While attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (sometimes referred to as attention deficit disorder, or ADD), is a mental health condition that's most often associated with children, many adults suffer from ADHD. Experts estimate that anywhere from 40%-90% of those diagnosed with ADHD as children continue to have ADHD symptoms in adulthood. Approximately 5% of adults are believed to have ADHD, but many more haven't been diagnosed with the condition.
ADHD that lasts into adulthood can interfere with the ability to work. According to a research study from 2009, adults with ADHD are more likely to have a difficult time finding and keeping a job than adults without ADHD. The difficulty is even more pronounced for those who didn't receive treatment for ADHD in childhood. (Those who received stimulant treatment as children were more likely to be able to work than those who weren't treated until they were adults.)
Adults whose ADHD makes it impossible for them to work (and hold down jobs) are eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits, but it's unusual for Social Security to grant disability benefits to an adult whose only medical condition is ADHD (more on this below).
ADHD causes similar symptoms in both children and adults, including:
(As there's no adult-onset ADHD, someone with these characteristics as an adult probably had them as a child, whether they were recognized as ADHD or not.)
For adults, ADHD symptoms can result in employment difficulties, poor relationships, emotional problems, or substance abuse problems. A significant number of adults with ADHD never finished high school because of academic troubles; the lack of a high school degree or GED also limits their employment potential.
There's no single diagnostic test for adult ADHD, although recent studies of brain imaging have shown that those with ADHD do have alterations in specific regions of the brain. But for now, ADHD is generally diagnosed by a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist when a patient exhibits a consistent pattern of symptoms including inattention, difficulty concentrating, and/or poor decision-making. An official adult ADHD diagnosis usually comes following interviews with the patient and others who are familiar with their symptoms.
Psychiatrists and psychologists often use several questionnaires and checklists to diagnose adult ADHD. They include the:
In addition, before diagnosing an adult with ADHD, most doctors will perform tests to rule out other conditions.
Treatment for adult ADHD most commonly involves the use of prescription stimulant medications such as Adderall, Concerta, or Vyvanse. If the patient has a history of cardiac problems or substance abuse, non-stimulant medications, such as Wellbutrin (bupropion), may be prescribed instead. 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, including managing time, deadlines, and impulses.
Although many adults with ADHD show significant improvement with the appropriate treatment, some do not. Social Security will want to know about applicants' past treatments that have failed as well as current treatments, and will also want to verify that applicants are currently taking medication as prescribed (otherwise they can be denied benefits for failing to comply with the doctor's treatment plan).
Because there's no one definitive test for diagnosing ADHD, you need to have strong supporting evidence in order to get your disability claim approved. Social Security will want to see written documentation of your symptoms from sources such as doctors, employers, and teachers.
Ideally, your SSDI claim file should include:
In addition, it can help convince Social Security that you have adult ADHD if you can show you had ADHD symptoms as a child, even if you weren't diagnosed with it. If you can, provide Social Security with academic records from school or college displaying ADHD indicators such as late assignments, poor grades, and missed classes, or some other type of verification that you had ADHD or ADD symptoms as a child that affected your schoolwork (for instance, an IEP plan for ADHD).
Learn about getting disability for a child with ADHD in our article on SSI disability benefits for children with ADHD.
To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must prove you're 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) affect your everyday functioning, and thus your ability to work. So, if you're applying for disability due to an adult ADHD diagnosis, you need to be able to demonstrate how your ADHD significantly impacts your ability to do typical work activities such as remembering job duties, following instructions, concentrating on activities, and staying on task.
Social Security has a list of impairments that qualify medically for disability when an applicant meets all of the criteria of a listing. The agency evaluates applicants with ADHD under the medical listing for "neurodevelopmental disorders," listing 12.11.
In order to qualify for disability for a neurodevelopmental disorder, your medical records must first show that your condition features ONE of the following:
Next, you must show that your ADHD causes you to have severe limitations in certain areas of functioning. Generally, you must have an extreme limitation in at least one of the following areas, or a "marked" limitation in at least two of the following areas:
Let's review what Social Security might look at to decide whether your ADHD limitations are severe enough to rise to the level of a disability. First, a limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace refers to being seriously limited in the abilities to focus attention on work activities and to stay on-task at a sustained rate, including the abilities to:
Second, a limitation in understanding, remembering, and applying information refers to being seriously limited in the abilities to:
Third, a limitation in managing yourself refers to being seriously limited in the abilities to:
Finally, a marked limitation in interacting with others refers to being seriously limited in the abilities to:
Note, however, that Social Security often considers limitations caused by adult ADHD as mild or moderate rather than marked or extreme. Because of this, the agency is unlikely to grant benefits to applicants with ADHD under the above listing unless they have an additional mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or antisocial personality disorder (more on this below).
If you don't meet the requirements of the above listing, Social Security will look at what's called your mental "residual functional capacity" (RFC), to figure out if there are any jobs you can do with your limitations. Social Security will use your medical records and any other documentation you've provided to fill out a mental RFC worksheet, recording whether you are limited in about 20 different mental functions in categories like memory, concentration, and social interaction.
The mental RFC for applicants with ADHD typically might show that they:
After creating the mental RFC, Social Security will use your RFC assessment to figure out the level of work you can do. Social Security divides work into skilled work, semi-skilled work, and simple, unskilled work. For instance, being an electrician is considered skilled work, waiting tables is semi-skilled work, and working on the line at a fast-food restaurant is unskilled work.
Again, it's difficult for an adult with ADHD to convince Social Security that they can't do at least simple, unskilled work under supervision (unless they have other physical or mental conditions). For more information on how Social Security makes this assessment, see our article on how your mental RFC determines whether you get disability benefits.
If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your claim online on Social Security's website. Applying online is generally the fastest way to apply for benefits, but you can fill out the application at your own speed. Most individuals filing for SSI only can't file the entire application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. If you're not comfortable online, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.
On your application, be sure to include information about any other physical or cognitive problems you have. It's 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 a personality disorder. If you suffer from another physical or psychological condition that contributes to your inability to work, the SSA has to consider the combined effects of your disabilities. Having other significant limitations will give you a better chance of getting your disability application approved.
If you'd like help with your application, or you just can't get started, think about working with a disability lawyer or advocate. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. A disability lawyer or advocate may be willing to give you a free case evaluation to help determine whether your ADHD limits you enough to qualify for benefits.
Updated September 17, 2021