Is ADHD a Disability?Updated August 27, 2020 Social Security Disability
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a chronic mental illness that affects both adults and children. It is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder that always begins during childhood no matter when it was officially diagnosed. Nearly two-thirds of children will carry their ADHD diagnosis with them to adulthood.
15 Common ADHD Symptoms for Adults and Children
- Easily distractible
- Frequent mood swings
- Intermittently aggressive
- Inattention to detail
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Inability to listen and/or follow directions
- Impulsive actions and speech
- Low frustration tolerance
- Easily overwhelmed by ordinary tasks
- Chronic sense of underachievement/poor self-esteem
- Trouble sustaining friendships/intimate relationships
- A need for high stimulation (thrill-seeking)
- Poor coordination
- Performance anxiety
- Hypersensitive to noise and touch
These 15 ADHD symptoms are not a complete list, as some sufferers can display extreme restlessness, depression, excessive worry, or other behaviors that can be mistaken for other mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders.
1. Easily distractible
A core issue with anyone who suffers from ADHD is difficulty with train of thought. Paradoxically, these people can hyper-focused on brief tasks. This can create a difficult diagnostic situation. For example, a student may ace tests and demonstrate a high IQ but be unable to stay focused during class.
2. Frequent mood swings
Kids and adults with ADHD are often the victims of changing moods. This can present as irritability, low energy, or even unexplained excitement. This symptom is particularly destructive to relationships.
3. Intermittently aggressive
People with ADHD experience heightened frustration, even over small failures. They may act out with aggression, blame, and hostility. This can occur in any situation but is often most obvious in a classroom setting. Females, however, are much less likely to display this symptom.
4. Inattention to detail
When completing any task but especially school assignments, attending to the details is crucial for success. People with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or ADHD simply cannot focus on multiple details, which leads to minor mistakes, low grads, and, over time, low self-esteem.
5. Difficulty completing tasks
Due to inattention and restlessness, task completion can be much more difficult for ADHD individuals. Staying on track without being distracted by sounds, other people or even internal cues is never easy with untreated ADHD.
6. Inability to listen and/or follow directions
People with ADHD learn better with hands-on activities and can succeed with visual tasks but struggle when it comes to listening. This can make the classroom a treacherous place for children with ADHD as they often miss instructions from the teacher.
7. Impulsive actions and speech
Kids and adults with an ADHD diagnosis may suddenly blurt out an off-topic comment without even realizing it. Their minds go in so many directions at once, they may say things they later regret. In addition to annoying other people, this habit distracts the ADHD sufferer as well. Impulsivity and impulsive behaviors are hallmark symptoms of both ADHD and ADD.
8. Low frustration tolerance
A multi-step project can be a big challenge for anyone with ADHD. Even reading directions to assemble something can overwhelm a person with severe ADHD or ADD.
9. Easily overwhelmed by ordinary tasks
An ordinary task, like walking the dog, can quickly become a burden. The sounds of a whining dog, instructions from a spouse, the mental effort to put a harness on, and remembering to take supplies-- all add up to turn an easy task into an overwhelming chore.
10. Chronic sense of underachievement/poor self-esteem
ADHD sufferers are often unaware they have a disorder. This is a prime example of an invisible disability. Without a diagnosis, the ADHD child (and adult) will blame himself. This chronic sense of failure can create self-esteem issues that last a lifetime.
11. Trouble sustaining friendships/intimate relationships
ADHD symptoms, including distractibility and impulsivity, take a huge toll on relationships. ADHD individuals have trouble listening to you, are forgetful about important dates, and can be suddenly upset for no reason. Friends and acquaintances, understandably, may create distance.
12. A need for high stimulation (thrill-seeking)
This ADHD symptom is another hallmark of the disorder. People with ADHD revel in taking risks, whether rock climbing or experimenting with drugs. These activities can also temporarily boost self-esteem but in the long run, do nothing to address ADHD and ADD symptoms. Substance abuse is often present in adults with ADHD/ADD diagnoses.
13. Poor coordination
In a child, this ADHD symptom may show up as avoidance of sports or refusing to participate in gym class. Lack of coordination can extend to penmanship. Adults may be able to improve this symptom with practice, but more often avoid sports altogether.
14. Performance anxiety
The anxiety of test-taking or giving a speech affects all of us, but for those with ADD or ADHD as an impairment, it can be crippling. This anxiety manifests as worsening inattention, impulsivity, and restlessness.
15. Hypersensitivity to noise and touch
This symptom also shows up in kids with ASD (Autism) but it is just as common in kids and adults with ADHD. The inability to tolerate too much noise leads to fatigue while recoiling from touch can have serious social implications. Both symptoms add up to create kids and adults who avoid social gatherings.
Many people mistakenly believe that a hyperactivity disorder is a core symptom of ADHD. Hyperactivity can be hidden, however. If a child (or adult) is distractible but neither restless nor aggressive, she is more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Is ADHD a Disability?
ADHD is a disability under the legal definition. In cases with moderate, untreated, and/or severe disorders the individual may not be able to hold onto any job and therefore cannot engage in SGA (substantial gainful employment).
A child’s ADHD may include learning disabilities and will usually lead to special education services. Children are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, section 504, from discrimination in school due to a disability. Even in moderate cases, academic performance and academic achievement will suffer for a child with ADHD or ADD. When kids suffer at school, it impacts major life activities like sports and family gatherings.
