When Careless Mistakes Are a Sign of ADHD

Everyone makes unthinking blunders from time to time, but so-called “careless mistakes” are a hallmark of ADHD.

Just ask the DSM, the diagnostic handbook commonly used to diagnose ADHD. One of nine inattentive symptoms listed in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD is:

Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or in other activities

Or, less formally, consult AdaptHD’s own list of 50 signs and symptoms of adult ADHD, where “making careless mistakes” is number 16.

So why are people with ADHD prone to making careless errors?

First, we should clarify that “careless mistakes” in ADHD aren’t literally the result of not caring. Instead, they arise from inattention and could more accurately be called inattentive mistakes.

Inattentive mistakes occur when someone with ADHD isn’t able to fully engage their attention with the task at hand. This can happen in a variety of scenarios, including tasks that are unrewarding, tasks that are automatic, or tasks that an ADHDer is trying to impulsively rush through.

As a consequence, the ADHDer makes some type of mistake that they should know better than to make. That mistake might range from the old milk in the cupboard to writing down the wrong number on a school assignment to sending an email to the wrong person.

Depending on the task, the fallout from an inattentive mistake can range from mildly annoying to life-threatening. Because inattention and executive functioning deficits get in the way of ADHDers’ ability to monitor their own performance for errors, ADHDers are apt to overlook inattentive mistakes once those mistakes have been made.

Although no one lives a life perfectly free of careless mistakes, there are basically two situations where making careless mistakes can be suggestive of underlying ADHD:

  1. When careless mistakes become a pattern that interferes with people’s lives. Inattentive mistakes that recur regularly with a real cost to work, school or personal relationships indicate that something is going on beyond normal absentmindedness, and that something could be ADHD.
  2. When careless mistakes occur in the context of other ADHD symptoms. One inattentive symptom does not an attention deficit make. But if a tendency to commit inattentive errors occurs alongside other inattentive, impulsive or hyperactive symptoms (such as those in the ADHD Symptoms Checklist), it’s a sign of possible ADHD.

The word “careless” makes careless mistakes sound like something trivial, easily remedied with a bit of effort. But in the case of ADHD, inattentive mistakes translate into a real problem because they mean consistently not being able to do things that you know how to do. In almost any possible area of everyday life, a chronic pattern of errors caused by attention slips can do lasting damage.

That’s why, if you suspect careless mistakes might be pointing to a larger issue, it’s more than worth the time to consult a mental health professional. Finding out whether your inattentive oversights are a symptom of ADHD can provide a major insight that paves the way to ADHD treatment and improved quality of life!

Image: Flickr/Valerie Everett

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