Signs of ADHD From Before I Was 12

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At some point in your ADHD journey, you’ll need to consider the subject of this post. It’s an important topic, and one your doctor or psychiatrist will likely ask you about if you’re seeking an ADHD diagnosis as an adult.

Why is this so?

ADHD doesn’t come out of nowhere. Yes, the symptoms can be masked and/or may not have a significant impact early in life. Especially those ADHDers with the inattentive sub-type like me can often go undiagnosed until we hit “the wall.” This could happen in middle or high school, college, or that first high-expectations job. But that wall will eventually present itself and you’ll realize something is wrong.

For me the wall came in college, when I nearly flunked out my first semester. That’s an easy enough thing to point to and looking back, the struggles I had were clearly due to undiagnosed ADHD. But as I mentioned, ADHD doesn’t just suddenly appear late in life. So as you examine your life before age 12, you should be able to identify symptoms of ADHD, even if they didn’t necessarily impede you from obtaining early success in school.

Possible indicators of ADHD from before I was 12

  • I was terrible at keeping up with homework
  • I was a heavy procrastinator
  • I would struggle with large projects, being indecisive about how exactly I wanted them to be done; initially wanting perfection, but often settling for whatever I half-assed at the last minute
  • I was drawn to screens. Typically video games or cartoons. Saturday mornings I would get up by myself (even though I had three siblings) and I would watch cartoons starting at 6:30am until about 11am (when programming switched to daytime TV). When I realized there was a cartoon at 6, I got up earlier. And then 5:30am. I had to get as much as I could.
  • I was prone to addictive behaviors with my fixations, which at various ages included Dinosaurs (ages 3-5), school, reading, video games (original Nintendo!), Cub Scouts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cartoons, Legos, baseball – both playing and collecting cards, and food – especially sweets.
  • Low impulse control overcame personal values. I would often lie in order to cover up school problems and I frequently stole items related to my fixations.
  • My room was typically a messy disaster
  • I struggled regulating emotions, and when I got angry I would slam my bedroom door and throw my belongings around my room
  • I was asked by peers about my showering habits (in 3rd and even 7th grade)
  • I had private violin lessons for years but only practiced independently a handful of times
  • I had very few friends
  • When given the opportunity I would play video games for hours. One day in the summer I played the original Legend of Zelda from breakfast until dinner, not realizing that I’d developed a painful blister on my thumb from doing it.
  • I was very sensitive to social rejection and would often cry because of it
  • I preferred my fixations to my peers, at times even reading on the playground rather than engaging with others

When you look at that list it can seem like a lot of negative. There were a lot of great things about my childhood – they’re just not the focus of this post. When I went looking for ADHD in my early life, that’s what I found. In an earlier post, I discussed why I didn’t get diagnosed when I was younger. That one covers the other side of things – the behaviors that helped cover up these symptoms.

In fact, when I first shared my ADHD with my dad and a couple of my siblings they were surprised to hear about it. Because as extensive as this list seems, and as much impact as ADHD actually had on me, it was covered up by early success in school and a lot of little lies at home.

So is everything on that list exclusive to ADHD? No. You can lie, steal, throw tantrums and love cartoons and video games and not have ADHD. But when all of this evidence is taken in the context of my life since then, as well as the continued struggles that emerged from these early indicators, it’s clear that they fit the pattern of ADHD and help to complete the puzzle that is my life.

Examining your childhood for ADHD

As you consider your life before you were 12 looking for signs of ADHD, some helpful questions might be these:

  • Did you have any fixations that lasted for months or years, where that was all you wanted to do or learn about or talk about?
  • Did you struggle with organization and planning at home and/or school?
  • Did you have low impulse control, possibly giving in to lying or sneaking and stealing to get what you wanted right away?
  • Did your bedroom look like a tornado went through it, even if you cleaned it earlier in the day?
  • Did you struggle with regulating emotions – where you were often overcome by anger, sadness, or even happiness to where you weren’t in control?
  • Did you have trouble keeping up with mundane tasks like homework, chores, and self-care?
  • Did you feel socially isolated?

