AD / HD For Dummies
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AD/HD has three primary symptoms: inattention/distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These symptoms don't all have to be present in order for you to have AD/HD, and if you do have one or more of them, they may not be present all the time.


Inattention means you have a hard time focusing on something. Distractibility means your attention is easily pulled from one thing to another. Inattention is at the core of AD/HD. However, inattention isn't as simple as never being able to focus; nothing about this condition is as clear-cut as that. Inattention is more accurately a problem in being able to control or regulate how and when you focus on something.

A key thing to know about this symptom is that it can look different in almost everyone, and it can change from day to day in each person. But even with such variability, a few basic characteristics of inattention and distractibility are found in people with AD/HD. These are:

  • Not being able to concentrate: Keeping focused on something is difficult and, at times, impossible.
  • Being able to focus well on some things but not on others: Many people think that just because a person can concentrate on something, she must be able to concentrate on everything if she just tries hard enough. This is not the case for people with AD/HD.
  • Being able to focus sometimes but not other times: Scattered thinking makes it difficult for sufferers to tackle complex projects because they often lose track of what they are doing.
  • Being easily distracted by things happening around you: Many people with AD/HD are unable to filter out all the things going on around them and are easily pulled away from what they want to focus on.
  • Being easily distracted by your own thoughts: "Daydreaming," or having unrelated thoughts flowing through their minds, is commonplace for some AD/HD patients.
  • Losing track of your thoughts (spacing out): An extension of being easily distracted is spacing out. This is common with people with AD/HD — it seems like they have gaps in their awareness.
  • Being forgetful: A lot of people with AD/HD tend to lose their keys, forget appointments, and get lost.
  • Being late: Because many people with AD/HD have trouble organizing their time, they are often late to appointments.
  • Being unable to finish things: People with AD/HD are notorious for starting a project and then moving on to something else before finishing it.
  • Procrastinating: People with AD/HD often fail to even start something. Also, after repeated failures, many people avoid starting projects because of the fear that they'll fail again.
  • Not attending to details: People with AD/HD are often "big picture" people. They can think up new and exciting ideas, but when it comes to actually dealing with the details needed to make those ideas happen, they just can't seem to follow through. As well, when given instructions on how to do something, they often miss important details.
  • Making careless mistakes: Not attending to details leads to careless mistakes. This is a common problem with people who are easily distractible because they drift from one thought to another and lose track of what they've done and what needs to be done next.


Impulsivity is the inability to consider the consequences of your actions beforehand — in other words, doing before thinking. When you have this symptom of AD/HD, it's almost as though you have an involuntary response to a stimulus. The response can take the form of actions or words.

Like the other symptoms of AD/HD, impulsivity looks different depending on the person. Some people have difficulty considering what they say before saying it, whereas others may act at times without thinking. Here are a few ways that impulsivity can manifest in people with AD/HD:

  • Blurting out answers before a question is finished: Many teachers of children with AD/HD complain that the children shout out answers before questions have been asked. Many AD/HD adults have a habit of finishing other people's sentences.
  • Saying inappropriate things: People with the hyperactive/impulsive type of AD/HD have a difficult time censoring themselves, and they respond to other people without considering the consequences of what they say.
  • Butting into conversations: Because of the inability to keep from saying the first thing that comes to mind, people with impulse problems often butt into conversations. This is partly due to the lack of impulse control but is also due to the difficulty that many people with AD/HD have in being able to pick up on and interpret subtle signals (body language) and the rhythm of a conversation.
  • Intruding on others: AD/HD sufferers often don't know where their bodies are in space, so they tend to be somewhat clumsy. Couple this characteristic with the lack of impulse control, and you often find people with AD/HD intruding on others — bumping into them, grabbing at a toy, and so on.
  • Acting without considering the consequences: Many people with AD/HD act from impulse to impulse. They see something in a store and "have to have it," even though that item may not have any useful purpose for them.
  • Engaging in risky behaviors: Because people with AD/HD often crave stimulus, they may get into situations where they do dangerous things. Pushing life to the limits can really help some people focus and feel more in control.
  • Being impatient: One thing that is particularly difficult for people with AD/HD is waiting in line, which requires someone to stand relatively still. They are more likely to fidget and squirm while waiting.
  • Wanting things immediately: This symptom can take many forms, such as wanting to have your needs met immediately, as in the case of a child who has a tantrum when you don't come running to his aid.


Restlessness and hyperactivity are essentially the same thing — the inability to regulate your physical movements. For the person with this symptom of AD/HD, sitting still is difficult (especially at school or work where sitting for extended periods of time is expected), as is doing activities that require minimal physical movement, such as playing quiet games.

Keep in mind that most young children exhibit what would be called hyperactivity — frequent movement and activity. This isn't necessarily a sign that your child has AD/HD. Most children outgrow this level of activity by the time they're 4 or 5. And even before then, most kids have periods of time where they're able to sit quietly, such as when reading a book with a parent or older sibling.

Restlessness and hyperactivity are so variable in people that in one instance this symptom may be obvious, and in another it may be almost completely disguised. Following are a few of the ways this symptom can present itself:

  • Being unable to sit still for any length of time: This is especially obvious in younger children. As children grow older, they often develop the ability to sit, although they may squirm in their seats or, as they grow older still, just fidget.
  • Being always on the go: The classic descriptor is that people with this symptom of AD/HD seem to be "driven by a motor." As much as they'd like to stop moving sometimes, they can't seem to do so.
  • Feeling edgy: Adults with AD/HD feel the need to move and release the energy that builds up inside them. Restlessness also can show up in other parts of a person's life. People with AD/HD often move or change jobs just because they are restless.
  • Fidgeting constantly: Fidgeting can take on a number of forms, from seemingly repetitive tapping to random movements. Some people fidget to try to focus on a task.
  • Talking nonstop: Rather than move their bodies, some people with AD/HD run their mouths. Constant talking is simply another way to release the energy that seems to build up from AD/HD.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Jeff Strong is the Founder and President of REI Institute, which focuses on neuro-developmental disabilities. Michael O. Flanagan, MD, is a neuropsychiatrist in private practice in New Mexico.

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