Can an Adult With Attention Deficit Disorder Get Social Security Disability?

You may be able to qualify for disability based on ADD if you can prove it severely limits your functioning.

While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD (sometimes referred to as Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD), is a mental health condition that is most often associated with children, adults can suffer from ADHD, and it can interfere with their ability to work. Although approximately 4% of adults are believed to have ADHD, some of them have not been diagnosed with the condition. Up to a third of those diagnosed as children with ADHD continue to have ADHD symptoms in adulthood. Adults with disabling symptoms of ADHD may be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits.

Disabling Symptoms of Adult ADHD

ADHD causes the same types of symptoms in both children and adults, including trouble paying attention, hyperactivity, poor time management and organizational skills, forgetfulness, and impulsive behavior. (As there is no adult-onset ADHD, these characteristics must have been present since childhood.)

For adults with ADHD, these symptoms can result in employment difficulties, poor relationships, and emotional problems. A significant number of adults with ADHD never finished high school because of academic troubles due to ADHD, and this can also limit their employment potential.

There is no diagnostic test for adult ADHD. It can be diagnosed by a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist when a patient exhibits a consistent pattern of symptoms including inattention and hyperactivity. An official adult ADHD diagnosis usually comes following interviews with the patient and others who are familiar with their symptoms. There are also several questionnaires and checklists that are sometimes used to diagnose ADHD. And before diagnosing an adult with ADHD, most doctors will perform a physical test to rule out other conditions.

Qualifying for Disability Based on Adult ADHD

To qualify for Social Security disability, you must prove that you are unable to sustain any type of full-time employment. The Social Security Administration (SSA) isn't overly concerned with your official diagnosis; they are most interested in how your disability (or disabilities) affects your everyday functioning, and thus your ability to work. So, if you're applying for disability due to an adult ADHD diagnosis, it's imperative that you are able to demonstrate how your ADHD significantly impacts your ability to do typical work activities such as remembering, concentrating, and staying on task.

In 2017, the SSA added a new disability listing for “neurodevelopmental disorders,” listing 12.11. Applicants with ADHD are now evaluated under this listing.

In order to qualify for disability with ADHD, your medical records must first show that your condition features one of the following:

  • recurrent motor movement or vocalization
  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills, or
  • hyperactive and impulsive behavior or frequent distractibility, difficulty sustaining attention, and difficulty organizing tasks.

Social Security will consider any the following as evidence of hyperactive and impulsive behavior: difficulty remaining seated, talking excessively, difficulty waiting, appearing restless, or behaving as if being “driven by a motor.”

Next, in addition to proving the above, you must show that your ADHD or ADD causes you to have severe limitations in certain areas of functioning. You must have either an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a “marked” (severe) limitation in two of the following areas:

  • concentrating on tasks (working at an appropriate and consistent pace, completing tasks in a timely manner, ignoring or avoiding distractions while working, changing activities or work settings without being disruptive, working close to or with others without interrupting or distracting them)
  • adapting or managing oneself (controlling one’s behavior, being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions, adapting to changes)
  • interacting with others (responding to requests, suggestions, criticism, correction, and challenges appropriately)
  • learning, understanding and remembering information (following oral instructions, sequencing multi-step activities, using reason and judgment to make work-related decisions).

Although ADHD involves abnormalities on brain imaging, it is very unlikely for an applicant to qualify under the above listing without having an additional mental disorder. If you don’t meet the requirements of the above listing, the SSA will create a mental residual capacity (RFC) for you, an assessment that shows what level of work you can do, such as skilled work, semi-skilled work, simple, unskilled work, or a limited range of unskilled work. The SSA then uses your mental RFC to assess whether you can do any jobs.

It is very difficult for an adult with ADHD (without other conditions) to convince the SSA that they cannot do at least unskilled work. For more information, see our article on how your mental RFC determines whether you get disability benefits.

Evidence Needed When Applying for SSD for Adult ADHD

Due to the subjective nature of an adult ADHD diagnosis, it's essential to have strong supporting evidence in order to get your disability claim approved. The SSA will want to see written documentation of your symptoms from sources such as doctors, employers, and teachers. Ideally, your SSD claim file should include:

  • records from a psychiatrist or psychologist showing a specific diagnosis of adult ADHD, with supporting documentation (doctor's notes, questionnaires, and so on)
  • documentation of what treatment methods (medication, therapy) you've tried and what the outcome was
  • records from former employers that demonstrate your difficulties with concentration, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or other ADHD symptoms
  • academic records displaying ADHD indicators such as late assignments, poor grades, and missed classes (or other verification that you had ADHD or ADD symptoms as a child and it affected your school work), and
  • a detailed form (medical source statement) completed by the therapist who is treating you for your ADHD, indicating their opinion as to the severity of your condition and its effect on your daily activities.

Be sure to include information on any other physical or mental problems as well. It is not uncommon for adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD to also have another psychological condition, such as depression, drug abuse problems, an anxiety disorder, or antisocial personality disorder. If you suffer from another physical or psychological condition that contributes to your inability to work, the SSA will consider the combined effects of your disabilities. Having other significant limitations could increase the chances that your disability application will be approved.

How Treatment for ADHD Affects Disability

Treatment for adult ADHD most commonly involves the use of prescription stimulant medications such as Adderall or Concerta. If the patient has a history of substance abuse or cardiac problems, there are also non-stimulant medications that can be prescribed. Adults with ADHD can also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, or coaching to help them learn new ways of thinking and doing things that they struggle with. Although many adults with ADHD show significant improvement with the appropriate treatment, some may not. The SSA will want to know what the patient's past and current treatments have been and that the patient is not failing to comply with your doctor's treatment plan by taking the prescribed medication.

Learn about getting disability for a child with ADHD in our article on SSI disability benefits for children with ADHD.

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