ADHD: Attention Deficit Disorder & Social Security Disability or SSI

To be considered for disability, a child must have measurable functional deficits in school or be receiving special education.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a problem some people have with inattentiveness, impulsiveness, and/or hyperactivity. When the problem is predominantly an issue with attention span rather than hyperactivity and impulsivity, it is called attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Many parents apply for disability benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for their child who has been diagnosed with ADHD, in the hopes that they will receive a monthly check to help with care for the child and living expenses. But most children who have been diagnosed with ADHD or ADD will not be granted SSI disability benefits; only those with the most severe form of ADHD have any hopes of getting benefits.

When Can a Child With ADHD Get Disability Benefits?

If your family income is low enough to qualify for SSI (see below), and if the severity of your child's ADHD meets the Social Security Administration's disability listing for neurodevelopmental disorders, your child will be granted benefits. The disability listing used to evaluate ADHD is listing 112.11 of the children's listings. In 2017, Social Security changed the title of listing 112.11 from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to Neurodevelopmental Disorders, to cover more conditions. The listing was also updated significantly.

Listing 112.11 now requires that your child meets two sets of criteria. First, your child's condition must be characterized by one of the following:

  • hyperactive and impulsive behavior (such as difficulty remaining seated, difficulty waiting, being restless, talking excessively, or behaving as if being "driven by a motor")
  • frequent distractibility (with difficulty sustaining attention and difficulty organizing tasks)
  • recurrent motor movement or vocalization, or
  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills.

Second, you must show that your child's ADHD or ADD causes them to have severe limitations in at least one area of functioning. Your child 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 (ignoring or avoiding distractions, completing tasks in a timely manner, engaging in an activity close to others without distracting them, engaging in an activity at an appropriate and consistent pace)
  • interacting with others (cooperating with others, maintaining friendships, handling conflicts with others)
  • adapting or managing oneself (controlling one's behavior, protecting oneself from harm, setting goals, adapting to changes)
  • learning, understanding and remembering information (learning new material, following oral instructions, using reason and judgment to make decisions).

Evidence You Should Submit to Social Security

To prove your child's ADHD meets the above standards, you need supporting documentation, such as:

  • medical findings, such as treatment notes written by a doctor, a mental health professional, or a staff professional at a mental health facility.
  • historical information from parents and teachers, such as teacher reports and evaluations, and
  • results of standardized testing, such as achievement testing and IQ testing.

Income Limits

Children can qualify for disability benefits only through the SSI program, which has strict income and assets limits. A child's parental income will be partly counted toward the limit. In addition, older children may not earn more than $1,310 per month at a job (as of 2021). For more information, see our section on SSI eligibility.

How Difficult Is It to Get Benefits for ADHD?

It is quite difficult to get disability for a child with ADHD. Part of the problem with winning disability approvals for ADHD has to do with the subjective nature of how the Social Security Administration evaluates ADHD. Most medical consultants who decide mental disability claims at the application level rely greatly on the subjective observations of others, teachers primarily, to determine if a child has an impairment and, if so, whether or not the impairment is mild, moderate, or marked (severe). Observations of behavior, of course, are always open to interpretation. In actuality, the only objective standards for evaluating ADHD disability claims are a student's school records and the results of standardized psychological testing. As a result, whether or not a child is found eligible for disability benefits almost always depends on their academics; that is, how they well they are doing in school.

The Social Security disability system is not really concerned with a claimant's diagnosed condition, but rather the effect that the condition has on a claimant's ability to engage in certain specific activities. For children, this means being able to adequately perform age-appropriate activities, such as adequate functioning in school. Therefore, to win an ADHD disability claim, it is not simply enough to be given an ADHD diagnosis. A child must also have measurable functional deficits in the context of school performance. If a child has adequate performance at school but has severe ADHD symptoms at home, even with accompanying serious behavioral issues, the child is unlikely to qualify for benefits.

Getting Help

Social Security is flooded with SSI applications for children with ADHD, and most of them are denied. Only the most severe and well documented cases of ADHD are awarded benefits. To tip the scales in your favor, read our article on factors that can affect the disability decision for ADHD. Most importantly, you should consider hiring a disability representative. Those who hire a lawyer to appeal a denial of benefits for ADHD have a higher approval rate than those who don't, because disability lawyers know how the system works. You can contact a disability lawyer for a free consultation here.

Written by: Tim Moore, former Social Security disability claims examiner

Updated February 9, 2021

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