ADHD information and resources

This is your hub for all things attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here you’ll find what it is, how to determine if you may have it, tips on how to manage it, and where you can go for assistance with it.

The facts

ADHD affects a relatively large proportion of adults and, thus, university students.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a life-long neurological disorder which recent research has demonstrated tends to predominantly affect a person’s executive function and working memory. About four to five per cent of adults have ADHD. Some people with ADHD have difficulties with hyperactivity and impulsivity but many others have never had problems with this and these people can tend to ‘fly under the radar’ at school and their struggles may not be identified as being caused by having ADHD.

See a thorough but brief summary of ADHD.

What causes ADHD?

Everyone has moments in their life when they are abnormally inattentive, disorganised, forgetful or late but this does not mean that they have ADHD. ADHD refers to a pervasive and enduring set of difficulties which have a significant and negative impact on the person across multiple contexts in their life (i.e. at home, at school, at university, at work, etc.). These impacts tend to occur throughout a person’s life because they are neurological (i.e. brain-related) in nature, although they may develop some very effective strategies to manage them.

There have been many explanations in the past for why some people have ADHD and others don’t but in recent years research has demonstrated quite convincingly that the majority of people with ADHD have inherited it from one or both of their parents. As appears to be the case for many disorders, there seems to be a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors at play in the development of ADHD although scientific knowledge of exactly how this works is not yet available. What is clear, though, is that it is very common to find that several people in one family have the disorder. Because much more is known now about ADHD than, say, a couple of generations ago, in recent years many older adults are receiving a diagnosis of ADHD after their child has been diagnosed and treated.

Types of ADHD

Every brain is different so every person who has ADHD has their own variation of the disorder. However, the official diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, version 5 (DSM-V)) identifies three major types of ADHD:

  1. ADHD – predominantly inattentive type (previously referred to as ADD);
  2. ADHD – predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type;
  3. ADHD – combined type (the person has both the inattentive aspects and the hyperactive/impulsive aspects).

Whichever type of ADHD a person has, the challenges of completing a university degree tend to be significantly greater than for students who don’t have ADHD.

How does ADHD affect people?

A lot of people think of hyperactivity when they think of ADHD but this is only one aspect and is certainly not a feature for everyone with ADHD.

Executive functions are neurologically-based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation and they allow us to manage ourselves and our resources in order to achieve a goal (Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel, 2009). According to Professor Thomas E Brown, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, some of the executive functions that are impaired in people with ADHD include:

  • Activation: Organising tasks and materials, estimating time, getting started.
  • Focus: Focusing attention, sustaining focus and shifting between tasks.
  • Effort: Regulating alertness, sustaining effort and slow processing speed.
  • Emotion: Managing frustration and modulating emotions.
  • Memory: Using working memory and accessing recall.
  • Action: Monitoring and regulating actions.

In day-to-day life this can mean that people with ADHD are much more likely to be late, be disorganised and lose things, lose focus on what may be deemed to be most important (e.g. studying) and instead be focused on something more interesting (e.g. browsing the internet), feel very sluggish and find it very difficult to get moving sometimes and at others not be able to stop, be prone to bursts of anger or despair, and find it difficult to get to sleep and to wake up again. In short, people with ADHD tend to struggle with the things that most people find either easy or even automatic. This can be very demoralising for people with ADHD and can lead to them feeling demotivated and ashamed. On the flip-side, people with ADHD tend to be creative ‘outside the box’ thinkers, curious about the world and very emphatic towards others. Contrary to what most people think, people with ADHD don’t have a deficit of attention (just a lack of ability to direct it wisely) and can actually sustain laser-like focus on an activity for many hours, as long as they are interested in it. This can actually be something like a superpower, particularly if that activity is central to their job or studies. People with ADHD tend to also be very calm and clear-thinking in a crisis (it has been observed that many people working in the emergency services have ADHD). On the whole, they are very valuable people to have on a team because they tend to think a bit differently to people who don’t have ADHD and can come up with creative solutions and suggestions that others haven’t thought of.

Is ADHD a mental illness?

