Feeling overwhelmed is normal when someone is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We ask the experts & those living with the condition how loved ones can support them day to day
24.8 billion. At the time of writing, that’s how many views the hashtag #adhd (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has received on TikTok. It’s pretty safe to say then that interest around the subject has never been greater, with awareness - and also, misinformation - running rife on our timelines.
So how common is the condition? It’s estimated that around 2.6 million people in the UK have ADHD (that’s about 708,000 children, 1.9 million adults) and a further 2 million people with ADHD are still undiagnosed, according to ADHD UK.
It’s also worth noting that research around the condition is still growing. Childhood ADHD was only recognised by NICE in 2000 and the condition was only acknowledged in adults in 2008. meaning that people living with it, and those around them, are still learning about the condition both personally and more broadly.
The same goes for those who may be looking for ways to support the people in their lives who have ADHD. If you’re wondering how you can best show up for them, we’re here to help. We ask experts in the field to break down the condition for us - from what it is, to the different types - to better understand the day to day difficulties people may experience and the useful and practical tools that could help a friend or family member (and you) feel less adrift.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, do encourage them to talk to a GP.
What is ADHD?
The condition contains multitudes. “Those with ADHD may experience issues with concentration, sitting still, impulse control, thinking before behaving, planning and completing tasks and memory,” explains Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, chartered and HCPC registered psychologist and associate fellow at the British Psychological Society.
While not a clinical term or diagnosis, the condition is often described as a neurodivergence. “This means that individuals experience differences in the way that their brain works.
“It can mean they may have challenges or strengths in comparison to individuals who don’t have such differences (often referred to as neurotypical).”
The issue is that over 80% of people with ADHD in the UK don't have a diagnosis. “It can be identified in childhood but there are many people who receive a diagnosis much later in life. For some, they have never been assessed or even realise that they have the condition.
“Being educated and informed about what ADHD is and how it can affect people is the biggest way to help”
What are the different types of ADHD?
“There’s a stereotype of an eight-year-old boy running around with ADHD that means many cases are being missed when they don’t fit that image,” explains Henry Shelford, co-founder and CEO of ADHD UK who himself received an ADHD diagnosis in his forties.
“When clinicians refer to ADHD, they’re referring to three types, which can range from mild to severe and display the following symptoms,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo explains.
As these symptoms can change over time, the presentation of each one may do as well. It’s also worth bearing in mind that due to a lack of research, signs of ADHD in adults can be harder to define and may be more subtle.
1. Impulsive/hyperactive type
“Symptoms include observed physical movement,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo tells us.
“These might show up as: difficulty sitting still, fidgeting or tapping, interjecting or interrupting during interaction with others, talking excessively and difficulty with waiting in a queue. Someone may also be frequently seen as doing something or ‘on the go’ and find it difficult to settle or relax.”
2. Inattentive and distractible type
This type of ADHD is associated with a difficulty in concentrating and focusing.
Signs include: “Difficulty with attention, planning and following conversations or listening to others,” explains Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
“People might also find it difficult to follow instructions and organise tasks, lose or misplace things such as keys and avoid tasks that require sustained effort or concentration.
“They may also find themselves easily distracted from a set task and experience problems with short-term memory used for everyday tasks as well as longer-term memory.”
3. Combined type
“This is the most common type of ADHD,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo tells us “and is characterised by impulsive and hyperactive behaviours as well as inattention and distractibility.”
Are there gender differences in ADHD?
Stats from NICE would have you believe that the adult male to female ratio is 3:1 - but is this the real picture?
“It’s important to note that research has shown us there are gender differences in the way that ADHD can present in men and women.” explains Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
“This leads to issues in how effectively ADHD is picked up and assessed. There is current research which indicates that men are more likely than women to receive a diagnosis, due to the way that ADHD can present in women rather than the fact they are less likely to have it.
“Some research has suggested that men show a more overt, impulsive presentation while women display a more subtle, inattentive-type presentation.”
“It’s important, therefore, to discuss any observations with a properly qualified and experienced clinician or assessor.”
What to do if you or someone you know is displaying ADHD symptoms
If you notice symptoms of ADHD in children, the NHS recommends discussing any concerns with the child's teacher, their school's special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) or a GP - if you think their behaviour may be “different from most children their age.”
