ADHD will have associated specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Presenting problems may be attributed solely to these specific learning difficulties and/or ASD because school staff are more familiar with them and have a more limited knowledge about ADHD. It may be helpful for students (at all levels of education) who have or who are suspected of having specific learning difficulties to be screened for ADHD, since young people with ADHD may also present with difficulties in reading and writing.

It is important that both child and adult educational professionals have an understanding of ADHD in girls and young women, recognise its presentation and associated vulnerabilities, and have access to screening tools. Training should be disseminated broadly across school staff, including teachers and special educational needs coordinators, as well as teaching assistants, school lunch aides, and after-school club staff who are more likely to supervise children during less structured periods of the day or during one-to-one work in classrooms. It is important that key personnel avoid over-simplistic causation when assessing individual needs (e.g. focusing on their family situation) and understanding of the bi-directional nature of ADHD difficulties in terms of family relationships.

All educational staff should be trained in how to screen females for ADHD and how to make onward referrals for treatment, if indicated. School staff should be trained on the importance of early detection, educational needs and interventions and support strategies that can improve educational outcomes. Training sessions should raise awareness of the current bias towards males in the clinical referral process. Teaching staff may not be as aware of the benefits of referral and ADHD treatment in girls [ 45 ], and children with the inattentive subtype [ 204 ]. Addressing gender-specific ADHD issues, and gender expectations and stereotypes may help staff to better identify affected females. If ADHD is suspected, schools may consider adopting sensitive screening tools for ADHD (Table ​ (Table4) 4 ) or broader mental health problems (e.g. the SDQ [ 116 ]). These tend to be cost-effective, quick and reliable, and can help to identify vulnerable girls and young women. Difficulties can arise in maintaining medication treatment programmes in school and staff should be mindful that children may find this stigmatising, especially those who require short-acting medications to be dispensed at school.

Many of the training needs for educational staff remain the same in secondary as in primary school. However, transition to secondary school is accompanied by increased academic demands, and increased requirement for self-organisation and personal responsibility against a backdrop of navigating a new social environment. Young people with ADHD are likely to find this shift in self-management and responsibility especially challenging. ADHD symptoms may become exacerbated and more noticeable, triggering referral for the first time. Good learning and teaching practices (i.e. not necessarily ADHD specific) may help to mitigate many of the potential issues in the classroom by promoting engagement, increasing on-task behaviour and reducing social friction.

Efforts toward Technology Enhanced Learning or e-Learning, are likely to be especially helpful for young people with ADHD. With the appropriate content and support, these learning resources have the potential to go beyond improving academic outcomes in secondary school by improving psychosocial functioning (e.g. helping young people to acquire skills to manage risks of exploitation, bullying and/or victimisation in the school environment or online via social media and communication platforms). Although further research is required to determine the efficacy of e-learning methods for improving outcomes in ADHD, specific examples of successful application of these technologies have been reported (reviewed in [ 205 ]).

Careers advice should consider the strengths and weaknesses of female students rather than focus solely on current performance, bearing in mind the relative developmental delay, underachievement, immaturity (and sometimes naivety) of young people with ADHD. Research indicates that occupational ‘fit’ can serve to exacerbate or reduce impairments associated with ADHD. For example, some individuals with ADHD show a preference for more stimulating environments, active, hands-on, or busy and fast-paced jobs [ 206 ]. Career planning that incorporates work experience, non-linear progression towards tertiary education and opportunities to re-sit exams or demonstrate potential may be beneficial for those who have struggled to sustain their engagement in a formal school setting.

Guidance for those wishing to embark in further education should take account of the course demands involved (e.g. level of coursework, method of examination). For those who move away from home, transition is further complicated by the many challenges involved in independent living such as financial management, taking responsibility for domestic and occupational arrangements and healthcare. Moving away from home often escalates social demands, with pressure to integrate with people of different ages, cultural backgrounds and interests. It is essential that young people with ADHD make supportive links within the educational organisation (e.g. disability services or student support services) who can support them to access the help to meet their needs, and coordinate with primary health services. This needs to be planned and thought through in advance because a lack of structure and support at this key stage of transition may unveil or amplify ADHD symptoms, together with associated clinical and functional impairments. Adequate support can help young people with ADHD access additional resources. For example, students with ADHD in further or higher education can apply for Disabled Students Allowance ( https://www.gov.uk/disabled-students-allowances-dsas ), which can fund assistive technology (e.g. speech to text software), specialist mentoring (to help with organisational and planning skills) and “academic coaching”.

