Written by:Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Published On: August 23, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

Reviewed On: August 23, 2022

Updated On: June 22, 2023


Approximately 8% of children and 4% of adults have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD can be a challenging condition, though, because it’s anything but “one size fits all.” Though many people want to lump ADHD into one pot with stereotypical symptoms and signs, there are actually multiple different ADHD subtypes, each with its own set of symptoms, signs, and best coping tips. There’s hyperactive impulsive ADHD and inattentive ADHD.

Inattentive ADHD is characterized by, as the name implies, an inability to focus. This is a more subtle symptom than the hyperactive behavior that’s commonly associated with ADHD. The mere fact that signs can be so quiet is part of what makes inattentive type ADHD difficult to diagnose in so many cases.

Understanding as much as possible about ADHD inattentive type can ensure that if you or someone you know is living with this form of ADHD, you’re able to find help as best as possible. Keep reading to learn more.

What is Inattentive ADHD?

You may be wondering exactly what is inattentive ADHD. Even if you haven’t ever heard of this type of ADHD, it’s actually not as uncommon as you might think. It’s estimated that as many as 20 – 30% of people with ADHD might have the inattentive type. That translates into somewhere around 116 million people around the globe. The hallmark of this type of ADHD is an inability to focus, but since that can be a symptom of several other mental health conditions as well, it’s easy to see how inattentive ADHD might go misdiagnosed, or worse, undiagnosed altogether. Studies have shown that those with ADHD have weaker prefrontal cortex circuits, which play a crucial role in regulating attention.

How does it differ from other ADHD types?

While hyperactivity/impulsivity ADHD is characterized by behaviors such as fidgeting, constant motion, and non-stop talking, ADHD inattentive and distractible type is quieter and less noticeable. The child (or adult) with this type of ADHD probably isn’t going to be loud or inappropriately disruptive. They likely won’t often call attention to themselves.

That doesn’t mean the condition won’t be just as challenging, though. Interpersonal relationships, professional relationships, job performance, and grades can all suffer as a result of being easily distracted from responsibilities and tasks.

There’s also a third form of ADHD — combined ADHD — which includes symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive ADHD. Combined ADHD is actually the most commonly diagnosed form of the condition.

Symptoms of ADHD Inattentive Type

As noted, one of the major ADHD inattentive symptoms includes an inability to focus on tasks. Other signs include:

  • Being easily distracted
  • Making careless mistakes at school or work
  • Finding it difficult to complete tasks and assignments
  • Frequently losing personal belongings
  • Being generally forgetful

On the flip side, symptoms of ADHD hyperactivity/impulsive type can include:

  • Fidgeting and squirming while seated
  • Pacing around or climbing at inappropriate times
  • Talking too much
  • Being impatient
  • Finding it hard to wait
  • Feeling restless
  • Making a lot of noise
  • Being disruptive

People with ADHD inattentive type may exhibit a few symptoms of ADHD hyperactivity/impulsive type, but overall, the bulk of their ADHD symptoms will be associated with difficulty in focusing.

Causes of ADHD Inattentive Type

Like all types of ADHD, the exact cause of ADHD inattentive type is unknown. However, researchers strongly suspect that there may be a genetic factor since we know that someone is overwhelmingly more likely to have ADHD inattentive type when one (or both) parents also have the condition.

In addition, environmental toxins might play a role. A 2016 study by researchers found that exposure to lead increases the odds of a child developing ADHD. Other factors may include a mother’s use of tobacco or alcohol during pregnancy, premature birth, or early-in-life trauma.

How to Diagnose Inattentive ADHD

Inattentive ADHD is diagnosed by a licensed doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Your primary care physician or pediatrician can make a referral, but only a trained professional is qualified to make an ADHD diagnosis.

The doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist will review things like family and past medical history. They’ll talk with the person being assessed (and the family, if the person being diagnosed a minor). If necessary, a doctor might talk with teachers or school counselors. They’ll also perform psychological tests and rule out any other conditions that may be causing symptoms.

Some of the criteria used for diagnosing inattentive ADHD, according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) include assessing things such as:

  • Whether someone has exhibited symptoms of inattentive ADHD for at least 6 months
  • Whether they showed symptoms before age 12
  • Whether the symptoms are present in 2 or more settings (such as school and home)
  • Whether the symptoms interfere with the person’s ability to function
  • Whether symptoms can be explained by any other mental health disorder

Treating Inattentive ADHD

The good news is that even though there’s no cure for inattentive ADHD, there are many effective treatments for it. Some forms of treatment generally include psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) and potentially the use of ADHD medication. A mental health team can create a treatment plan that’s tailored to someone’s individual, unique situation, and symptoms.

“Working with a mental health professional who specializes in ADHD is important to ensure you or your loved one is getting the right diagnosis and treatment recommendations, especially if there might be a comorbid diagnosis of another mental health condition, like anxiety or depression, as ADHD treatment outcomes are most effective when you can also treat the anxiety or depression as well.”

Treatment methods

Treatment for ADHD inattentive and distractible type most often — though not always — includes both therapy and medication. Therapy for ADHD might involve a specific type of talk therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help treat ADHD and offer skills for coping with the symptoms.

Marital or couples counseling can be very successful in helping relationships thrive despite ADHD symptoms. Support groups for sharing ideas, experiences, struggles, and coping tips can be a great tool, too. Parenting or family counseling can help parents of children with ADHD learn skills so they can understand and help their kids manage symptoms.

Medications approved for treating ADHD patients aged 6 and older include:

  • Stimulants — Stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall have proven very effective in increasing the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, ultimately improving focus and concentration.
  • Non-stimulant medication — Non-stimulants such as Atomoxetine and Strattera might help with focus without some of the side effects that are often associated with stimulants.
  • Antidepressants — Antidepressants may be suggested for off-label use to help people by raising brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine, which can help increase attention span. They can also be used when people are suffering from depression and/or an anxiety disorder in addition to ADHD.

Tips for coping

Living with ADHD inattentive symptoms can sometimes be challenging. Rest assured, though, there are some coping mechanisms that can help both children and adults with ADHD inattentive type better cope with symptoms. For example:

  • Reducing outside distractions. This might mean turning off the television, music, or other stimuli when you’re trying to focus on a task.
  • Breaking up lengthy tasks into small tasks. A small task is easier to focus on than a larger one will be. It might help you get that big project finished if you divide it into several smaller, more manageable pieces.
  • Setting up a daily routine. Having a routine can make it easier to focus on what needs to be done next.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet will go a long way toward improving focus and concentration.

Finding the Right Support

You or your loved one don’t have to struggle with the symptoms of ADHD. Early treatment can help minimize the impact the condition has on you, so you’re able to live a full, enjoyable life.

To find a mental health professional with experience in treating ADHD inattentive symptoms, reach out to Talkspace, the online therapy platform that knows how important getting the right diagnosis is. Once you do that, you can begin a treatment plan and start your journey of understanding how to live with inattentive ADHD. Help is available, and Talkspace is there so you can learn how to deal with ADHD.

See References

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, was the Senior Clinical Manager at Talkspace until 2022, and is a clinical therapist licensed in CT and NY. A member of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kate completed her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults on a variety of issues, specializing in eating disorders and working with people going through life stressors such as finding your purpose, career changes, and connecting with your intuition.

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