Counselor with ADHD helps others navigate the condition

Colleen Adams helped teach the town learn-to-swim program while growing up in Clarence with two sisters and a single mom.

After high school, she earned a bachelor’s in education, master’s in psychology and doctorate in clinical psychology.

She worked as director of special education at a Catholic elementary school before she became a licensed psychologist in 2017.

Those successes came as she also learned to navigate Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“A lot of people with ADHD can do a lot of things,” Adams said. “They just can’t do it without accommodations.”

More than 6 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, making it one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders for those under 18.

Its symptoms can include inattentive, impulsive and overly active behavior.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed with the condition, often in elementary school – although Adams and many others in the mental health field believe that is because its symptoms can present differently in girls, making it more likely they will be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed until closer to adulthood.

“I was diagnosed late in high school,” Adams said, “but I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression first.”

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Her primary care doctor prescribed common anxiety medications, starting her sophomore year in high school, but the diagnosis and treatment plan changed after her therapist brought up the possibility of ADHD. A psychologist confirmed the diagnosis.

“After learning more about what ADHD was, I realized it fit what I was experiencing,” she said. “I fully bought into it.”

Adams, now 37, knows not everyone does, whether it be those who struggle with the condition, family members unfamiliar with mental illness and others who believe ADHD is not an evidence-based disorder.

Today, she owns her own private practice and is CEO of Reawakened Therapeutic Services, a team of six clinicians on Main Street in Buffalo who offer therapy and assessment services in person and online. She also is secretary of the Psychological Association of Western New York.

She specializes in the evaluation and treatment of children, adolescents and young adults working through life circumstances that include learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems, sexuality, gender, adjustment issues and loss, as well as ADHD.

Adams and her wife, Sarah Ryan, chief attorney with the criminal defense unit of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, live in Kenmore.

Here are excerpts from an interview, edited for space and clarity.

It is viewed as an attention disorder. This can be confusing, as people with ADHD can pay attention – just not consistently on what they need to. People with ADHD struggle with executive functioning, defined by as “a range of behavioral symptoms that change how a person regulates emotions, thoughts and actions.”

This makes task completion difficult due to inattention, forgetfulness, disorganization, lack of motivation, distraction, etc. The diagnostic criteria divides symptoms into three categories: “inattentive,” “hyperactive/impulsive” and “combined.”

Q: What are the most common symptoms?

The hyperactive type is typically described as an inability to sit still, appearing driven by a motor, fidgeting, interrupting others, overly talkative. The inattentive type can be more difficult to identify. Common symptoms include difficulty keeping attention, making careless mistakes, problems organizing tasks or frequently losing things needed to complete tasks.

Q: Why did your diagnosis take time to figure out?

ADHD was not on my radar, because I could focus on things and was involved with a variety of activities. Looking back, I had many accommodations in place, and, like many with ADHD, thrived in situations that were competitive, urgent, interesting, challenging and rewarding.

My hyperactivity was viewed more as anxious energy. I do have symptoms of anxiety and depression, possibly due to struggling with ADHD, but medications to treat anxiety and depression didn’t work for me. I responded well after switching to an ADHD medication and shifting counseling work to focus on ADHD support skills and strategies.

Q: Some have maintained over the years that there is no evidence ADHD exists.

Dr. Colleen Adams (copy)

Medication, counseling and lifestyle changes have helped Colleen Adams address her ADHD.

Those people have argued that it is “is not real” because it cannot be “objectively verified and measured,” which is not accurate. Health professionals agree diagnosing ADHD should not be based solely on the results of one test or a singular subjective opinion.

When there is evidence that a collection of symptoms tends to present together, it can be helpful to label them as a diagnosis, so we can find treatments. This is how we diagnose ADHD.

Q: How does someone determine that someone has it?

People receive the diagnosis either from their primary care doctor, a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Psychologists use scientifically developed and validated measures found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

In addition to administering assessments that explore cognitive skills and IQ, academic achievement, attention performance and executive functioning skills, providers collect information from those seeking a diagnosis, as well as parents and teachers. It is important to look and see if something else is causing what looks like ADHD symptoms.

Although a school system typically can’t give an ADHD diagnosis, they can provide an assessment to help identify strengths and weaknesses, and, if appropriate, help guide families toward a provider that can give a diagnosis. After assessing all the results, a clinician writes a detailed report explaining their conclusions and providing treatment recommendations.

Q: Is there a bundle of of symptoms, regardless of what kind of ADHD?

In addition to attention and executive functioning deficits, those with ADHD often struggle with information processing, working memory and, sometimes, learning challenges. Sensory sensitives, emotional regulation, sleep problems and adaptive skill challenges are also common.

Assessment helps clarify someone’s unique set of skills and weakness. Learning disabilities – reading, writing, math – are very common. By including IQ and academic assessments in an evaluation, you’re able to explore if common co-occurring disorders are also present.

Dr. Colleen Adams (copy)

“A lot of people with ADHD can do a lot of things,” mental health counselor Colleen Adams says. “They just can’t do it without accommodations.” Adams was diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager.

Q: What is the treatment generally like?

That has evolved, and can differ based on age, life circumstances and specific symptoms. A lot of people think medication is the only answer. However, some learn how to cope without it. I like to give recommendations in multiple areas: therapy, diet, work and school accommodations or daily life ideas. For children and some families, this is often a hard conversation. A lot of times, it’s not the child that needs to make these changes, it’s going to be the parent – so a blend of individual and family work is often helpful.

Q: What are some of the common lifestyle changes?

Having a structured, predictable schedule really can help. It’s not something that individuals with ADHD really love to have. One common accommodation is working four days a week or decreasing your workload. In schools, students can receive accommodations such as extended time on tests, preferential seating, test completion in a smaller setting with fewer distractions. Sometimes, middle or high school students will be exempt from certain classes, not that they’re incapable, but that a specific class may push them beyond their limit, impacting overall well-being and ability to be successful in core classes.

Q: What do you say to parents or guardians who receive concerns about ADHD from school?

That varies. I always want to see what headspace caregivers are in. I’ll start with listening about how they’re feeling, what they are experiencing and what questions they have. There are many people who feel very validated or relieved when they get a diagnosis. There are others who will feel embarrassed or fearful. I provide a lot of education about how ADHD can impact relationships, not just academics or performance.

Q: Where can people learn more on their own?

The CHADD website ( is good for families. ADDitude magazine ( is another. I also encourage parents to seek out a support group or work with a therapist to learn about ADHD. What kind does my child have? Where are their strengths and weaknesses, and how can you capitalize on those to help with accommodations?

Q: What were you like in the years before college?

Chatty. That was always on my report cards: talks too much. I’m very social, but I was able to do whatever I needed to get good grades. I was a delayed reader, which is another common feature with people with ADHD. By the time I was in middle school, I was taking all the advanced classes, and in high school, I was in all AP and honors. I really worked hard to present in a certain way, and that’s where I think the anxiety started.

At the time, it looked like, “Hey, this girl has it all together, she’s getting pretty good grades. She’s social. She’s active. She can’t have ADHD.” I know now that I am really good at masking symptoms and able to hide challenges from others.

For more information visit the ADHD Resource page on the website of the Psychological Association of WNY.

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