In general young people with ADHD reach or complete higher education at a later age than their peers [ 201 ]. This can be due to having to repeat years, re-take modules, and obtain extensions for coursework. Many drop out early due to educational or social problems, or early pregnancy. This emphasises the importance for young people having the opportunity to re-access education in later years. However whilst special educational needs support may be available up to age 25 in the UK, women with unrecognised ADHD may experience difficulties in accessing these provisions or meeting eligibility criteria for learning difficulties. Flexible learning systems and support with childcare are helpful initiatives, e.g. in the UK women with children who wish to return to education can obtain childcare support through government initiatives, such as Care to Learn ( https://www.gov.uk/care-to-learn ), and Childcare Grants ( https://www.gov.uk/childcare-grant ).

Occupational considerations and adjustments

In adulthood, ADHD is associated with unemployment or working in unskilled occupations [ 201 ], difficulty maintaining jobs [ 99 , 201 ], and impaired work performance and financial stress [ 207 ]. A longitudinal study following up girls age from eight until age 30, found that women with childhood ADHD were more likely than their peers to have no or few qualifications, be in poorly paid employment, claim benefits, live in temporary or social housing and have a low income [ 68 ].

ADHD qualifies as a disability under the UK Equality Act 2010 [ 196 ], because it can have a substantial and long-term impact on a person’s ability to perform day-to-day activities. This status can afford women with ADHD certain rights, and access to certain services. For women with ADHD commencing employment, additional support may be required regarding the decision to disclose they have a disability. They may need support in understanding the demands of an organisation, the work-role and personnel structure, how to manage interpersonal conflict, and guidance on how to manage their time, plan and prioritise tasks. Diaries, itineraries, lists, reminder notes and similar scaffolding techniques can be adapted to individual needs through a wide range of digital apps currently available at low or no cost.

Women with ADHD may experience particular difficulty returning to work after having children. This is associated with employment penalties linked to educational problems and potentially having left school early with few or no qualifications. Initiatives such as Specialist Employability Support ( https://www.gov.uk/specialist-employability-support ) are available to provide intensive support and training for unemployed people with a disability.

Occupational difficulties may be further compounded by a difficulty managing the effects of persisting ADHD symptoms on job-related and social performance in the workplace, together with the need to balance occupational demands with childcare. Reasonable adjustments in the workplace may be helpfully put in place [ 208 ] but these may only be achieved if women with ADHD elect to disclose they have a disability. This may not be an easy decision as the individual must balance the need to optimise the environment against their fear of social and occupational stigma, the latter including the possibility they may be held back in promotion and/or other career advancement.

On the other hand, disclosing a disability allows for women with ADHD to be treated more favourably under the UK Equality Act 2010 [ 196 ], and benefit from reasonable adjustments that remove barriers in the workplace that would otherwise disadvantage them. Reasonable adjustments are assessed on a case by case basis and extra support for the costs of making reasonable adjustments in the workplace can come from the Access to Work government initiative (see: https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work ). These rights apply to women with ADHD returning to work, taking up employment or becoming diagnosed at any time during their working lives. Employers who fail to comply with this duty would be liable for disability discrimination.

Health and social care

Research suggests an increased involvement of ADHD children with the social care and foster care systems [ 209 , 210 ]. Equipping social care professionals with tools similar to those used in school settings (e.g. the SDQ) may promote a higher level of insight and understanding. Males may be overrepresented in these systems due to high rates of comorbidity with disruptive behavioural problems. Females with ADHD may be more likely to come into contact with social services if they are young single parents struggling with child-care responsibilities; however their underlying ADHD may be unrecognised.

The overrepresentation of developmental disorders in the care population may be the result of a failure in existing services to recognise the specific contribution of these conditions to family breakdown, and an absence of targeted support in such cases. The group recommends that all children at risk of entering the care system should be systematically screened for developmental disorders. Social care professionals may struggle to identify the parenting potential in undiagnosed women with ADHD, and attribute difficulties more to a chaotic lifestyle choice rather than to any underlying disorder. Given the high heritability rates [ 132 ] it is also helpful to consider that other family members may also share symptoms and suffer with associated impairments, when examining family dynamics.

Social and family services will benefit from training so they can provide specific psychoeducational input to support young mothers of ADHD children and young mothers with ADHD. If deemed appropriate, they might refer mothers with ADHD to mental health services for targeted support that aims to develop skills and coping strategies, and to help them manage their own mental health and personal needs and those of their child.

The early sexual activity, promiscuity and higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases in some females with ADHD is likely to increase contact with sexual health clinics. ADHD training should therefore be extended to include service-providers at these clinics in order to raise awareness of the presentation and needs of females with ADHD. For example this may lead to better understanding of the need for additional sexual health education, including digital health education, which in turn may better support these young women and prevent sexual exploitation.

