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what is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can affect a person’s ability to focus, pay attention and control impulses or restlessness.

Whilst ADHD can impact a person’s ability to do everyday things like study and work, there are strategies and treatments that can help manage the symptoms.


What are the symptoms of ADHD?

It’s not uncommon for individuals to occasionally struggle to sit still, pay attention or control their behaviour. But for people experiencing ADHD, these difficulties persist and can impact on many aspects of their lives including relationships, school and work.

ADHD symptoms are divided into three key areas:

  • inattention
  • impulsivity
  • hyperactivity.


Some people only experience symptoms in one of the above areas, while others can experience symptoms in two or all three. Your sex assigned at birth can also determine how ADHD symptoms present; and symptoms can change across a life-time. For example a person might experience less hyperactivity over time.

Inattention refers to difficulties focusing on particular tasks, thoughts, problems or activities for more than a very short period of time. Some people experiencing ADHD find it difficult to remember thoughts or ideas, such as to-do lists or instructions needed to complete an activity, like school or work assignments or household chores.

Inattention can lead to unfinished work or tasks. It can also result in switching between tasks without completing any of them. This can make it challenging to concentrate on something that requires mental effort over a longer period of time.

Impulsivity is experienced as difficulty controlling or stopping the urges or impulses that an individual may think or feel. It can lead to difficulties waiting. Often the time between the thought or feeling (impulse) and the action is very rapid. This can make it difficult for the person to notice or think about what they are doing. For example, they might feel frustrated about waiting their turn in conversation and end up interrupting others.

Hyperactivity can appear as restlessness. A person may experience a strong need to talk and move around a lot. Some people have described this experience as a feeling of having a motor driving them that won’t stop or slow down. It can push them to keep moving or talking regardless of whether they’re tired or not. This internal drive to move and talk can also involve making lots of noise and using lots of energy. This can make it hard to participate in games, activities or interactions calmly.  

How might ADHD affect other areas of life?

People experiencing ADHD can find it challenging to meet expectations in relationships, at home, school or at work. This can impact how a person feels about themselves and how they’re treated by others. This can lead to changes in mood and to worrying and it’s not uncommon for depression and anxiety to occur alongside ADHD, or for a person to use alcohol and other drugs to cope with the symptoms.

Some young people who experience ADHD symptoms may also experience some early speech or communication problems. This may relate to differences in the way the brain is processing information and working.


What causes ADHD?

Research suggests that one in 20 children experience ADHD in Australia, with symptoms starting in childhood. It’s believed that ADHD is caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. Despite comments in the media, there is no research to support the idea that ADHD is caused by too much sugar or TV.


What can I do to help manage my ADHD?

Experiencing symptoms of ADHD can be challenging, but there are some good strategies to help manage the symptoms.

Using diaries, phones or apps that support task or time management can help you remember things and keep on track with getting things done.

You might find that you have better attention or less hyperactivity during certain times of the day. This could be a good time to try scheduling tasks or activities that need sustained mental effort.

You could speak to a school counsellor or other health professional to help modify activities, timelines and expectations at school or work. Being allowed longer timelines to submit tasks can be useful when it comes to keeping up with day-to-day life. Some people have also found it useful when school or work accommodates regular movement breaks to cope with hyperactivity.


Getting help

Sometimes it can feel difficult to let people know what is happening in our lives, we might worry about how the other person will react. But talking to someone you trust – like a friend, family member, teacher, an Elder, or school counsellor – is the first step you can take towards supporting yourself and getting help. Seeing a GP or a health professional like those at headspace centres can also help.

It’s important to find out if the symptoms you are experiencing are caused by something else which might need different treatment. Some other disorders that can be commonly diagnosed alongside ADHD and share some symptoms are oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder and bipolar disorder.

ADHD requires specialist multidisciplinary ongoing assessment and treatment. Medication is often recommended as part of the treatment plan and there are differences regarding who can prescribe medication depending on which State or Territory you live in. Your GP will be able to discuss this further with you.

Some of the other treatments available include behavioural interventions that support organisational and social skills training such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Your GP can help you access treatment options tailored to you and discuss your eligibility for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a national scheme that funds support for eligible people.


Look after yourself

Alongside professional help, there are things you can do to support your mental health and wellbeing:

  • connect with people
  • stay active, spend time doing nice things
  • eat well
  • cut back on alcohol and other drugs
  • get into life
  • get enough sleep
  • learn new coping skills.



For more information or support, visit eheadspace or find your nearest headspace centre.

Some other useful websites include:



The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. 

Last reviewed 12 November 2019

Note: This website contains links to overseas services. It should be used for information purposes only


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