While there's no cure, there are treatments for ADHD. It can be managed with educational and parental support alongside medicine, if necessary, and lifestyle changes may be helpful, too.
If you’re an adult without a childhood diagnosis, speak to a GP. Medicine is often the first option offered, although psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may also help.
CBT is available via the NHS. You can either refer yourself directly for talking therapy or you can request a referral from a GP.
You can also access CBT sessions through the Boots Health Hub*. And Boots has partnered with SupportRoom*, which offers on-demand talking therapy and takes place virtually via in-app messaging (text, voice and video), plus one-to-one video sessions.
“Those living with an ADHD diagnosis are unique individuals, plus ADHD”
How to support someone with ADHD
Want to find ways to best support someone with ADHD? We ask experts, and those living with the condition themselves, to share their recommendations.
1. Make sure help is wanted
Agency is key to helping adults with ADHD. “It is really important to ensure that someone would like support. Never presume. Autonomy is important,” advises Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
There may also be particular things they’d like support with. Think: managing everyday tasks, employment demands or relationships with others.
Remember: “Those living with an ADHD diagnosis are unique individuals, plus ADHD,” explains Henry.
2. Educate yourself
“Educate yourself around ADHD and this will be helpful in better understanding people with ADHD’s needs,” advises Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
“Being educated and informed about what ADHD is and how it can affect people is the biggest way to help,” said one member of the ADHD UK Facebook group.
“Don’t assume the stereotypes are correct,” said another. People aren’t defined by their ADHD.”
“ADHD can present some difficulties in managing everyday tasks, therefore, space, time and understanding is key,” said Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
A member of the Facebook group reminds us that getting to know the individual can also help you understand the kind of support they’d appreciate. “Enquire and understand about how they are. Check in and ask if they’ve got capacity to process and plan things at work, for example.
“Also, understand that they may be sensitive and can get overwhelmed or fatigued or need time to process stuff.
“Don’t get offended if they get overwhelmed and need to check out of a social event early, for example.”
4. Practical support without patronising
Giving advice that works for you if you’re neurotypical is far from useful. “Regular tricks often do not work, such as reminders. We become experts at ignoring them,” admits Katherine Mengardon, founder, writer, consultant and co-founder of Neurochicks, who lives with ADHD.
For children with ADHD, using eye contact and “reducing distractions in the environment, such as turning off TV/music/tablets or asking them to briefly stop what they’re doing while you talk” can be helpful.
“For adults, asking for a quick word and gently moving away from distractions can help with focus,” advises Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
“Support them by helping with boundaries around behaviour - what is expected behaviour for the situation at hand - and make sure any instructions for tasks are clear and presented in the best way for the person with ADHD,” she adds.
“For example: do they cope better with verbal or written instructions? Does verbalising things to others help?”
Check in with ongoing projects, says Katherine. “People can assume that we’re on course with something they mentioned ages ago or that we’re being lazy.
“There’s such a thing as time blindness and even object blindness: what we don’t see, we don’t remember.”
Doing a task alongside someone can also be helpful. “‘Body doubling’ is amazingly helpful, either helping to do a task or just doing your own task while they do theirs,” said one Facebook support group member.
“Having a confidence boost from other people can really help with motivation”
While Henry informed us that deeming the condition a ‘superpower’ can be extremely reductive because ADHD is something that can negatively affect every area of people’s lives, positivity isn't always toxic.
“Focus on what they do really well and celebrate that,” one Facebook group member said.
“People with ADHD often have very low self-esteem and can’t always see what they’re incredible at. Having a confidence boost from other people can really help with motivation.”
Those with ADHD may find their energy levels zapped, so helping someone develop a self-care practice that prioritises their physical and mental health can be a good way to be there for them.
“Regular physical movement and activity, a regular sleep routine, a healthy diet and adequate hydration are important,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
“Relaxation methods can help too.” Whether it’s joining them for a walk in the park, catching up over a coffee or going to a gym class together, helping them map out a self-care strategy that works for them can help support their sense of wellbeing.
With thanks to Christine Thomas, chairperson at ADHD UK for her input to this feature.
*Eligibility criteria applies. Subject to availability and charges apply