Though this list is neither diagnostic nor exhaustive, I found some of these questions helpful in guiding me through the process. I hope they will also help you as you work to connect the dots between being an adult with ADHD and discovering the child you were with ADHD.


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Why I Didn’t Get Diagnosed With ADHD When I Was a Child

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One of the most difficult things I’ve been dealing with is this question: Why didn’t I get diagnosed with ADHD when I was younger? My older brother was diagnosed with ADD when we were kids. If this had happened in 2020, the doctors would have looked into the rest of our family, at the very least to parents and siblings. That little check would have significantly improved the lives of at least three of us.

The fact is, I was not diagnosed as a child. And as far as I understand it, Adult-onset ADHD isn’t a thing. However, ADHD often isn’t diagnosed until well into adulthood, and there are many, many ADHDers who live their entire lives simply never being diagnosed.

So how did I make it for so long?

One of the factors is that I have ADHD-Inattentive, the classic “ADD,” without the big H of hyperactivity. The lack of hyperactivity has left many boys and even more girls undiagnosed in childhood. On top of that, many folks with the inattentive sub-type do well enough to get by in the early years of schooling. And they continue to excel until they “slam into the wall” as described by Dr. Amen in his book, “Healing ADD.” Where this wall is differs from person to person.

Elementary School

I was one of those who excelled early in school. Reading and school itself were both early fixations in my life and my super power of hyperfocus was actively at work in both areas. It’s basically a perfect setup for an ADHDer to do well. In elementary school my love for reading propelled me to near the top of the class academically and kept me there until middle school. I had few friends, though I got along well enough with my classmates. I self-isolated through reading, and even at recess I might be found sitting alone reading rather than playing.

Since I loved school, I adored teachers. I always tried to be my teacher’s best friend. When I did schoolwork and took tests, I wanted them to be proud of what I did and I thrived on positive feedback and recognition that I got in return. I was also natural friends with the librarians in my schools and frequently spent extra time in the library.

Middle School

But by middle school I could no longer compete with the top of my class. I struggled with coursework that I found boring like language arts where we were learning parts of speech and syntax. This was the first time I can remember not being able to read and learn from a text. I still did very well in math and literature and was also active in band and choir…though I never practiced at home. Because I had already developed a reputation as a top student, I did everything I could to maintain that. I frequently lied about my academic progress and never shared my struggles with anyone because the prospect of admitting to that struggle was too embarrassing.

High School

I did fine through high school. I tested well enough to overcome my problems with homework and I relied on impressive procrastination skills to get through classes where late homework was accepted and long projects were staples. I filled my high school days with working in my parents’ store, playing in sports, bands, choirs, plays, musicals, and just about anything else I could join. I got good grades in classes I liked with teachers I liked, and I struggled in the others. I wouldn’t “slam into the wall” until my first year in college. But that’s a tale for some other day.

Another factor that worked against me getting a childhood ADHD diagnosis was that my family moved frequently. Between preschool and 12th grade my family moved ten times. Three times these moves involved changing schools in the middle of the year. The moves made it all the more difficult for any teacher to have enough time and data to see through my mask and find the struggling child beneath.

So why wasn’t I diagnosed as a child?

TL/DR: I was born in the wrong decade. I have ADHD-Inattentive, and without hyperactive symptoms you don’t often stand out. I absolutely LOVED school and reading throughout my elementary years, which set me up for many years of success. When I started to struggle I was too embarrassed to talk about it and lied to cover up all signs of struggle that I could. Moving ten times during my school years also prevented educators from having enough time to really get to know me.

Having been diagnosed as a child could have dramatically changed my life. My diagnosis is still new and I’m struggling to manage the grief I have over all of the time and opportunities that I lost to ADHD when I didn’t even know I had it. As I work on moving forward, I am trying to take to heart a quote written on a small plaque I was given by a teacher when I was just seven years old: The past cannot be changed, but the future is whatever you want it to be. 30 years later it has more meaning than ever.


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