Eight quieter signs of ADHD that may surprise you

ADHD, or Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, is everywhere these days. Education specialist, Casey Standen shares eight common signs of ADHD and how to spot them.

signs of adhd in children
Cluey Learning Thursday, 3 November 2022

How did we get here?

While there is plenty of room for improvement, Australia has some of the best medical, mental health and education systems in the world, and has done for quite some time. So how did all these diligent professionals and dedicated parents miss their children’s ADHD for decades? 

The answer is that ADHD is not as easy to spot as the pop culture of the nineties led us to believe. Every article about ADHD online will tell you that it’s not just hyperactive little boys climbing the furniture, distracting the class and draining the teacher who have ADHD.

You’ll also read a lot about how poorly named this neurodiversity is, since it’s not a deficit of attention but a deficit of the ability to control one’s attention, and the hyperactivity isn’t always present, nor is it always expressed in physical activity. We’re still learning a lot about neurodiversity in general, and ADHD in particular, so our current situation is not a system, professional or personal failure. It’s a massive opportunity to grow, learn and improve, and we are rising to the challenge.



No one sign is definitive of any neurodiversity. ADHD can only be diagnosed in Australia by a psychiatrist, some pediatricians and some specialised GPs. For specific advice, start by talking to your GP or pediatrician. 

If you’re talking about someone who is dealing with a diversity, the best way to describe them is to use their preferred name. If you need to talk about their ADHD, it’s more polite to phrase it as a feature like their hair colour or height, rather than a defining characteristic or another name. So, ‘Jamie’s ADHD’ or ‘Sally is managing ADHD’ or ‘Joel has ADHD’ rather than ‘ADHD kid’, ‘ADHD Liz’ or ‘Joey is ADHD’.

If used kindly and in the abstract, ‘ADHDer’ is a term accepted widely by people with ADHD and will be used here, but tailor your language to the individual in specific cases.


So, how can you avoid missing your child’s or your student’s (or your own) ADHD?

No one’s ADHD is exactly like another’s, just as no one’s brain is exactly like another’s. But there are some signs that are worth looking out for that won’t be as loud or disruptive as the stereotypical child who cannot sit still.


1. Focused Stillness

Oddly enough, one sign of ADHD, or ‘can’t sit still or focus disorder’ as it’s colloquially called by those who have it, is that hyperfocus can make an ADHDer sit very still for hours on end, to the point of causing pain and pulled muscles. Hyperfocus means that your attention is so utterly fixed on what you’re thinking about that your brain doesn’t prioritise messages from your body like ‘I’m hungry’, ‘nature’s calling’, ‘water, please!’ or even, ‘our right foot’s been offline for half an hour, could we shift positions?’.

They might be focused on their own thoughts, daydreaming, solving a problem, doing a craft, reading a book, writing a story, playing a video game, studying or doing a deep dive into a new interest area. There might also be no way of predicting when they’ll have a hyperfocus session or a period of stillness.


2. Perfectionism

Another sign of ADHD that goes against the outdated stereotype is perfectionism. An ADHDer might get every single detail of their schoolwork correct, every single time. They may have routines that look obsessive for leaving the house, like checking multiple times that things are switched off, locked or closed, and that their phone, wallet and keys are in place. 

Perfectionism can be a learned defence, or an efficient masking technique, that compensates for the lack of executive function that ADHD brings. Some research suggests that kids with ADHD get twenty thousand more negative or corrective messages than other kids by the time they’re 10.

That’s a lot of information about what their behaviour should look like and how to avoid being reprimanded. 

Fear and shame are powerful motivators for everyone, so perfectionism can result as a really effective shield for someone who can’t trust their executive function (including short term memory, object permanence and time awareness, among other skills), to step up for them when they need it.


3. Time Blindness

Being unable to tell how much time has passed, or predict how much time something will take shapes the lives of lots of people with ADHD. This is the ADHD trait that gave us the stereotype of the child who can’t get their schoolwork in on time, or the adult who is chronically late. But it’s more than that. Perfectionism might lead an ADHDer to build rock solid time management systems, but that doesn’t mean they’re less time blind. It means they’re managing it. 

Time blindness can also look like forgetting how long it’s been since you last saw someone but being able to pick up the conversation exactly where you left off. It can look like becoming a night-before magician when a deadline looms. It can look like having an eerily good memory because the brain has found other methods for organising information. It can look like all-night hyperfocus or oversleeping, optimism about commute times or paralysis in project planning. 

Time blindness, combined with perfectionism and an inability to predict what information will be important in the future and what can be discarded, can make someone with ADHD a great student, attentive family member and enviable trivia buddy. But it might also mean they’re exhausted, frustrated, feel like an imposter or a failure, and struggle to understand how friendships play out.


4. Creativity

Managing ADHD is a lot of work for the brain. It needs to come up with back up plans for its back up plans to get the ADHDer through their day, and often enough it needs to do a lot of surprise problem solving despite those back up plans.

Brains with ADHD are particularly motivated by novelty, interest, competition and pressure. When none of those are present, the brain moves on to something that does have one of those elements.

This can mean that ADHDers solve the same problem dozens of times because the problem and its consequences just aren’t that interesting or important to them. This can be frustrating but it also builds creativity because where other people implement an existing protocol, someone with ADHD might have to solve the problem repeatedly, often with the aim of a new result.

So, instead of ‘it’s breakfast so I will eat my pre-planned oats, like every other weekday’, an ADHDer might think ‘I ate oats yesterday so that’s not an option today, there’s one egg, some yoghurt and a potato, what can I do with these?’.

