Chances are we’ve all heard of ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Despite its prevalence and the decades of research dedicated to it, ADHD is still widely misunderstood. An important part of breaking the stigma surrounding mental health issues is deepening our understanding of them and, by extension, the people who live with them. While you’ll never fully know what it’s like to live with ADHD unless you have it yourself, there are some important things that those with ADHD in your life probably want you to understand.
A lot of what we’re about to learn about ADHD will make more sense if we have a basic understanding of some of the neurological processes that underlie it, so before we dive in, let’s talk about dopamine.
No one understands exactly what causes ADHD, but research reliably attributes many symptoms to lower levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine (which acts as a chemical messenger in your brain). Dopamine plays a major role in regulating a myriad of different brain functions, including attention. In those with ADHD, the brain’s ability to successfully regulate and transport healthy amounts of dopamine where it needs to go is impaired. This means that while people without ADHD can still attend to less engaging tasks because they know they need to do them, those with ADHD are often not physically able to do so. Essentially, an ADHD brain isn’t able to pay attention to something that isn’t novel, challenging, or urgent. Even though oftentimes a person with ADHD knows when they’re neglecting important things (like chores, personal hygiene, or schoolwork), it can be pretty well impossible to override their neurochemistry on their own.
Now that we have a very basic understanding of how ADHD affects the brain, here are some of the most common ADHD myths and the facts to bust them wide open:
ADHD is a lack of attention
This misconception is a common one, and understandably so – after all, attention deficit implies a lack of attention. This is one of several reasons why many ADHD advocates and experts believe that the condition should be renamed. When we see someone with ADHD struggling to pay attention to a certain task, oftentimes what we’re actually seeing is the result of an excess of attention. Say a student with ADHD has a Zoom lecture that they ought to be paying attention to – at the same time, their brain is constantly looking for stimulation and directing their attention in a dozen directions: towards random thoughts that pop into their head, towards tasks they’d forgotten about and suddenly recalled, towards other tabs they have open on their desktop, and so on. When we think about it this way, we see that ADHD is a lack of focused attention, not a deficit in attention itself.
People with ADHD pick and choose when they can and can’t focus
So, we’ve learned about how ADHD involves a lack of focused attention, but does that mean people with ADHD can’t focus on any one thing ever? The answer is no, though if you have an ADHD loved one you probably already knew that. In fact, most people with ADHD can hyperfocus: this means they can become completely consumed by whatever it is that’s holding their attention, oftentimes forgetting to eat, drink water, or even go to the bathroom while in the grips of it. Some people with ADHD see their ability to hyperfocus as a superpower – they may often normally have trouble getting things done at work, for instance, but when they’re hyperfocused, they can pump out a few days worth of work in one night, triggered by the urgency of a fast-approaching deadline. Others with ADHD find this cycle of procrastination and hyperfocus exhausting and unsustainable but still have trouble breaking it. Either way, the consensus is that hyperfocus is a symptom rather than a choice.
All people who have ADHD are hyperactive
There is a long and complicated history surrounding how ADHD got its name, however today it suffices just to know that it has 3 distinct presentations: Primarily Hyperactive (ADHD-PH), Primarily Inattentive (ADHD-PI), or Combined (ADHD-C). Inattentive symptoms such as spacing out or becoming easily bored are harder to spot than hyperactive symptoms like trouble sitting still, excessive talking, and interrupting. This means that ADHD-PI is often underdiagnosed. Many believe that the reason boys are 3-4 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD isn’t necessarily because the condition is less prevalent in girls, but because most girls with ADHD are primarily inattentive, meaning their symptoms raise fewer flags for teachers and parents and are much less likely to receive a formal ADHD diagnosis than their male peers.
Kids should outgrow ADHD by the time they’re adults
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that has no “cure.” People with ADHD can learn how to effectively manage many of their symptoms as they age, but this doesn’t mean they’ll “outgrow” their struggles. Although it is often diagnosed in childhood, someone with ADHD has always had and will always have ADHD – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Oftentimes, parents may realize that they’ve been struggling with ADHD their entire lives only after having one of their children diagnosed. Other times, a lifestyle change (such as unemployment or a breakup) can cause carefully crafted symptom-management systems to crumble and lead adults of all ages to uncover ADHD diagnoses. Either way, an ADHD diagnosis is not a life sentence. Everyone’s ADHD journey is different, but regardless of age, ADHD treatments (including stimulant medication and coaching or psychotherapy) can be extremely effective, and allow adults with ADHD to live successful, organized, and fulfilling lives.