Can You Grow Out of ADHD? ADHD and Adulthood

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/11/2020

ADHD is a condition that is usually seen in children, especially in school-aged kids who are studying in a traditional classroom setting. But what about when those kids grow up? There’s a common belief that people can just outgrow ADHD. But there’s no switch that gets flipped on one’s 18th birthday, and there’s no age limit for ADHD. Instead, what most people describe as “growing out of ADHD” is actually due to the changing contexts that those people with ADHD find themselves in.

Here, you’ll learn about exactly what ADHD is, what causes ADHD, how it looks different in children adults, and some common ways that ADHD is treated. You’ll also be able to answer that pressing question, “Can a person grow out of ADHD?”

What ADHD Is

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ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This condition makes it so that a person with ADHD has difficulty responding and reacting to sensory input. That’s because their brain isn’t collecting and organizing all of the sensory information that it’s receiving in a way that is conducive to focusing, paying attention, or reacting properly. As a result, the person with ADHD may react to sensory input in a way that those around them might describe as “easily distracted” or “off-topic.” The most common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Not being able to sit still, especially if the environment is quiet and calm.
  • Constant or near-constant fidgeting or movement.
  • Excessive physical movement.
  • Not being able to wait for a turn, wait in a line, or be patient when instructed.
  • Acting rashly or impulsively.
  • Talking too much in settings where it isn’t appropriate.
  • Not being able to concentrate on a task, especially when they’re asked to concentrate on one task at a time.
  • Not being able to finish a project before “getting bored” and starting a new one.
  • Interrupting others’ conversations, as if they cannot wait to share their piece.

If you see just one or two of these symptoms in yourself or someone close to you, it’s not enough to conclude that you or they have ADHD. However, if many or most of these symptoms are presenting, you might consider talking to a mental health professional. For more insight about whether or not you might have ADHD, you can take this ADHD assessment quiz. It will take you through a series of questions that will pinpoint some of the symptoms that might be present in your behavior. From the results of this quiz, you can be better informed about whether or not you should talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist about ADHD.

Causes of ADHD

For the past few decades, mental health professionals have been studying ADHD and trying to pin down the cause or causes of the condition. However, they have yet to find one single cause of ADHD. However, they’ve been able to identify sensory overload as one of the main and major causes of ADHD. Basically, sensory overload means that someone’s brain is getting too much sensory input; this situation is also known as excessive sensory input. When the brain is faced with excessive sensory input, it goes into fight or flight mode as a means of preservation. The information coming from the five senses is just too much for the brain to process.

For most people, they describe this sensation as their brain “freezing” or “shutting down,” a state in which it is difficult to focus or pay attention to one specific task. Another effect of this sensory overload is that the brain sends messages to the rest of the body through the nervous system for the person to put distance between or to block out the cause of the sensory input. For example, you might cover your ears or eyes, or that you just get up and leave a room where there are too many conversations or activities going on at once.

When it comes to causes and triggers of sensory overload and ADHD, each person will have a different threshold for what exactly is considered excessive. This is because each person’s brain is different, and the amount of sensory input that a person can process easily varies greatly from person to person. So, sensory overload, one of the main causes of ADHD, looks different according to who is experiencing it.

ADHD in Children

When you look at who is usually diagnosed with ADHD, it’s clear to see that most diagnoses are given to school-aged children. This is especially true for kids who attend a school with a traditional classroom model. In this setting, the child sits in a room with many other children and one teacher. They’re asked to focus on academic tasks while remaining relatively still for several hours at a time. They’re required to focus only on the teacher and what the teacher is saying and doing, while suppressing all other sensory input. They have to ignore the other kids in the room and any other sensory input that isn’t coming from the teacher. This requires a lot of focus and attention.

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This can be particularly hard for a student who is sensitive to input – what a teacher might call an “easily distracted” student. Their sensitivity to sensory input becomes very apparent in this classroom setting, where they’re required to put all of their attention on just one point at a time while actively ignoring or blocking out any and all other sensory input. Teachers and parents can very easily see that these patterns of behavior might point to attention deficiency and hyperactivity. That’s because the demands of the traditional school setting make these deficiencies more obvious.

This is one of the biggest reasons that ADHD is seen so much more frequently in school-aged kids that it is seen in adults. It also helps to explain why the ADHD diagnosis rate is higher among students who are studying in more developed educational systems, since attendance is mandatory and the curriculum is pretty rigorous. But what about when a student finishes their formal educational years?

ADHD in Adults

Just like most other mental health conditions, there’s no age limit for ADHD. While ADHD does occur in adults and adults can be diagnosed with ADHD, however, the rates of diagnosis among adults are much lower than those of children. One major reason for this is because of the settings in which adults work and spend a lot of their time. Consider the differences between a traditional classroom setting and a typical workplace. For the most part, a job won’t require an adult to sit passively and absorb information from a single source of sensory input while actively ignoring and trying to push back all other sensory input. Instead, most jobs require reaction to sensory input: replying to multiple messages in a short amount of time, engaging with several customers, monitoring the work of a team of people, or managing several processes at once. Even the most basic jobs these days require a lot of simultaneous reactions to various sensory inputs.

All that to say, in the “adult world,” ADHD is a lot harder to spot. A lot of the jobs these days require attention and focus on more than one thing at a time. For this reason, a person might not notice the lack of attention of sensitivity to “distractions” in sensory input – distraction is part of the job; in some cases, it’s the job itself! This helps to explain why so many fewer adults who work are diagnosed with ADHD, and why so many people with ADHD stop the treatments that they may have been using during their school days.

Even outside of the workplace, adults with ADHD tend to take up hobbies and interests that don’t require a long time focusing on one single input. Instead, they usually choose hobbies and activities that encourage the reaction to multiple sensory inputs in rapid succession (such as video games or contact team sports), managing several processes (such as cooking), or learning and growing in new, concrete skills (such as handiwork, musical instruments, or knitting). So, even in their personal lives, while ADHD may still impact an adult’s life, they tend to have more say in how they spend their time, unlike children.

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Physical exercise is also a great activity for adults with ADHD. In recent studies, researchers found that exercising was an excellent way for adults to manage the symptoms of their ADHD throughout the day. The key to these workouts, though, was doing them intentionally and throughout the day. So, between the adult work environment, the hobbies that they choose, and their commitment to exercise, the symptoms of ADHD in adults are much less noticeable than they are in children.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, ADHD is a condition that is largely linked to sensory overload. It is mostly seen in children, but recent research has led professionals to believe that the school setting or the child’s environment and expectations has something to do with it. ADHD does affect adults, but because their environments and work contexts are different, adults are much less likely to be diagnosed since the symptoms don’t pose a direct issue to their work product in most cases. There are many treatment options available for ADHD, including exercise and brain gym activities. If you or someone close to you might be dealing with ADHD, you can talk to a mental health professional for help and guidance about treatment options.