High-functioning ADHD may apply to children or adults with more mild symptoms of ADHD. Typically, this allows them to function a little better than those with more debilitating symptoms. However, individuals with high-functioning ADHD still meet full criteria for ADHD and can experience a fluctuating range of symptoms.
What Is High Functioning ADHD?
ADHD is a neurological disorder marked by hyperactivity, inattention, or a combination of the two. “High-functioning” ADHD isn’t an official specifier in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V), but the term has been more recently adopted by clinicians and mainstream culture to refer to people who may have found certain “work-arounds.”1,2
High-functioning ADHD is clinical ADHD, but someone with it may have found ways to compensate for deficits with other strengths.1,3 For example, they may feel like they can’t read a book for fun, but they can complete a work project. It may be exhausting and take a while, but they find a way to do it, whereas someone with more debilitating ADHD may get fired because they can’t.
Both kids and adults with ADHD can exhibit high-functioning ADHD. Impairment in functioning exists along a spectrum based on unique brain chemistry and environmental factors. Embracing neurodivergence validates the atypical neurological processing of the ADHD brain without using limiting terms like “abnormal” or “different.”
High Functioning ADHD Symptoms
ADHD isn’t a “black and white” diagnosis with extremely strict symptom criteria. It’s even possible to have at least a few symptoms but not receive a formal diagnosis. Anyone with high functioning ADHD can experience good days and more difficult ones, but symptoms may show up as frequent stress, difficulty multitasking, and frequent mood swings.
For adults with symptoms of ADHD, their experiences could have been overlooked in childhood; this is especially relevant to girls and women with ADHD who report more inattentive or internalized symptoms.3
High functioning ADHD symptoms include:
- Difficulty multitasking
- Getting stressed out easily
- Frequent mood swings
- Time blindness or poor time management
- Racing thoughts or jumping from idea to idea
- Being overly “chatty” in conversations or unintentionally interrupting others
- Sensitivity to rejection
- Drifting or daydreaming
- Chronic procrastination and putting things off to the last minute
- Intense excitement
- Feeling fidgety and can’t sit still
- Difficulty reading for an extended amount of time or even just a page
- Low self-esteem and frequent frustration with self
Treatment & Support for High Functioning ADHD
Recommendations for adult ADHD treatment typically include a combination of psychotherapy and medication interventions. Note that there are many clinical biases in treating this disorder. For example, practitioners may falsely assume that an adult with a graduate degree or PhD who asks for an evaluation couldn’t possibly have ADHD because they belong to a high-stakes, high-performing profession.4
Medication, including stimulants or non-stimulants and antidepressants, can help lower the severity of symptoms or “take the edge off.” They’re designed to allow individuals to perform better at work by increasing attention and impulsive control and lowering hyperactivity.
It is important to discuss your personal symptoms and circumstances with your doctor. Based on your specific needs, certain medications may be more or less effective for your desired outcome or change in behavior.
There are many types of therapy that may be utilized to treat high-functioning ADHD. Typically, CBT for ADHD is a first line of treatment as it allows clients to explore their thought patterns and identify areas that need confrontation in order to change their behavior. Although ADHD is a neurological condition, it is possible for individuals to develop tools to learn new, better habits.
Other therapies, like acceptance and commitment (ACT), aim to increase flexible thinking and decrease distress.5 Mindfulness can feel like a trigger word for those with ADHD. They may view it as “hokey,” invalidating, or impossible. Working with a therapist to redefine mindfulness can lead to feeling more present without self-judgment.
To find a neurodiversity affirming therapist, check an online therapist directory for experienced clinicians who specialize in treating ADHD. A good clinician will work with you to determine your unique needs and design a behavior plan that potentially includes lifestyle changes and identifies more sources of support.
Remember, ADHD isn’t an intellectual impairment, but it does affect executive functioning and processing. High functioning ADHD symptoms can be hard to deal with as well, but there are ways to get help. Even for those who feel like things are just a “little bit off,” a proper diagnosis can provide validation and explanation.