Tailoring Career Development Practices for Clients with ADHD
By Hunter Dickson
Exploring career directions, job searching, or managing a career involves a concerted effort to complete tasks and maintain momentum. While this process may be challenging for any client, it can be particularly difficult for those with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which in turn poses a challenge for career practitioners who might find usual approaches and tools less effective. ADHD symptoms can have a serious impact on the work of career development, as well as on clients’ perceptions and attitudes towards their careers, so it is important to tailor approaches for clients with ADHD.
This accommodation starts with understanding the characteristics of ADHD in diagnosed clients, or in those exhibiting symptoms who might need referral to a mental health professional qualified to make a diagnosis. This understanding allows practitioners to provide better support through appropriate amounts of structure and to offer hope and advocacy to those who may have experienced a sense of failure or hardship throughout their lives.
Understanding Common ADHD Symptoms
The term ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) has been replaced by ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) to include expanded symptomology and subtypes. ADD was first included in the publication of the DSM-III in 1980 (American Psychiatric Association) and included no real differentiation between those with or without hyperactivity. Since then, the name and criteria have gone through multiple revisions, leading to a more refined diagnosis of ADHD, including three subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined. ADD primarily represented the inattentive subtype; the modern use of ADHD allows all subtypes to be represented and more accurately diagnosed (American Psychiatric Association, 1980, 1987, 1994).
ADHD symptoms can manifest on a wide spectrum, so career professionals may observe a range of traits in clients with varying levels of severity. Executive functions, internalization, and co-existing disorders are three ways ADHD can impact career development.
Executive Function. Difficulties with executive functioning skills, such as organizing, time management, and decision making, are some of the most commonly recognized traits of ADHD. The area of the brain that controls and regulates executive functions becomes disrupted, causing those with ADHD to struggle with certain capabilities, leading to inattention, distractibility, and hyperactivity. These results create daily challenges that people with ADHD face throughout life (Dipeolu, 2011). Displays of ADHD symptoms are often apparent in work environments, as many jobs are not designed for a neurodivergent employee. Adults with untreated ADHD tend to be seen “as less adequate at fulfilling work demands, less likely to work independently and to complete tasks, and less likely to get along with supervisors” (Painter et al., 2008, p.178). Career practitioners may see these same challenges as clients attempt to complete homework assignments, track networking outreach, or follow through on job search activities.
Internalization. Internalization refers to the emotional and psychological repercussions caused by life experiences involving ADHD. A snowball effect happens with ADHD in school and in work, that if left untreated, can lead to self-esteem issues and negative outlooks on life and vocational identity (Dipeolu et al., 2013). People with ADHD, especially those undiagnosed, have difficulty explaining certain behaviors or functional difficulties. They regularly face failure and negative feedback from people who do not understand and are frustrated by their tendencies. Both diagnosed and undiagnosed individuals will often end up blaming themselves, with the latter experiencing self-blame more severely (Fleischmann & Miller, 2013).
Coexisting Disorders. Those with ADHD have a higher chance of living with coexisting disorders, most commonly anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Nadeau, 2005). These conditions can impact the severity ADHD symptoms, exacerbating already difficult tasks. For example, someone with ADHD-related anxiety can trigger that anxiety through the natural manifestation of their ADHD (such as forgetting to answer an email from a networking contact). That anxiety then causes their executive functions to weaken even further, creating an unhealthy cycle.
Given these challenges, career counseling or coaching requires more tailored approaches, and the process itself might be longer and more complex than that of a neurotypical client. Structure, hope, and advocacy are three ways to tailor approaches.
Well-structured sessions can help curb clients’ impulsive tendencies, while non-direction in counseling can often cause them to pull away or give up all together (Dipeolu, 2011). This extends to tools and resources career practitioners can provide clients to use during or between sessions. In the past, career professionals have suggested sticky notes, planners, and easy to access calendars to help clients manage career goals (Dipeolu et al., 2011). While those remain helpful, advances in technology offer apps and programs to support a client in building better structures and habits. These include:
Often people with ADHD have a tornado of worries in their head, which, if exacerbated, can cause them to shut down. A successful session allows them to sort through their own thoughts and feelings in a more constructive manner (Nadeau, 2005). Organized guidance in in sessions plus supportive tools can help bring order to a client’s mind.
Providing Emotional Support
Instilling hope in sessions can not only encourage clients to continue to invest their time in the helping process, but to accept their diagnosis as well (Dipeolu, 2011). Career professionals can help by spinning previous negative experiences related to their ADHD into positive ones, emphasizing strengths over weaknesses. This technique is supported by the narrative from Fleischmann and Miller’s (2013) study, in which participants’ experiences with ADHD symptoms were recast through a positive lens.
Providing Advocacy and Resources
Professionals can serve as advocates for clients with ADHD by being familiar with key resources and sharing those with clients, as relevant. These resources can further understanding of the supports available for people with ADHD, as well as provide useful information about managing it. These include:
- The DSM-V criteria and diagnosis of ADHD
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- ADHD community-driven websites such as ADDitude Magazine, ADDA, and CHADD.
Career practitioners need to be aware of these invaluable resources to help clients understand their legal rights and the realities of requesting accommodations. These can also help dispel prevalent misinformation and myths, such as that ADHD manifests only in school-aged boys.
Opportunities to Provide Critical Support
Mental health professionals trained in ADHD are often not trained in career development. Career professionals are in a unique position to provide support to the ADHD community by understanding the effects of ADHD and how it manifests in career development. Career practitioners can better support clients with ADHD by being able to recognize and understand the impact on career exploration, job search, and career management and tailoring approaches to help clients with ADHD experience success in career development.
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Dipeolu, A. O. (2011). College students with ADHD: Prescriptive concepts for best practices in career development. Journal of Career Development, 38(5), 408-427.
Dipeolu, A., Sniatecki, J. L., & Lalin, M. (2011, October 1). Career development keys to post-school transition success for students with ADHD. Career Convergence. https://careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/50250/_self/CC_layout_details/true
Dipeolu, A., Sniatecki, J. L., Storlie, C. A., & Hargrave, S. (2013). Dysfunctional career thoughts and attitudes as predictors of vocational identity among young adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 82(2), 79-84.
Fleischmann, A., & Miller, E. (2013). Online Narratives by Adults With ADHD Who Were Diagnosed in Adulthood. Learning Disability Quarterly, 36(1), 47-60. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24570133
Nadeau, K. G. (2005). Career choices and workplace challenges for individuals with ADHD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(5), 549–563.
Painter, C. A., Prevatt, F., & Welles, T. (2008). career beliefs and job satisfaction in adults with symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Employment Counseling, 45(4), 178–188.
Hunter Dickson is a graduate student in the Counseling and Career Development master’s program at Colorado State University. She is also a career coach for young to mid professionals at Inner Compass Coach LLC. Her research interests include career counseling for people with ADHD and LD and workplace accommodation issues for the neurodivergent community. Reach Hunter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org