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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Having ADD and Holding a Job

Q. I have recently been diagnosed with ADD. This explains a lot since I have had a great deal of difficulty finding/maintaining success in the workplace. My question is: are there any professions which ADD people tend to have a greater degree of success at than others? What can help me succeed in any job?

A. I was not able to locate any studies indicating in which professions individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do best. But frankly, you may be better off getting the best possible treatment for your ADHD, then seeking the kind of work you like, rather than trying to fit your vocational goals to your diagnosis. That said, what do we know about adults with ADHD and thaeir vocational success?

First, we know that the picture is mixed, with both good and bad news for adults with ADHD. The bad news is--as you may already have discovered--folks with ADHD do tend to have more difficulty holding high-ranking jobs, compared with non-ADHD controls. Even this, however, appears to vary with IQ (the higher the childhood IQ, the better the vocational outcome) and social skills (the better the ADHD individual relates to others, the better the outcome). The good news is, some adults with ADHD do quite well in the job market, even in high level jobs.

To quote from one study (Manuzza & Klein, Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 2000; 9:711-26), "...nearly all [ADHD subjects] were gainfully employed. Furthermore, some had achieved a higher-level education (e.g., completed Master's degree, enrolled in medical school) and occupation (e.g., accountant, stock broker)...the childhood syndrome [of ADHD] does not preclude attaining high educational and vocational goals..."

Certainly, with appropriate pharmacological and psychosocial treatment, there is no reason to sell yourself short. Nevertheless, you may need to find a career or job in which some accommodations can be made (which you are entitled to, under the Americans with Disabilities Act), and in which you utilize certain coping strategies. For a very good discussion of these tips, I suggest you go to the website www.addresources.org and click on the article by Drs. Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D. Among their suggestions are these:

  • Coaching. It is useful for you to have a coach, for some person near to you to keep after you in a supportive way. Your coach can help you get organized, stay on task, give you encouragement, or remind you to get back to work. Friend, colleague, or therapist (it is possible, but risky for your coach to be your spouse), a coach is someone to stay on you to get things done, exhort you as coaches do, keep tabs on you, and in general be in your corner, on your side

  • Educate and involve others. Just as it is key for you to understand ADD, it is equally, if not more important, for those around you to understand it--family, friends, people at work or at school. Once they get the concept they will be able to understand you much better and to help you out as well. It is particularly helpful if your boss can be aware of the kinds of structures that help people with ADD.

  • Consider joining or starting a support group. Much of the most useful information about ADD has not yet found its way into books but remains stored in the minds of the people who have ADD. In groups this information can come out. Plus, groups are really helpful in giving the kind of support that is so badly needed.

  • Get rid of negativity. Try to get rid of the negativity that may have infested your system if you have lived for years without knowing what you had was ADD. A good psychotherapist may help in this regard. Learn to break the tapes of negativity that can play relentlessly in the ADD mind.

  • Set up your environment to reward rather than deflate. To understand what a deflating environment is, all most adult ADDers need do is think back to school. Now that you have the freedom of adulthood, try to set things up so that you will not constantly be reminded of your limitations.

  • Break down large tasks into small ones. Attach deadlines to the small parts. Then, like magic, the large task will get done. This is one of the simplest and most powerful of all structuring devices. Often a large task will feel overwhelming to the person with ADD. The mere thought of trying to perform the task makes one turn away. On the other hand, if the large task is broken down into small parts, each component may feel quite manageable.

  • Prioritize. Avoid procrastination. When things get busy, the adult ADD person loses perspective: paying an unpaid parking ticket can feel as pressing as putting out the fire that just got started in the wastebasket. Prioritize. Take a deep breath. Put first things first.

  • Don't feel chained to conventional careers or conventional ways of coping. Give yourself permission to be yourself. Give up trying to be the person you always thought you should be -- the model student or the organized executive, for example--and let yourself be who you are.

You will find other helpful items on this website. Good luck with the rest of your life!

Other Resources:

August 2001
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