Criminal justice system

Increased rates of delinquent or criminal behaviour may lead to contact with the criminal justice system [ 107 ]. Prevalence of ADHD in incarcerated populations is high, estimated at around one quarter (25.5%) but with no significant differences overall in relation to gender or age. There is however a lower prevalence in adult women than men (22.1% in female adults v. 31.2%, male adults), whereas female youths have a similar prevalence to male youths (30.8% and 29.5%, respectively) [ 107 ]. One study reported that only 18.8% of male adult offenders diagnosed with ADHD in prison had a prior diagnosis of ADHD [ 211 ]. It is likely that this proportion is even lower for females.

Evidence indicates that ADHD treatment is associated with reduced rates of criminality [ 212 ], is tolerated and effective in prison inmates [ 213 ], and improves their quality of life and cognitive function [ 214 ]. This has led to speculation that effective identification and treatment of ADHD may help to reduce reoffending, albeit with reservations surrounding potential for diversion or misuse of medications, treatment adherence, and discontinuity of ADHD treatment after release [ 215 ]. Current best practice recommendations for screening, identifying, treating and supporting ADHD in prisoners and youth offenders are provided in a previous review and consensus report [ 194 ], with particular recommendations for support provided for female offenders.

Females with ADHD are likely to be perceived to deviate substantially from stereotypical expectations of behaviour. The differential diagnosis between BPD and ADHD may be particularly important for females in forensic settings, where a high rate of comorbidity has been reported [ 216 ]. In the criminal justice system, including prison, there may possibly be a more sympathetic approach toward female offenders but, as for males, their ADHD is unlikely to be recognised. The group noted that ADHD is commonly perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ rather than a vulnerability in this setting, perhaps reflecting high rates of critical incidents (verbal and physical aggression, damage to property, self-injury) being reported in prison [ 217 ]. This may be intensified in female offenders with ADHD due to poor understanding of the condition. Further research regarding the interface between the criminal justice system and females with ADHD is needed.

Over 30 years ago, Berry, Shaywitz and Shaywitz warned that girls constitute a ‘silent minority’ in ADHD, with more internalised behaviour making them less likely to be referred for assessment [ 36 ]. This does not appear to have changed. Females with ADHD remain more likely to be unrecognised or mis-identified leading to lower than expected rates of referral, assessment and treatment for ADHD. Whilst this has been attributed to the higher rate of internalised and inattentive only presentation in girls, this omission is remarkable, given that the predominantly inattentive subtype of ADHD has been endorsed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a key diagnostic tool, for many years.

There are specific barriers that seem to hinder the recognition of ADHD in girls and women. These include symptomatic differences, gender biases due to stereotypical expectations, comorbidities and compensatory functions, which mask or overshadow the effects of ADHD symptoms. There is strong public perception that ADHD is a behavioural disorder that primarily affects males. Hence the challenge is to raise awareness and provide training on the presence and presentation of ADHD in females to agencies that regularly interface with children, young people and adults.

The current health and social care system appears to be better geared toward identifying and treating ADHD presenting alongside behavioural and externalising problems, in particular those that present as overt, disruptive and aggressive in nature, and are more commonly seen in boys and men. It is erroneous to consider that females do not present with hyperactive and impulsive symptoms – they do. However, these are generally less overt and aggressive in nature than the conduct problems displayed by males and instead seem to relate to more social-relational and psychosexual problems and behaviours. Understanding the expression of ADHD in females is the first step towards improving detection, assessment, and treatment, and ultimately enhancing long-term outcomes for girls and women with ADHD.

One of the most consistent topics discussed at the consensus (and across all breakout groups) related to how social-relational and psychosexual problems seem to be more marked in females with ADHD compared with males. Difficulties in managing and maintaining functional interpersonal relationships hinder some girls and women from developing or maintaining a positive social network or accessing peer support. ADHD symptoms and emotional lability seem to be related to dysfunctional coping strategies and dissatisfaction with life [ 77 ]. Lack of planning for the future [ 86 ] may mean that girls and women with ADHD lack constructive activities and occupations in adulthood. These effects may lead to affected girls and women becoming overwhelmed, anxious and low in mood. In turn they may respond by applying dysfunctional coping strategies, such as self-harm and substance use.

Females with ADHD overall have an earlier onset of sexual activity, more sexual partners, and an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections or having an unplanned pregnancy. They are at risk of sexual exploitation, perceived exhibitionism or being considered promiscuous. Social stigma associated with risky sexual behaviour in women may augment social problems, and render affected women vulnerable to being victimised, bullied, harassed, abused, or entering into unhealthy relationships. Young girls with ADHD may become young mothers with ADHD (and possibly also mothers of children with ADHD). This is associated with a further reduction in educational and occupational opportunities. Research is needed to tease out the motivations and causal mechanisms of these behaviours and outcomes in females with ADHD, and if, how and why they may differ from those of males.

