Attention Deficit Defiance

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Nick Heynen often finds himself writing an e-mail, answering the phone and entertaining people in his office at the same time -- and he likes it that way.

Does he have ADHD or is he just the ultimate multi-tasker?

Why not both?

While attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is mostly associated with wiggly, impatient children, it's a diagnosis that an increasing number of adults are living with. Some find out they have it when they're young, others when they are adults.

Many find out when their own kids are tested. That was the case for Norman Green, 42, a Gaithersburg resident who was in his thirties when his condition was diagnosed. "As I read the list [of symptoms], I was awestruck at how many of them I had."

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that ADHD affects 3 percent to 5 percent of all children. It's not as well known how many continue to suffer as adults. Studies have found that between 30 percent and 70 percent of children with ADHD continue to exhibit symptoms -- which include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness -- as adults.

Many people with ADHD are angry that they didn't find out sooner. They describe a lifetime of frustration, of wondering why they just couldn't operate the same way everyone else did. Many of these people are very, very smart, and they wonder how things would have turned out if they had been treated when they were younger.

For others, the diagnosis brings a sense of relief. Finally, their lives make sense. Instead of a weak character -- as many feared they had -- they realized they have a fixable problem.

People whose disorder has been diagnosed have found ways to cope at work. In some cases, they see it as an advantage.

Medication is one common way to manage the illness. Adults with ADHD are prescribed many of the same drugs whose use in children has been widely criticized. Heynen, 34, said he was prescribed Ritalin when his ADHD was first diagnosed when he was a junior in college.

Medication isn't the only way, though. Many adults with ADHD incorporate drugs into a broader treatment plan. "The medication is a great help, but there are also a lot of behavioral things that I do to compensate for the disability," Heynen wrote in a recent e-mail. "I walk slowly from place to place and intentionally stop to notice little things."

At work, he takes special care to make up for his weaknesses. "I take time out during the day to gather my thoughts and to look at the progress I have made, usually at the time I take my medication," he said. "I also do a lot of my paperwork at home, especially performance evaluations."

Heynen also recruited the help of his colleagues to keep things in order. "I have established a network within my agency, so that people can very kindly point things out to me without having to use statements like, 'Have you taken your medication?' "

Caroline Adams Miller, a life coach in Bethesda, said most of her clients have ADHD. "When they come to me, it's often because they're chronically disorganized and procrastinate, and a coach can help them create a blueprint and stay on track," she said.

However, the most important factor in having a successful career with ADHD may be the work you choose.

Green certainly thinks so. "I have discovered over these many years that there are things ADHD people as a whole are very well suited for. We make very good hunters, troubleshooters, firefighters, police officers, EMTs and special forces members. I have also discovered many areas one should not work -- accountants, office managers, assembly line work, and any job that requires long, tedious, same thing, every day, tasks -- mostly through trial and error." Green now works for an electronic repair/calibration firm.

Heynen's experience was similar. He works at Abilities Network, a Maryland-based nonprofit group that serves people with disabilities. "Not because people are more understanding, but because my job is a constant barrage of activity." In that situation, he said, an inability to stay focused on a single task is not an issue because there are usually 10 things to be done at a time.

With treatment and a positive attitude, Heynen has been able to turn his ADHD into an asset.

"I look at my diagnosis and think that the wording is wrong, it should be Attention Surplus Hyperactivity Disorder."

Join Mary Ellen Slayter at 2 p.m. June 3 for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at

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