What Is Inattentive ADHD?

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Inattentive attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of three types of ADHD.

People with inattentive ADHD (previously called attention deficit disorder, or ADD) tend not to show as many "hyperactive" symptoms, but rather have difficulties with paying attention to details, organization, and finishing tasks.

This article will review the characteristics of inattentive ADHD, as well as how the condition is diagnosed and treated.

A young girl sits at her desk, looking up, holding a pencil between her mouth and nose.

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What Is Inattentive ADHD?

ADHD is a disorder that is neurodevelopmental, which refers to the nervous system as it develops across the lifespan. It can cause inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity.

ADHD typically appears between the ages of 3 and 6 years old, with an average age of diagnosis at 7 years old.

Approximately 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 have ADHD. While often thought of as a childhood disorder, ADHD persists into adulthood. About 4% of Americans over the age of 18 have ADHD.

While not separate disorders, ADHD is divided into three presentations, including:

  • Predominantly inattentive presentation
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation
  • Combined presentation (both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms are present)

People with inattentive ADHD have a high occurrence of inattentive symptoms, such as disorganization and distractibility, but do not often show hyperactive-impulsive behaviors.

Characteristics

All people, particularly children, are inattentive at times. Occasional forgetfulness or other inattentive behaviors are not an indication of ADHD.

People with inattentive ADHD frequently display these characteristics to the point that they impact their daily functioning in areas such as school, work, and interaction with others.

To meet the criteria for inattentive ADHD laid out by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a child must have at least six (or an adult must have five) of the following symptoms over the course of at least six months, to a degree that they impact their level of functioning:

  • Trouble paying close attention to details, such as making "careless mistakes" in schoolwork, including missing or inaccurate details in work
  • Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities, such as staying focused during lectures, in conversations, or reading lengthy items
  • Seems not to be listening when spoken to directly and may seem to be daydreaming or not be "in the moment"
  • Does not follow through on instructions; has trouble finishing tasks such as schoolwork, chores, or other duties; and may start tasks but lose focus and get sidetracked
  • Often has difficulty with organization, such as managing tasks and keeping work or home spaces neat, as well as problems with time management and missing deadlines
  • Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as schoolwork or homework, preparing reports, and filling out forms
  • Loses items they need for tasks or activities, such as pencils, books, tools, glasses, and keys
  • Easily distracted by things around them or by unrelated thoughts
  • Forgetful in daily activities and may forget to do chores and errands, return phone calls, pay bills, or keep appointments

Does Inattentive ADHD Mean a Person Always Has Trouble Paying Attention?

No. While, overall, the symptoms of inattentive ADHD are commonly occurring and cause impairment, that doesn't mean the person never pays attention.

Often, a person with inattentive ADHD can pay close or sustained attention to something they find interesting, such as watching TV, doing a physical activity, creating art, or playing a video game.

Diagnosis

To make a diagnosis of ADHD, a healthcare provider or mental health professional will use a number of tools, including interviewing the person, reviewing their medical and family history, and doing a physical exam.

Interview

To get an overall picture of symptoms, the healthcare provider will ask the person affected, and/or their parent or guardian about:

  • Symptoms of ADHD in the home setting
  • Symptoms outside of the home, such as at school, at work, or in the community
  • Degree of impact these symptoms have on current functioning

Review History

In addition to current symptoms, a healthcare provider will ask about:

  • Medical history: Such as past development, other health conditions, medications, and any other relevant overall health information
  • Social circumstances: Such as stressors at home or elsewhere and social or financial support
  • Family history: Such as a history of ADHD or related conditions in relatives

Physical Examination

This may include:

  • A general assessment of overall health
  • A cardiac exam (particularly if prescribing medication)
  • Neurologic examinations
  • Vision and hearing screenings
  • Looking for or ruling out other possible causes for the symptoms

Behavioral Ratings

A validated ADHD screening test or assessment may be filled out by one or more of the following:

  • The person (a self-report)
  • A parent or guardian
  • A teacher or other relevant adult in the child's life

ADHD and Gender

In childhood, ADHD is diagnosed 3 times more often in boys than in girls. In adulthood, the ratio is close to equal.

Since ADHD is believed to begin in childhood, but many girls and women don't get diagnosed until adulthood, researchers feel girls may be underdiagnosed.