Treatment has been reported to moderate the lifetime risks of ADHD for both males and females. The consensus group identified where adjustments to approaches in treatment are needed to better support girls and women with ADHD. This includes more frequent treatment monitoring and psychoeducation at times of personal transition, with a greater focus on functional and emotional aspects of the disorder. The consensus group considered that multi-agency liaison will also be needed to support some girls and women with ADHD. Furthermore, raising awareness of, and providing training about, ADHD in institutions (e.g. educational, social, family, sexual health and criminal justice services) as well as the key healthcare system (primary health, child and adolescent mental health services and adult general psychiatry) will be helpful to improve detection of girls and women with ADHD, increase understanding and reduce stigma.

The consensus highlighted the relative dearth of research on the life-span experience of females with ADHD. Given the higher prevalence of ADHD in males, it would be helpful if studies reporting sex-mixed cohorts segregated data and results by gender. This would be particularly helpful in large clinical or population-based studies, where information on girls with ADHD would otherwise be buried as variance under the predominant male group. Providing sex-segregated results and data for all studies of ADHD (perhaps under supplementary data) would provide information to inform future meta-analyses.

Future research should investigate the presentation and needs of females with ADHD: how they might better be identified and assessed, and how their treatment response should best be evaluated and monitored to effectively improve outcomes. The most recent meta-analyses of gender differences in ADHD symptom presentation and associated features was reported over 15 years ago. An updated meta-analysis including all recent data is now needed. More research is also required to elucidate the interaction of hormones, ADHD symptoms and stimulant medication on functioning during key times of hormonal change (e.g. during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and the postpartum period, and menopause), to help inform treatment plans. Factors that are associated with hyperactive/impulsive symptoms in females with ADHD and how these differ to males should be investigated further, including sexual behaviours and their motivations in girls and women with ADHD, as well as vulnerabilities to victimisation, physical and sexual assault and cyberbullying.

This consensus will inform effective identification, treatment and support of girls and women with ADHD. To facilitate identification, it is important to move away from the previously predominating ‘disruptive boy’ stereotype of ADHD and understand the more subtle and internalised presentation that predominates in girls and women. In treatment, it is important to consider a lifespan model of care for females with ADHD, which supports the complex and developmentally changing presentation of ADHD in females. Appropriate intervention is expected to have a positive impact on affected girls and women with ADHD, their families, and more broadly on society leading to increased productivity, decreased resource utilization and, most importantly, better outcomes for girls and women.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the assistance of Catherine Coles, Alex Nolan and Hannah Stynes who attended the consensus meeting and made notes during the breakout sessions.

Abbreviations

Authors’ contributions.

SY was responsible for the planning and scientific input of this consensus statement. All authors (except NA and EF) attended the consensus meeting. CS completed the first draft of the manuscript. It was substantially revised by SY with further input from EF and BC. The second draft was circulated to all authors for comment and endorsement of the consensus. Following further amendments, the final draft was circulated once more and all authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

The meeting was funded by the UK ADHD Partnership (UKAP), who has been in receipt of unrestricted educational donations from Takeda. Takeda had no influence or involvement in determining the topic and arrangements of the day, the consensus process and outcomes, or writing the final manuscript. Other than reimbursement of travel expenses to attend the meeting, none of the authors received any financial compensation for attending the meeting or writing the manuscript, aside from CS who received funds for medical writing assistance.

Availability of data and materials

Ethics approval and consent to participate.

The current report reflects a review of the research literature on ADHD in girls and women, and a consensus agreement amongst all authors based on this evidence and their clinical experience. As a result, neither consent for participation, nor ethical approval for this work were required.

Consent for publication

Not applicable

Competing interests

In the last 5 years: SY has received honoraria for consultancy and educational talks years from Janssen, HB Pharma and/or Shire. She is author of the ADHD Child Evaluation (ACE) and ACE+ for adults; and lead author of R&R2 for ADHD Youths and Adults. PH has received honoraria for consultancy and educational talks in the last 5 years from Shire, Janssen and Flynn. He has acted as an expert witness for Lilly. PM has received honoraria for consultancy and educational talks from Shire and Flynn. KvR has received honoraria for educational talks from Shire, Lilly, Janssen, Medici and Flynn. In addition SY, PB, WC, PH, PM and EW are affiliated on a full-time basis with consultancy firms/private practices. CS is employed by Cambridge Cognition. JS has received speakers’ honoraria from Shire, is in receipt of an educational grant from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Foundation Trust for a contribution towards PhD tuition & conference fees/ costs and is an Executive Committee Member of the UK Adult ADHD Network ( UKAAN.org ). The remaining authors have no disclosures.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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    ADHD symptoms. Research in population-based samples indicates that for both sexes the hyperactive-impulsive type predominates in pre-schoolers, whereas the inattentive-type is the most common presentation from mid-to-late childhood and into adulthood [4, 21].