ADHD is not a mental illness, it is a neurodevelopmental disorder that appears to affect the size and function of several parts of the brain. However, it is very common for people with ADHD to also experience one or more of the following:

  • Anxiety disorders (including generalised anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Mood disorders (including depression and, more rarely, bipolar disorder)
  • Learning difficulties (such as dyslexia)
  • Addictions and substance abuse (including nicotine, alcohol and marijuana)
  • Shame and poor self-esteem (as a result of having such difficulty with things that others find easy)
  • Difficulties with managing emotions (including anger and rejection)
  • Relationship difficulties (with romantic partners, friends or colleagues).

The good news for university students is that counselling sessions at most universities are offered free of charge so there is no better opportunity to begin working on developing strategies to manage whichever difficulties you encounter as a result of having an ADHD-mind. The counsellors at Curtin’s Counselling and Disability Services work with many students with ADHD – find out how to make an appointment.

Can women have ADHD?

In the past, it was generally believed that ADHD was a disorder experienced only by children but in recent decades it has been established that ADHD persists into adulthood for most people. Similarly, in the past it was assumed that ADHD was specific to boys. In fact, girls are just as likely to have ADHD but are more likely than boys to have the inattentive type. A day-dreamy girl (or boy, for that matter) is far less likely to be identified in school as having ADHD than a hyperactive boy.

Can students with ADHD be successful?

Despite the challenges that university studies present for a student with ADHD, many complete their degrees and go on to have satisfying and successful careers. Some will even achieve awards for excellent achievement or appear on the Vice Chancellor’s List. There are many examples in current times as well as in the past of very successful people with ADHD, spanning across many fields of interest and endeavour (for example, Ryan Gosling, Mark Ruffalo, Justin Timberlake, Michael Phelps, Richard Branson and many more). However, it is important for students with ADHD to choose a field of study that engages their interest and a career that will fit with their particular strengths and preferences. For example, sitting at a desk all day doing repetitive, uninteresting tasks is unlikely to be a work environment in which someone with ADHD will thrive.

It is also very important for students with ADHD to develop an understanding of how their ADHD impacts on their life and their studies so that they can access the multiple sources of support that are available to help them succeed at university.


Do I have ADHD?

There are many people who suspect they might have ADHD but are not sure. Others just can’t work out why they keep hitting brick walls.

Is it possible to have ADHD and not know it?

Every semester we see students who are unaware that ADHD is underlying their repeated difficulties at university and in life in general.

It is possible for adults, including those who have recently left school, to have ADHD and not know about it. It is also quite common for people to misinterpret various symptoms and conclude they have ADHD when, in fact, something else is causing their difficulties.

Many students with ADHD go through their schooling without knowing that they have ADHD. This may be because their behaviour did not draw attention to their difficulties, which were perhaps not detected by teachers or parents or were instead misunderstood as being the result of “laziness” or “not trying hard enough.”

One of the defining characteristics of ADHD has been identified as being a persistent failure to meet one’s potential. That is, a persistent (i.e. over many years and usually starting in childhood) pattern of failing to achieve the results that would normally be expected, taking into consideration intelligence and motivation to succeed.

Is a diagnosis necessary?

We have some students in the ADHD Support Group whom we suspect (on the basis of a clinical interview and assessment) have ADHD and who have not sought a formal diagnosis or medical treatment. Having a formal diagnosis of ADHD is not essential in order to learn more about how your brain works and strategies to overcome your difficulties, but it is helpful in being able to access alternative exam arrangements and assignment extensions, and is absolutely necessary in order to take the prescribed medication that is specific to the treatment of ADHD.

If you suspect you have ADHD but do not want to pursue a formal diagnosis you can still talk to a counsellor and investigate whether it is possible that ADHD explains some of your symptoms or experiences. Contact Counselling and Disability Services.

Who can diagnose?

In Australia, adults can only be diagnosed with ADHD by a psychiatrist. This can be an expensive process and may or may not result in a formal diagnosis of ADHD, depending on your particular symptoms and experiences. In Western Australia, there are no publicly-funded services for people with ADHD so testing and treatment is performed by private practitioners only.

If you decide that you would like to be assessed for ADHD, you will need to approach your GP and request a referral to one of the psychiatrists who assess for ADHD (many psychiatrists do not assess for and diagnose ADHD). Your GP will be able to identify who these are. You can also discuss this with one of Curtin’s disability advisors or counsellors if you have questions about how to proceed.

