by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Inattention is one of the major symptoms of ADHD, although it is still greatly misunderstood. Some experts believe that it is "over" attention, rather than inattention. These experts believe that people with ADHD do not have the ability to filter out unwanted stimuli and therefore, they pay attention to everything, rather than being able to focus on one thing. Inattention is also described as being easily distracted.

Inattention and hyperfocus also seem to go hand in hand. Hyperfocus is the ability to focus so intently on one thing that everything else seems to disappear. People with problems with inattention, often also report problems with periods of hyperfocus. This can cause them to be late for important events, or get so bogged down completing one task they forget other equally important things to do.

Children and adults both have difficulties with inattention. The following are ways in which this main symptom shows up in children and adults.:

Characteristics of Inattention in Children

  • They seem to not listen. Children with ADHD often seem as if they are not listening when someone speaks to them. Often they are simply distracted by the many things going on around them. They may just be having a hard time focusing on the conversation.

  • Trouble following directions. This may occur for a number of reasons. The child may have gotten distracted while being given directions and therefore did not hear all of the instructions. They may get distracted while following the directions and begin a new task completely. Or they may become distracted and then forget what they were doing and what they are supposed to be doing next.

  • Lack of organization. Children with ADHD often have problems working through the steps needed to complete a project. They may have a hard time organizing their thoughts in a logical manner. Many children with ADHD are conceptual thinkers, and although they can visualize the end result, they may not be able to break the task down into simple steps.

  • Failure to complete tasks. Children who are easily distracted often move from one task to another. They may begin to do their homework, get up to sharpen a pencil and start to play with the dog, become distracted again and go and get a snack. They may completely forget what they were doing first and move on to another activity.

  • Often loses items. Children with ADHD do not always pay attention to details. They are easily distracted and will put an item down, think about something else that is going on and forget where they put the item down. Losing items consistently is a major complaint of people with ADHD.

  • Forgetful. Children with ADHD are often forgetful in daily activities. This might be a result of becoming distracted or because they move on from an activity quickly. Being forgetful is frustrating for both the person with ADHD and the people around them. It is important to remember that just because something is important, that someone will remember it. Often we are told, "If it is important enough, you will remember it." This just is not the case for those with ADHD.

Characteristics of Inattention in Adults

  • Often loses items. Adults with ADHD often complain of losing keys, important phone numbers, their cell phones or wallets on a regular basis.

  • Often forgetful. Whether something is important or trivial does not make a difference. Forgetfulness is a daily struggle for adults with ADHD. They may forget to take out the trash or forget to pick the children up from school. This is sometimes a result of being distracted or hyperfocus.

  • Not completing tasks. Whether it is a project you have become bored with and are no longer interested in, or a daily task that you started, became distracted and hours later remembered that you never finished, there are tasks everyday that are half done.

  • Difficulty following conversations. Being easily distracted doesn't go away when someone is talking to you. You might start out the conversation hearing everything only to be distracted by something else and all of the sudden you have no idea what someone is talking about. You might miss important deadlines or events because you only heard half of a conversation.

  • Lack of motivation. No matter how good your intentions are, you always seem to get sidetracked and can't seem to get to the project at hand. It may be that the project sounds boring or is just something that you don't really have any interest in.

  • Can't follow a timed schedule. You may have planned your day but no matter how much you try to follow the schedule it never seems to work out. You may misjudge how much time something will take you, you may become "hyperfocused" and spend way too long on a single project and not get around to completing anything else on your list.

Inattention, distraction or hyperfocus can all cause problems for both children and adults. Medication for ADHD helps to alleviate some of the symptoms, however, this is not a cure. People with ADHD have found many ways of coping and compensating, such as using their cell phone to set reminders, using a day-planner (some people still prefer written schedules), setting kitchen timers to remind them to get back on task or to move to the next task. They may make sure important conversations are held at times when there will be a minimum of distractions. Understanding that this is a symptom of ADHD and that there it is not a character flaw is important.


Yin and Yang of the Bouncing Brain

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Massachusetts General Hospital ADD Information

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.