ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that, while sometimes accused of being overdiagnosed, is often misunderstood. Some of this is due to the lingering effects of the ‘ADHD craze’ in the early 90s, and the dramatic rise in ADHD diagnoses over the last 30 years or so.
While our knowledge of ADHD has come leaps and bounds in the past decade, a number of harmful myths and stereotypes still surround it. These misconceptions about ADHD can cause both sufferers and their families great frustration, as people without ADHD often misunderstand the causality of symptoms.
Let’s dispel several of the myths surrounding ADHD, and explain how you can help support people with ADHD in your life.
Myth 1: ADHD is an inability to focus due to behavioural problems.
While ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, this doesn’t begin to accurately describe the condition. It’s often misunderstood as a lack of attention span. People with ADHD can focus their attention on interesting tasks to a great degree, perhaps even greater than those without the condition.
If ADHD isn’t a lack of attention span, what is it?
ADHD comes with its own unique sort of ‘superpower’, called hyperfocus. The ADHD person will focus on a single task to such a degree, that everything else becomes irrelevant background noise. This is the opposite of an attention deficiency, it’s an attention surplus.
You can think of this hyper-focus as a built-in defence mechanism of ADHD. The ADHD brain is easily distracted, constantly evaluating external information. In a way, the ADHD brain is hyper-alert – a very useful trait to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who listened for stealthy animal paws crunching twigs underfoot.
Thus, an ADHD child in the classroom will notice every ‘tick’ of the clock, every pen tapping on a desk, or even an interesting pattern of chipped paint on the wall. Again, this a very useful trait for defending a tribe from wolves at night, but a major hindrance in the modern century. This introduction to ADHD for parents can help you understand your ADHD child a bit more.
The ADHD brain becomes overwhelmed by all of the sensory overloads, causing them to react in one of two ways:
- Impulsively ‘lashing out’ at their environment, like throwing a spear into the bushes.
- Tuning out everything but a single stimulus, like a cat’s ears perking towards a sound.
Parents who witness this behaviour may believe their child is either acting out of control or is an inattentive dullard who can’t follow directives. In the early-to-mid ’90s, ADHD medication was often prescribed as a way to ‘control’ the impulsive outbursts of an ADHD child, who were thought to be unruly and disruptive.
Another interesting thing to note is that both reaction types above aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, an ADHD person may be engaged in their hyper-focus, then angrily lash out for being distracted, like a suddenly startled cat who was fixated on tracking something.
The truth is that the ADHD brain is simply choosing a defence mechanism (similar to fight-or-flight responses) to protect itself from environmental stimuli. As a child, this defence mechanism is often impulsive actions (throwing a spear at the bushes) – though they’ll also exhibit hyper-focus behaviour.
Adults with ADHD, on the other hand, may further develop the hyper-focus ability as a countermeasure to hyper-alertness. They filter out all of the stress-causing stimuli, at the risk of becoming entirely absorbed in a single focus.
Many adults with ADHD have learned to use their hyper-focus as a strength, giving them an unparalleled ability to persist at tasks – yet it comes at the expense of neglecting other things around them, including house chores, personal grooming, and even their relationship partners.
Myth 2: ADHD people are lazy and unmotivated
While ADHD can cause a person to appear disorganized, this is often mistaken for laziness. The issue isn’t a lack of goals, but rather a difficulty prioritizing goals in ranking order.
As mentioned earlier, ADHD grants a hyper-focus ‘superpower’. This makes multitasking nearly impossible for them, but that doesn’t mean the ADHD person isn’t giving effort somewhere in their life. It just means they aren’t giving effort to ‘unimportant’ things they aren’t focused on. Where the ADHD brain trips up in evaluating important vs unimportant efforts.
Normal brains rank tasks and goals by effort/reward ratio, and most importantly, long-term gratification: ‘If I get an A+ on my test next week, my parents will take me to Disney World next month.’
While this sounds like a reasonable compromise of effort/reward to a normal brain, an ADHD brain compares how rewarding their ‘right now’ interests are – and the ‘right now’ usually always wins.
Thus, the gratification of staying up all night to draw comic book sketches is rewarding right now, whereas studying nets a reward of going to Disney World next month. So, studying gets moved to the bottom of the priority checklist. The ADHD brain craves constant, immediate positive feedback loops, so carrots-on-a-stick hardly works as motivators.