According to Social Security guidelines for SSI and SSDI, the definition of disability is an impairment that precludes the ability to work. For a child, this refers to interference with a major like activity that lasts for 12 months or more. ADHD and ADD can, therefore, result in an award of disability benefits under the official SSA definition.
When is ADHD a disability?
During periods of stress or fatigue, people without ADHD can show the same symptoms as someone who has no mental illness. It is important to be aware that an ADHD diagnosis requires a pattern of exhibiting symptoms since childhood. The pattern should include multiple combinations of symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with daily living.
If there is a strong family history of ADHD, learning disabilities, mood disorders, or substance abuse there is a good chance that genetics are at play. In some cases, there can be specific causes of ADHD/ADD, such as brain injury, developmental disability, and/or in utero exposure to drugs, such as nicotine. Often, such factors are hard to document and even more difficult to prove.
In many cases, adults with ADHD received special education services throughout childhood. They may have received every reasonable accommodation given by special education services, including intensive behavioral therapy and one-on-one instruction, yet failed to adapt or thrive.
ADHD becomes disabling under the law when it is severe enough to result in poor performance at work or in school. Adults who are unable to maintain employment and children who receive special education services are both likely candidates for disability.
Additional information to support ADHD as a disability may include:
- Classroom/IEP reports
- Report cards
- Diagnostic evaluation (often to establish special education services)
- Forms completed by teachers
- Psychological testing (i.e. diagnosis with a specific learning disability)
- IQ tests (can help assess a learning disorder or learning disability)
- Psychiatric/psychological treatment notes
- ADL (Activity of Daily Living) forms
- History of taking prescribed medication to treat ADD/ADHD
- Other specific criteria
- For adults, disability might be determined by:
- Work history
- SSA earnings
- Treatment notes from a treating physician and/or psychiatrist
- Forms completed by friends and family
- Forms completed by current and former employers
- ADL (Activity of Daily Living) forms
- History of taking prescribed medication to treat ADD/ADHD
- Other specific criteria
The fact that ADHD always begins in early childhood matters because even though ADHD is listed by SSA under Section 112.11 (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), this listing applies only to children under 18 years of age.
There is no ADHD listing for adults. If an adult alleging ADHD cannot show he or she had ADHD since childhood (before the age of 7), plus also impairing gainful employment as an adult, then it is likely the condition will be adjudicated as non-severe.
Both children and adults, in any case, must meet the requirements of both Paragraph A and Paragraph B (taken directly from the SSDI/SSI listings of impairments):
Acceptable medical documentation which finds that you have all three of the following symptoms:
- Marked inattention; and
- Marked impulsiveness; and
- Marked hyperactivity.
Acceptable supporting documentation that shows you have at least 2 out of 3 of the following conditions, resulting from ADHD:
- Marked impairment in age-appropriate cognitive/communication function; and/or
- Marked impairment in age-appropriate social functioning; and/or
- Marked impairment in age-appropriate personal functioning.
Acceptable documentation, such as tests and treatment notes, are bulleted above.
ADHD/ADD, whether in adults or children, is a complex diagnosis without a single diagnostic test. In other words, it is based largely on the observations and opinions (especially medical opinions) of others. For this reason, the evidence for ADHD is never cut-and-dried, making it more difficult to prove.
SSA Benefits for Adults with ADHD
Like any other mental illness that can be disabling, ADHD has specific signs and symptoms that must be documented in all disability claims. For adults, the disability determination office will award either SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), depending on meeting eligibility for resources and income.
The medical evidence must include, primarily, proof of functional limitation. Like other mental illnesses, there must be documentation via testing, statements, and/or self-report that residual functional capacity is so limited as to preclude most types of work.
SSA Benefits for Children with ADHD
Because children have no work or earnings history, they are not eligible to collect SSDI unless a parent is already collecting SSDI. Children who qualify for disability must have a diagnosis by a qualified medical professional to qualify for SSI. The primary aim of awarding SSI to children is to help ease the burden their caretakers have in rearing the child.
Children with ADHD must show evidence of significant impairment in the classroom setting or in relationships. There must be proof of attention deficit, either through teacher reports, records of specific accommodation in the classroom setting, or family reports. The evidence must show ongoing impairment. For example, if the child is prescribed medication, documents must be shown that even when taking the medication, he or she displays ADHD/ADD symptoms.
Once a child is approved for Social Security Disability benefits, he or she receives benefits until attaining the age of 18, at which point the claim is reassessed.
For adults or children, benefits are awarded via monthly checks. These may be disbursed to the parent, in the case of a child with ADHD, or a legal guardian. For some adults with ADHD, managing money can be an ongoing symptom. In some cases, a disability attorney or caseworker may receive the monthly check, then disburse in small amounts to the beneficiary, to ensure the funds are well managed.
Social Security Disability Benefits for ADHD
ADHD is difficult to diagnose, and it can be especially challenging to prove. For adults, there must be a record of childhood difficulties in school, in the justice system, or at home in order to receive disability benefits. Even if an adult has had a long history of poor work performance and multiple jobs, the connection to childhood must be established.
For children, gaining disability is also difficult because ADHD is diagnosed subjectively, based on many pieces of information. If you are or your child is seeking disability approval for ADHD or ADD, help from a disability attorney is highly recommended.