Types of ADHD & ADD

5 Overlooked Signs of ADHD – the Inattentive Type

“People with inattentive ADHD are not lazy, stupid, unwilling, or oppositional. They have a biologically based challenge with attending to the task at hand, and their brains tire more quickly.” 

Woman with ADHD sitting on top of mountain overlooking lake at sunset thinking about her diagnosis
Woman with ADHD sitting on top of mountain overlooking lake at sunset thinking about her diagnosis

People with inattentive type ADHD (formerly called ADD) struggle with managing time, losing or misplacing things, and attending to details (resulting in careless mistakes), among other symptoms. Over time, these individuals may experience a higher level of mental fatigue and forgetfulness, and lower sustained energy throughout a task than do their non-ADHD peers.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists nine core symptoms of ADHD, predominantly inattentive presentation. In my practice, I have found that the following five signs are the most commonly overlooked.

5 Overlooked Signs of Inattentive ADHD

Sign #1: Difficulty Completing Tasks

The first overlooked sign of inattentive ADHD is difficulty completing tasks. People with inattentive ADHD are not lazy, stupid, unwilling, or oppositional. They are creative, outside-the-box thinkers whose minds stray from uninteresting tasks. They have a biologically based challenge with attending to an uninteresting task, maintaining their focus, and sticking with it until finished. All too often, their brains tire more quickly.

Sometimes a lack of focus doesn’t indicate a lack of interest, but it could reflect a learning disorder, a lack of clarity on what to do, or a preoccupation with something else. Sadly, it’s commonly confused with lower intelligence and general capabilities when it really reflects challenges with working memory or how someone processes information.

Inattentive ADHD Strategy

Break each task into smaller chunks to help you sustain focus. The aim is to make a task seem approachable and manageable. So, the smaller the task, the better. Before sitting down to do something – whether it’s homework, work, or chores — consider how long you (or your child) can concentrate before losing focus. Set that amount of time as your goal. Then decide how many work periods are reasonable to expect in one period. Add five-minute body, bathroom, water, or snack breaks between these work blocks. Decide on a pre-planned incentive you can earn after completing the period.

[Could You Have Inattentive ADHD? Take This Self-Test]

Sign #2: Easily Distracted

People with ADHD inattentive type are often pulled away to think about something other than the task at hand; their brains just naturally stray. I call it “Going to Bermuda.” You could be sitting in class or at your computer working. Suddenly, you drift — maybe you think about lunch, or something captures your attention, like the snowfall outside.

Many people with inattentive ADHD judge themselves negatively for this freewheeling thinking. The problem isn’t that you gaze off, but rather that, when you come back from drifting, you feel disorganized, lost, and confused. Then panic sets in, and you wonder what you missed and how to catch up.

Inattentive ADHD Strategy

If you get easily distracted and space out, identify an ally to come to your aid. Do you have someone who can share their notes or take notes for you in a class or meeting so you can just listen and not worry that you missed writing down something important? Many students with ADHD are legally entitled to a notetaker, so inquire about this for your child. If you are an adult student with this challenge, talk to the student disabilities office about possible support.

In work or social situations, identify a colleague or friend who understands ADHD and doesn’t judge you for it. Create a plan for communicating with them when you’ve gotten distracted or missed something. How can they quietly bring you up to speed? Help your child find a similar person who can help at recess or the lunch table.

[Think Your Child May Have Inattentive ADHD? Take This Symptom Test]

Sign #3: Forgetfulness

The third overlooked sign of inattentive ADHD is forgetfulness. This may be due to a deficit in working memory, which is a common challenge for people with all ADHD subtypes (inattentive, hyperactive, and combined). Working memory is a crucial executive functioning skill that acts like the computational space in your brain. It helps you retain information and perform an action on it. When something has emotional salience, it sends material into long-term memory. It also pulls up past experiences and applies them to our current situation to guide actions and thoughts.

Inattentive ADHD Strategies

We’re lucky to live in a time with a lot of available technology, alarms, sticky notes, and so on. I keep notes on my phone. Some people prefer voice memos. Technology (such as apps or gadgets) can help you remember important dates, events, and items. Use an accordion file if you tend to lose important papers because you forget where you put them. Don’t label each section all at once, but as you use it.

If you have a child with inattentive ADHD, rely on preparation. Use cues and lists that explain what needs to get done and the steps to get there. If you just tell a child to clean their room, they may not understand what that entails. If you ask a child to do multiple things at once, such as get your backpack, put on your boots, and meet me at the door, your child may only remember to put on the boots.

You want to set up children for success. To keep your child from forgetting to bring things to school, create a laminated list of items that need to go in their backpack. They can check the list before they zip up and go. Using family calendars, a daily responsibility list, or a chart is also handy. These items will trigger their memories and improve their organization and prioritization skills.

Sign #4: Trouble Listening or Following Directions

The fourth overlooked sign of inattentive ADHD is having trouble listening or following directions. What often appears to the outside world like carelessness or laziness is actually a neurological nuance of the ADHD brain.

Many people with inattentive ADHD have a slower processing speed; they get overwhelmed quickly and shut down. It takes them longer to sort through and digest information, which may look like poor listening or follow-through skills. Again, this has nothing to do with intelligence.

Inattentive ADHD Strategies

Use visual cues, banners, app notifications, a vibrating watch, or other captivating tools to re-set your focus if you drift off. For children, school accommodations such as having a notetaker or getting copies of teachers’ notes will decrease the pressure they feel about writing down everything. Giving direction with my Rule of Three technique builds working memory and improves cooperation.

  1. Make eye contact (or close to it).
  2. State your request.
  3. Ask your child or teen to repeat your request two times.

Missing directions or social cues can be especially embarrassing. (Ever answer “Yes” to a question that was never asked?) This is when you need that buddy who understands your ADHD and can help you seamlessly re-enter the conversation or share the instructions for the class assignment. For important meetings, ask if you can record them to review any important nuggets later and write them down at your own pace. It’s often tough for adults with inattentive ADHD to take notes, follow directions and listen during meetings. Instead of fighting the disorder, work with it and figure out what will help your best.

Sign #5 Disorganization

The final overlooked sign of inattentive ADHD is disorganization. Disorganization often causes people with inattentive ADHD to feel overwhelmed. They have no idea where to begin organizing or how to engage in a productive process. Reaching the end may seem impossible. Plus, it can be very challenging for people with inattentive ADHD to keep track of stuff and they, like so many others, probably lose or misplace items more than they care to admit. Creating practical organization systems and breaking old habits that lead to piles, messes, and overwhelm can be daunting.

Inattentive ADHD Strategies

Designate a specific place for things. Where do items live? For example, I put my keys in the same purse pocket every day. Otherwise, I’ll spend ten frantic minutes each morning looking for them. What type of places — shelves, baskets, boxes, hooks — can live as “home” for your most essential items such as your phone, wallet, and backpack, or briefcase?

Second, use a self-smart system of organization. In other words, create a system that makes sense to you or your child — not according to someone else’s advice. Really consider what makes the most sense to you. For example, do you want to organize your closet by color or garment type? Do you want to hang your coat in a hallway closet or mudroom? Where should shoes, gloves, and hats live? These systems should be simple, straightforward, and logical to your ADHD brain. They may seem kooky to someone else. Don’t worry! Focus on what works for you!

Honor your efforts. It takes time, repetition and practice to build these key skills related to living with inattentive ADHD. Remember to notice and validate your completed tasks, and the effort you put forth along the way. This acknowledgment encourages kids and adults to try different strategies, regroup along the way, and feel good about themselves for their engagement.

ADHD Inattentive Type: Next Steps

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.