Medication

People who are diagnosed as having ADHD might be prescribed a medication that is designed to increase their capacity to sustain their attention and to get started on things. Medication can be very helpful for a lot of people with ADHD but not everyone finds this is the case. Also, medication is always just a part of effective treatment and management of ADHD, it is never the whole solution.

There are stimulant and non-stimulant medications and psychiatrists advise their patients on which is the best choice for them, taking into account many factors that are particular to their case. These medications are not addictive however some people do abuse them therefore there are careful controls to ensure that the medications are being used appropriately and only by the people for whom they are prescribed. If you are someone who has engaged in problematic drug use in the past, there may be an alternative class of medications which can be prescribed for you.

It is very common for people (and their parents and partners) to feel a bit nervous about taking medication for ADHD but these concerns can be easily discussed with your psychiatrist or GP.  Curtin’s counsellors, including those in the ADHD team, are not qualified to give advice or information about specific medication-related queries so please direct these to your GP or psychiatrist.

Adult ADHD self-report scale

If you would like to get an indication of whether you might have ADHD, you can complete the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS-v1.1). This is not an assessment tool; more a way of finding out whether it might be helpful to have an assessment. A score of four or more in section A indicates that it is possible (not definite) that a thorough assessment might be useful (but remember that ADHD-like symptoms could very well be caused by something else altogether and a conversation with your GP, counsellor or disability advisor might be helpful). Please refer to the information on the scale for more details.


University students with ADHD

ADHD does not affect the intelligence of an individual, however due to the high demands of academic study it is common for people with ADHD to struggle through uni, regardless of their intelligence, their best intentions or their commitment to achieve.

How is studying at uni affected by executive functioning?

Some people with ADHD will struggle with only a few of the brain’s executive functions (e.g. maintaining and shifting focus and attention, activating behaviour, organisation, time orientation, etc.) whereas others will experience severe difficulties in all or most of them. This tends to make studying at university very difficult and can lead to students failing units and taking longer to complete their degree than other students. Also, most people with ADHD have brains that are slower at processing written text than other people and this means that it takes them a lot longer to read and write than most other students. Some people with ADHD also have dyslexia or other learning difficulties. Consequently, a student with ADHD is likely to experience mental exhaustion much more often than other students and it is wise for students with ADHD to reduce their study load (i.e. enrol in fewer units than other students) to counter these rather significant challenges.

How is uni different to high school for people with ADHD?

A lot of students with ADHD find that they perform better within a structured environment so coming to university can present some challenges that they didn’t experience at high school. At university, for the most part, no one checks whether you attend your lectures, go to bed late or that you are making progress on your assignments. This can be problematic for many school-leaving university students, however if you have ADHD this can be an even bigger challenge.

On the other hand, university is a more flexible study environment than high school and one where (in many courses) you can tailor your study load to suit your own capacity to get the work done. In other words, it is possible at university to reduce your study load to increase the likelihood that you will successfully complete your units and, ultimately, your degree. It may also be possible to choose tutorial classes that meet later in the day if waking early is a challenge you experience as part of your ADHD. There are many ways that your university studies can be tailored around the challenges that you might experience if you have ADHD and you can discuss these further with one of our disability advisors.

Useful strategies for students with ADHD

Although there are many challenges for a student with ADHD, you can be successful and this will be made easier if you adopt some specific strategies, such as those listed below:

  • Seek as much support as possible (and stay engaged throughout the semester!);
  • Get to know as much as you can about the way your particular mind and body respond to the demands of university life;
  • Reduce your study load (to 2 or 3 units per semester) and don’t over-commit yourself to extra-curricular activities such as work, sport, etc;
  • Organise to speak to a disability advisor to discuss what accommodations might be put in place (e.g. in examinations and assignments) to compensate for your ADHD-related challenges;
  • Develop and stick to a structured routine;
  • Prioritise sleep, diet and exercise;
  • Make time visible – use stopwatches, timers, wall calendars and phone reminders to help you keep track of time;
  • Break tasks (e.g. big assignments) into small chunks and work on them every day rather than leaving everything to the last moment;

Build in recovery time (daily, if possible). Mindfulness meditation has been found to be very helpful for people with ADHD. You can access daily sessions at Counselling and Disability Services.