Part of this may be because ADHD in girls and women tends to manifest as inattention, which can be harder to spot as it is less outwardly disruptive than the hyperactive characteristic often seen in boys with ADHD.

Note that studies on ADHD in males and females are typically done based on gender assigned at birth, and may not accurately reflect gender identity.

Causes

The cause for ADHD isn't known, but research highly suggests a genetic link. About 3 out of 4 children with ADHD have a relative who also has ADHD.

Treatment

Medications

Oftentimes, the types of medications prescribed for ADHD are similar for adults and children, but dosage, exact medication, and frequency will be different.

Psychostimulants

  • The medication typically prescribed for ADHD
  • Effective in 70%–90% of patients with ADHD
  • Most commonly used types are Adderall (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine) Ritalin and Concerta (methylphenidate), and Metadate CD (methylphenidate hydrochloride)

Antidepressants

  • May be prescribed if psychostimulants are not effective or cannot be taken
  • May include: Tricyclic antidepressants such as Pamelor (nortriptyline), monoamine oxidase inhibitors such as Nardil (phenelzine), Wellbutrin (bupropion), or Effexor (venlafaxine)
  • Not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of ADHD, but are used off-label

Nonstimulants

  • May be used if stimulants are ineffective or cannot be taken
  • May include: Strattera (atomoxetine), Qelbree (viloxazine), or Intuniv and Tenex (guanfacine)

Medications for ADHD often require adjustments, especially in the beginning. Work with your healthcare provider to find the right fit for you.

Therapy

There are several types of therapies that can help with ADHD symptoms. Therapy is often used in combination with medication, and can be used on its own.

Psychoeducation

Behavior Therapy

  • Uses a system of rewards to help with behavior management
  • Involves learning how to plan and structure activities, and giving praise and encouragement to children for even very small amounts of progress

Parent/Guardian Training and Education Programs

  • Helps parents or guardians learn specific ways of talking to, playing with, and working with their child to improve their attention
  • Usually arranged in groups of around 10–12 parents/guardians
  • Usually consists of 10–16 meetings of up to two hours each

Social Skills Training

  • Involves role-playing situations

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • A form of psychotherapy (talk therapy)
  • Available for children and adults
  • Involves identifying faulty or unhelpful thinking and changing it into thinking that is more productive and functional
  • Can be done individually or in a group

Coaching

A coach for people with ADHD:

  • Provides feedback
  • Makes recommendations
  • Gives encouragement
  • Helps people find and apply their own solutions to problems
  • Offers practical solutions to address certain issues, such as time management and organization
  • Helps people achieve their goals

Coping

The most effective treatments for inattentive ADHD are therapy and medication, but there are other ways to help in addition to these measures.

You can try—or encourage your child to try—the following:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Adopt healthy eating practices.
  • Get a proper amount of sleep.
  • Create and adhere to routines.
  • Use notebooks, apps, and other organizers to write down and keep track of assignments and reminders.
  • For your child, be clear and consistent with rules and instructions.
  • For your child, praise and reward your child often, as children with ADHD are often disciplined and criticized more than other children.
  • Minimize distractions, such as working in a quiet room or sending calls to voicemail.
  • Work on one task at a time, and break large tasks into smaller ones.
  • Set up reminders, such as using visual lists or sticky notes.
  • Set up automatic bill payments.
  • Make designated spots for items that frequently get lost.
  • Take handwritten notes during meetings, school, or similar venues, using a recording device as a backup and filling in details later.

Summary

Inattentive ADHD is one of three types of ADHD. This type tends to present with more inattentive symptoms, such as disorganization and distractibility, but do not often show hyperactive-impulsive behaviors. If you suspect you or your child has this type of ADHD, see your healthcare provider for a consultation and diagnosis. ADHD is treatable with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.

A Word From Verywell

When we hear "ADHD," we often think of a child running around, filled with energy, unable to sit still. While this is true for some people, ADHD can also look like a child who quietly daydreams during class, or an adult who forgets to pay bills.

Not everyone who has moments of inattentiveness has ADHD, but if you find that symptoms such as disorganization, the inability to sustain attention, and other behaviors mentioned in this article impacting your life or your child's life, consult your healthcare provider to see if inattentive ADHD could be the reason.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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