Inattentive ADHD (often called ADD) manifests as forgetfulness, disengagement, or distractibility, and can be mistaken for anxiety or a mood disorder in adults. In children, it may resemble a learning disorder. Here, we take an in-depth look at inattentive vs. hyperactive symptoms of ADHD.
Inattentive ADHD (once called ADD) is a subtype of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that often manifests as limited attention span, distractibility, forgetfulness, or procrastination. People with inattentive ADHD make careless mistakes because they have difficulty sustaining focus, following detailed instructions, and organizing tasks and activities. They are easily distracted by external stimuli, and often lose things. They may leave projects unfinished and appear not to listen when you speak. These are all symptoms of Inattentive-Type ADHD; they are not personal defects.
A student with inattentive ADHD may quietly stare out the window while her work goes unfinished; this 'spacey' or 'daydreamy' behavior is overlooked or mischaracterized as laziness or apathy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of inattentive ADHD are far less likely to be recognized by parents, teachers, and medical professionals, and they rarely get the treatment they need. This leads to academic frustration, apathy, and shame that can last a lifetime.
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What Are the 3 Types of ADHD?
The classic ADHD patient in most people's minds is the overly energetic, disruptive 9-year-old boy who loves to jump off dangerously high things and seems to be driven by a motor. In reality, only 20 to 25 percent of people with ADHD fit the hyperactive subtype. There are three subtypes recognized in the diagnostic criteria:
1. Predominantly Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD – see above
2. Predominantly Inattentive ADHD – lack of focus and attention are the primary symptoms, not hyperactivity
3. Combined Type ADHD – when inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity go hand-in-hand
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What Are the Symptoms of Inattentive ADHD?
The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual for ADHD, the DSM-V, lists nine symptoms of inattentive ADHD. In a child or adolescent, at least six of these must be present and must significantly disrupt a patient’s life in order to merit a diagnosis. After age 17, only five symptoms must be present to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD.
Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, etc.
Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or activities (e.g., easily distracted).
Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time.
Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, wallet, mobile phone).
A child with inattentive ADHD may rush through a quiz, missing questions he knows the answers to or skipping whole sections in his haste. An adult may fail to carefully proofread a document or email at work, drawing unwanted attention and embarrassment. If you tell yourself to slow down and pay attention, but find it mentally painful and physically uncomfortable to do so, this may be a sign of inattentive ADHD. Your brain is aching to jump to the next thing, and ultimately you just have to give in.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 2: Short Attention Span
Unfinished classwork, half-done art projects, and incomplete reading assignments are all hallmark signs of attention problems in students. Adults with inattentive ADHD despise boring work meetings 10 times more than their colleagues, and need to be chewing gum, sipping coffee, or even standing during meetings in order to sustain their attention throughout. If you are consistently frustrated by your inability to make it through long documents, stay focused during meetings, and see projects through to completion, that could be a sign.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 3: Poor Listening Skills
Students with inattentive ADHD typically get about half the instructions relayed to them verbally — if that. Their notebooks are filled with more doodles than notes, and they may need to record and listen back to lectures several times to absorb all of the information. Adults don’t do well at cocktail parties. They interrupt others’ stories with their own anecdotes, never remember names, and zone out about halfway through every conversation. If you’re constantly being asked, “Weren’t you listening?” or "Why am I wasting my breath?" that could be a sign of inattentive ADHD.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 4: No Follow-Through
For children and adults alike, inattentive ADHDcan manifest as a million projects lying around the house in states of completion — the vegetable garden that got planted but never watered; the new organization system that was assembled but never used; the abandoned sheet music for the piano lessons started and then ditched after a few tough months. If you love to plan and start projects but get sidetracked and leave a trail of unfulfilled promises in your wake, that could be a sign of inattentive ADHD.
Lost your phone again? Your keys? That report that’s due tomorrow? Since we’re often thinking about something else when we’re putting down important things, inattentive adults are prone to the worst of ADHD’s hallmark disorganizational symptoms. Our homes, cars, and work spaces often look like a tornado just hit them — which can fill inattentive adults with a crippling amount of shame.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 6: “Laziness” or “Apathy”
“He could pay attention if he tried.” “She’s just not dedicated — that’s why she misses so many deadlines.” Unfortunately, inattentive symptoms sometimes make us look lazy or uncaring, especially if the ADHD is undiagnosed or hasn’t been disclosed. Without treatment, we’re prone to losing jobs and friends — or even developing a hard and bitter persona as a defense mechanism. If everyone’s pinned you as lazy your whole life, it’s easy to start to see yourself that way, too.
Everyone misplaces their car keys or phone from time to time. People with inattentive ADHD trade stories about finding their glasses in the freezer and the frozen peas in their purse. They tend to misplace the essential things they need for living — keys, wallet, backpack, sports equipment — on a daily basis. If you have found that you need a “launch pad” near the door to ensure you don’t forget your phone, and couldn’t live without the locator device attached to your key ring, that could be a sign.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 8: Distractibility
Inattentive adults are dreamers, doodling on their notes during a big meeting or studying a fly on the wall while their spouses are asking about bills. Often nicknamed “space cadets” or written off as flaky, many people misinterpret their lack of focus as lack of interest — and can get frustrated by their inability to pay attention, especially when it’s important that they do so.
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Inattentive ADHD Symptom 9: Forgetfulness
How many times have you missed a doctor or dentist appointment in the last year? Inadvertently stood up friends for lunch? Joined a conference call 20 minutes late? These are all common occurrences for adults with inattentive ADHD, who struggle to pay bills, return friends’ messages, and send out birthday cards on time. This may be perceived as rudeness or laziness, but this behavior is rarely done on purpose.
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Getting Treatment for Inattentive ADHD
Since inattentive ADHDis often missed, it can languish for years without treatment. But treatment is critical, no matter the stage of life. Medication can be a lifesaver for some, tackling underlying attention issues while you work on coping strategies. For individuals who can’t — or choose not to — take ADHD medications, there are other treatment options available.
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Coaching for Inattentive ADHD
Coaching that targets better organization and memory is particularly helpful for adults with inattentive ADHD. Depending on her expertise, an ADHD coach can help with everything from financial planning to social skills — two common problem areas. Coaches can be expensive, and they’re not for everyone. In the long run, however, it’s important to consider how much a coach can save you in late fees, spoiled food, and other hidden costs of living with inattentive ADHD.
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Tricks Just for Living with Inattentive ADHD
Becca Colao, an inattentive adult, recommends these strategies for living better with ADHD:
Set a timer to get yourself going on a boring task.
Put on high-energy music to rev yourself up before a long meeting, difficult chore, or anything else that tends to let your mind wander.
Hire a friend to check in on you periodically during a big project. If you’re off task, they can nudge you back to work.
Change up the view. When you find yourself getting distracted, move to a different location — outside, or maybe a coffee shop down the block — to “reset” your brain.
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Overcoming Self-Doubt with Inattentive ADHD
Those with inattentive ADHD don’t always have a name for what they’re dealing with — and face far too many snide remarks about being “lazy,” “flaky,” or even “stupid.” Because of this, inattentive types often struggle with low self-esteem. Even after diagnosis, lingering doubt remains. It’s important for you to face these feelings head-on and get help, whether it’s from a therapist, your spouse, or a close friend.