If you would like more information on these strategies, make an appointment with a disability advisor or a counsellor, or register your interest in attending the ADHD Support Group.


Support at Curtin

Developing a network of people and services who can support you with your specific needs will assist you with the challenges you experience at university and, hopefully, make your time here more enjoyable.

Disability advisors

At Curtin we have a team of disability advisors who provide information and support to students who have a disability or medical condition which is impacting on their capacity to complete their university studies. In our experience, this is an essential source of support for students with ADHD.

Curtin Access Plan

Disability advisors can work with you to develop a Curtin Access Plan (CAP), a document that outlines the type and level of support you require at Curtin.

Groups for students with ADHD

Students with ADHD often appreciate the opportunity to be with and learn from other students with ADHD.

ADHD Support Group

A group of Curtin students with ADHD and a facilitator meet every week (except non-tuition weeks) to talk about their challenges and triumphs in the past week as well as to share and learn strategies for coping with the major difficulties of university life, such as motivation to get started on tasks, overcoming procrastination, improving their planning and organisation, and managing relationships. This is a caring and often fun space for students to share their experiences and learn something more about how their mind works and how to make their lives easier.

For more information about this group, contact Counselling Services.

Mindful Awareness Practices for ADHD

This is an eight-week mindfulness group for students at Curtin who have ADHD. Across the space of the program participants will learn how to direct their attention to the present moment by cultivating their ability to observe thoughts, emotions, body sensations and sensory experiences. Some of the focuses of this group program are on learning to respond differently to thinking, to manage emotions and to learn how to communicate better with those close to us.

This is a class-based course where skill-development is the focus. As such, every participant is required to practice every day the various skills learnt in the weekly classes and this may require about 30 minutes of practice every day. Also, attendance at all sessions is mandatory, with the exception of illness.

For more information about this group, contact Counselling Services to schedule a 30-minute meeting to discuss the group and to establish whether it is right for you.

ADHD coach

Many adults with ADHD find that working with a life coach who has expertise in working with people with ADHD can be very helpful in developing successful strategies to overcome persistent challenges in their lives such as being disorganised or finding it difficult to get started on tasks. You can discuss with your disability advisor how to access the services of an external ADHD coach (that is, she does not work at Curtin) and whether there is any financial help available to you to assist with the costs.

Counselling

Students don’t usually want to come to counselling initially but many students with ADHD find it very helpful.

It is very common for people with ADHD to also have additional difficulties, such as mental health issues (anxiety and depression are very common), substance use problems (alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drugs), relationship issues or difficulties managing their emotions. Working with a counsellor can be an invaluable source of suppor,t and Curtin offers 10 free counselling sessions per year to its students, even if you are also attending one of the ADHD group programs.

How to make an appointment with a Counsellor

Health Service

Curtin has a team of General Practitioners (GPs) who treat students and staff. These doctors are experienced in treating people with mental health issues and in working with students who have ADHD. They also tend to bulk-bill students. See Health Services for more information, including how to book an appointment online.

Information session for parents and partners

Being diagnosed with ADHD is one thing, learning what this really means in day-to-day life is quite another. Unfortunately, many people and their parents and partners are not taught very much about how having an ADHD-mind impacts on their capacity to get things done. This session is conducted once per year and is designed to provide parents and partners with some practical knowledge and strategies for supporting their loved one during their time at university. If you would like to find out more about this, please contact Counselling Services.

Improve your study and academic skills

Many students with ADHD find structuring an essay (or research project) or answering an ambiguous question very difficult. You can access an array of useful workshops and assistance for your academic needs while at Curtin, both online and on-campus.


Useful resources

Learn more about ADHD with these resources external to Curtin.

Videos

These are Youtube videos about living with ADHD. This is not an exhaustive list and we encourage you to discover more yourself. Remember that educating yourself about your ADHD is the best way to help you learn to manage it.

Blogs

Learn more about the day-to-day strategies and experiences of people who have ADHD and people who work with people who have ADHD. See the best ADHD blogs of the year