So this scenario isn’t a laziness issue, but a lack of motivation issue – and the trouble with the ADHD brain is that it tends to disregard rewards attained over time, in favour of rewards it can attain right now.
This also manifests as difficulty to plan long-term goals in adulthood and is why ADHD people may appear to be ‘underachievers’ later in life.
In more severe cases of ADHD, they can even ignore their own bodily needs, such as eating on time. In any case, ADHD people aren’t forgetful due to mental laziness, they’re preoccupied with more pressing matters; matters that may seem trivial to the bystander, but are wholly important to the ADHD person.
ADHD – not lazy, just working really hard at one thing.
Laziness implies a state of lethargy, whereas the ADHD child is just expending their energy on other things. Seriously, watch them go with their crayons! This is where the distinction between ADHD and laziness gets so muddled.
This pattern continues into adulthood, but it takes a bitter turn. ADHD adult is entirely aware that they’re neglecting more important tasks, but wrenching themselves away from their current engagement takes a tremendous amount of effort.
ADHD adult is aware of a dirty plate; they know they should take it to the sink. But they really need to put the finishing details on this painting first. The dirty plate is staring at them from the corner of their eye. There’s a nagging voice in the back of their head. Yet stopping the “flow” of their task is too difficult. So the ADHD brain continues painting while feeling anxious about that plate the whole time.
Their ADHD brain has trouble juggling the effort/reward ratio. If I take this dirty plate to the sink, I can focus on my painting stress-free. But in fact, learning to engage that pattern of thinking is one technique used to manage ADHD.
Imagine covering yourself in Gorilla glue and sticking yourself to a hard surface, then trying to pull yourself away. That’s what it’s like for an ADHD person when they force themselves to disengage and shift focus. The energy required to break free of the glue and jump into another task is the equivalent of pushing a loaded minecart uphill; not impossible, but certainly exhausting.
This is why ADHD adults often complain of being ‘mentally exhausted’; they spend their lives in a world that’s constantly asking them to shift their attention, jumping from one task to the next, while their minds never truly disengage from the stimulus that came before.
Understand that it’s not them; the fault isn’t with the ADHD person. It’s like blaming someone with anxiety for heart palpitations. ADHD itself is not a character flaw.
Myth 3: ADHD can be controlled through sheer willpower
There are two persistent myths about ADHD, and both are related to willpower. Some parents believe their ADHD child isn’t ‘trying hard enough’, they just need to ‘buckle down’ and ‘stop acting out’. They believe the child chooses to behave positively or negatively, and the child simply has authority issues. They may believe that ADHD itself is a myth, a symptom of undisciplined children.
The second myth is related, but at least acknowledges the existence of ADHD. However, some well-intentioned parents simply underestimate the ADHD’s severity and believe the ADHD child simply needs to try harder at controlling it.
Asking a child to control their ADHD, through sheer willpower alone, is like asking someone with high blood pressure to make their blood pressure go down simply by exercising more willpower.
If you’re asking ‘can’t or won’t?’, the answer is a resounding can’t.
While the ADHD child may force themselves to sit still, the anxiety of environmental stimuli builds up like a flooding dam. And at some point, asking the child to hold back the river is like adding an extra brick to the dam; it’s all just going to be swept away when the dam bursts, no matter what.
Adults can manage impulsivity a bit better, at least to where it doesn’t burst out and disrupt other people. But you can still catch them bouncing their legs, squirming in their seat, or otherwise fidgeting quietly. This often isn’t due to physical restlessness, or an overabundance of energy, but rather mental restlessness, which is manifesting itself physically.
Managing ADHD symptoms often requires multiple forms of intervention. While many people take prescribed medication for their ADHD, they often find they still need additional therapeutic techniques to help them stay on track.
These self-help techniques may involve things like:
- Organising to-do lists and setting up reminders
- Breaking down ‘boring’ tasks into smaller, more manageable steps
- Exercising regularly to help improve focus and concentration
- Visualising rewards for completing tasks to help increase motivation
At the end of the day, ADHD can be managed; that isn’t a myth. But it takes trial and error, and often combining different management techniques to find the most effective solution for the ADHD individual.
Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.