In school, this can look like creative spelling, where the student tries a few different ways of spelling the same word in one paragraph. This can easily be mistaken for dyslexia, carelessness or low intellectual ability, but the student might just not have the motivation to memorise which order the letters belong in for that word.

This can also look like quick and creative solutions to new problems in class that take other people longer to tackle. Creativity is often described as being like a muscle. Because of the extra daily creativity load, an ADHDer is more likely to have a creative six-pack where other students have perfectly healthy but less instantly accessible or toned creative muscles.

The creativity of an ADHDer can also look like conversations in which only one person gets whiplash from apparent subject jumping (even though the ADHDer can usually trace their line of thought if pressed), or a child who answers a question from hours ago with a unique insight, or announces a fact or solution seemingly out of the blue.


6. Organisation

Connected to perfectionism, someone with ADHD might become rigidly and reliably organised. They might be in a constant state of ‘sorting things out’ because they can see cracks in their system and want to fix them. 

Re-solving the same uninteresting problem, endlessly, is a real pain for the ADHD brain, so systems that automate or bypass the boring bits are a wonderful relief. 

This can look like complex spreadsheets or tailored apps, well-designed short cuts on phones and countless alarms. It can look like asking for written instructions or making extensive notes because they’re aware of ADHD’s ‘teflon ears’ feature, which means that verbal instructions just don’t stick, and because written notes enable self-assessing their performance against the instructions later. 

It can also look like moving furniture around, reorganising wardrobes, bathroom drawers and school supplies, or even coming up with new health and exercise regimes to ‘sort’ the job of looking after yourself. 

ADHD organising can also be willingness to help other people sort out their life-admin systems, their background noise. It can be enthusiasm for project management in groups or having an impossibly good grasp on where every book in the house lives, or where content sits online (family sharing, which streaming service, what’s purchased, what isn’t, etc). 

So, contrary to that nineties stereotype, some ADHDers can do really well as project managers, teachers, librarians and home organisers.


7. Fidgeting

This one is a part of the stereotype but it’s helpful to point out some of the quieter ways that people can fidget so that fewer kids get missed. 

People with long hair often twirl their hair as a way of stimulating sensation or releasing hyperactive energy through their hands. This is usually socially acceptable, and often mistaken as deep thought in general, or flirtation in older kids, so it’s worth noticing whether the hair-twirler is doing it consciously or compulsively. Hair twirling can result in patches of less dense hair or it can be done gently like patting a pet. The point is in the movement and in the physical sensation that can help to stimulate focus for someone with ADHD. 

Pen twirling, clicking or tapping is another fidget that is considered socially acceptable until it becomes annoying. We often presume that playing with a pen is a sign of deep thought or even just a quirky affectation but it is one of the many quieter signs of ADHD and an effective mask for hyperactivity. 

Finger dancing is another common fidget, especially when listening to music. It’s quiet enough not to disturb others, and it stimulates the brain by connecting the body with the music (either the beat or the melody). This can be mistaken for diligent music practice or again, a cute quirk. 

Sitting on hands or keeping them still by holding them in armpits or between the thighs (not in an inappropriate or uncomfortable way) is another way to channel hyperactivity in a quiet way. These kinds of positions make the surrounding muscles tense, which can have the same focusing effect as fidgeting. 

Yoga positions or sitting on the floor is another passive way of stimulating muscles and channeling hyperactivity into focus. There’s also gum chewing, pen gnawing, twiddling zips and ties on clothing, rolling paper or ribbons into spirals – the possibilities are endless, and quiet.


8. Recharging

With all of this extra work to make up for unreliable executive function, mask the struggles and symptoms of ADHD and manage the constant input of new and interesting information in the world, it’s no wonder that having ADHD can be utterly exhausting. 

But, as with sitting still during hyperfocus, ADHDers tend not to excel at knowing when to slow down and ration their energy. This means that people with ADHD often need recharge time, the length of the recharge depending on the person and how long they’ve been putting off recharging. 

Recharge time can look like hours and hours of couch time, bingeing TV or sleeping in all day. It can be a big jump from ‘sorting things out’ mode in which an ADHDer can do a month’s worth of work in an afternoon. 

There is absolutely no point in trying to get a recharging ADHDer off the couch to do chores, schoolwork or anything that isn’t thoroughly urgent. They will catapult themselves out of recharge mode when they’re ready, so choose your battles, enjoy the peace and quiet, write down any jobs that are their responsibility, and be ready for their return to energiser bunny mode. 

Keep an eye on extended recharge time, because it can look a lot like depression. Being unable to, or uninterested in doing activities that you normally enjoy, feeling lethargic, letting hygiene standards slip and not bothering to eat are all important behaviours to look out for and respond to, regardless of known or suspected neurodiversity. 

People with ADHD get to know their own patterns over time, so they may know that one day on the couch will mean they’ll clear their to-do list in under an hour, or they may plan for a slow weekend following a big deadline. 

Kids with ADHD will be on their way to learning their patterns so noticing their patterns for them, and asking them how they feel if you’re worried, is a solid starting point.


How can tutoring help with quiet ADHD?

Tutoring can be a wonderful way of supporting learners with ADHD. It can create a space where they can drop their perfectionism masks, learn new organisation skills, validate their feelings and fears about their academic performance and practice asking for, and receiving, help.

One-to-one learning means that content can be delivered in a way that responds to someone’s actual interests and strengths, extends their understanding and provides new solutions to learning gaps or problems. 

Symptoms, struggles and superpowers can all be easier to manage with a tailored, responsive and caring plan. Tutoring can be a valuable part of such a plan. 

If you’re curious about Cluey’s approach to tutoring students with ADHD, get in touch with Cluey today.

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