Inattention & ADHD: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Inattention is one of the three categories of symptoms related to Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Learn more about the different types of ADHD, inattention, how they are related, and more.

Problems Paying Attention

Imagine that you are a kid playing basketball with a group of friends. You manage to catch the ball and attempt a few shots during the game. You have not been keeping up with the score and you have no idea who is in the lead. At times, you pass the ball to the wrong teammate because you cannot concentrate enough to notice which players are open.

You notice a group of beautiful butterflies while you are waiting on a teammate to pass the ball, so you stop to look at the butterflies and miss the pass. While the team is on a one-minute time out, you get bored and decide to leave your basketball game and go to some other team's game that is being played on another court nearby. Your problems with paying attention to the basketball game, which teammates are open, and the score are signs of inattentiveness, which is a subtype of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Subtypes of ADHD

You are probably already somewhat familiar with ADHD. ADHD is a behavioral disorder that is defined by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, or a mixture of the three. Hyperactive behaviors include fidgeting, the inability to sit in a desk for the duration of a class, and constantly running around the room. Hyperactive people are usually described as having too much energy. Impulsiveness includes being impatient, not waiting your turn, making quick decisions without thinking about the consequences (i.e. impulse shopping), and blurting out things without thinking.

It is important to remember that all children display some level of inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive behaviors. It is a normal part of childhood. However, children with ADHD experience these behaviors more often than their same-aged peers, and the behaviors are usually more serious. The three subtypes of ADHD are:

  • ADHD Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type
    • Least common ADHD subtype
    • Very few symptoms of inattention, if any
    • Several hyperactive and impulsive behaviors
  • ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Type
    • Very few hyperactive or impulsive behaviors, if any
    • Several inattentive behaviors
  • ADHD Combined Type
    • Most common ADHD subtype
    • Includes several hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive behaviors

What Do We Mean By Inattention?

Inattention is just what it sounds like: the inability to direct and sustain attention. Direct attention refers to the ability to select relevant information to pay attention to while ignoring information that is non-relevant. For example, your focus should have been on the basketball (relevant information) while you were playing; however, you were distracted by the beautiful butterflies (non-relevant information) and missed the pass.

Sustain attention refers to the ability to focus on something for an extended amount of time, i.e., for the amount of time it takes you to complete the task or absorb all of the relevant information. In the example above, you could not pay attention long enough to complete the basketball game, so you left before the game was over.

It is easier for individuals with ADHD to sustain and direct attention while they are doing something enjoyable. Think about the example above. As long as the basketball was in your hand, you paid enough attention to dribble it and make shots. It was when the ball left your hand that you had trouble sustaining attention.

Other signs of inattention include

  • Trouble focusing on one thing
  • Easily bored and distracted
  • Trouble completing a task or following instructions
  • Trouble learning something new
  • Turning in incomplete assignments or assignments with a lot of mistakes
  • Not listening
  • Misplacing things often
  • Trouble staying on task

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