As we continue to celebrate ADHD Awareness Month, I’d like to offer you support and suggestions for dealing with people who don’t understand what it’s like to live with ADHD or believe that it truly exists. Maybe it’s your friend, boss, teacher, coach or a family member. ADHD misconceptions and myths negatively impact people with ADHD, and those who support them, every day. Here are some comments that folks just like you have shared about the biases, judgments and frustrations they encounter every day. We’ll review why these are beliefs and assumptions are false and how you can respond to them with calm confidence.
4 Common ADHD Misconceptions:
1. ADHD is a lack of willpower.
- “I’m tired of hearing that I’m not trying, or I just make excuses.”
- “People think I don’t want help. What I don’t want is for someone to tell me to do something that makes no sense to my brain.”
- “People think we are just hyperactive, stupid or lazy. They don’t understand that we need a different way to understand concepts or approach tasks.”
One of the biggest ADHD misconceptions is that people with ADHD don’t have willpower. But people with ADHD actually have a lot of willpower: You face each day and do the best you can while living with significant executive functioning challenges. You have determination: you try to apply yourself to a variety of tasks in a variety of situations.
Lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain make it much more difficult to muster up the energy and concentration for things that seem uninteresting or unfulfilling and yet, kids and adults with ADHD figure out how to do this when they have access to appropriate supports. You (and/or your child) are a neurodivergent, outside-the-box thinker, which can be a great asset to any project, classroom, team or job. You are warriors.
How you can respond:
When someone talks about laziness or a lack of willpower, consider responding by saying: “ADHD is a biologically-based condition that affects executive functioning skills such as organization, time management and planning. I’m building those skills every day. If you’d like to learn more about ADHD, I’m happy to share some information with you.” Remember that you are warriors, regardless of what others think.
2. Everybody has a little ADHD.
- “A little ADHD. Haha. That’s called distraction.”
- “People think if you are not hyper and wild, you don’t have ADHD.”
- “Don’t we all have ADHD because of computers and smartphones?”
There are different types of ADHD (hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive and combination) and different levels of symptomology (mild, moderate or severe). However, there is no such thing as “a little ADHD,” and technology does not cause ADHD.
Using technology and multitasking can exacerbate symptoms of inattention and impulsivity, but they don’t cause ADHD. ADHD is rooted in a person’s neurology. This is why “everybody has ADHD” is not a valid statement. What we have today is a distracted society, with kids and adults alike accustomed to being virtually connected at all times and expecting immediate responses to questions or problems. These statements minimize your experience as an adult with ADHD, or as a parent of someone with ADHD. It’s easy to feel hurt or angry when you hear them.
How you can respond:
While you might feel frustrated, try responding by saying: “While all people can feel distracted and preoccupied at times, that is very different from the biology of having ADHD.” Do not let their ignorance diminish your lived experience, and focus on your personal strengths.
3. ADHD means lower intelligence.
- “The assumption is that you can’t be at the top of your class and have ADHD.”
- “Kids with ADHD don’t have the same abilities as kids without it.”
- “How do I convince my daughter she is not broken but needs help to teach her the skills she is just lacking in?”
Having ADHD doesn’t mean that your brain is broken or your intelligence is lower. There is more than one way to view intelligence. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences suggests eight to nine different types, including visual-spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, naturalistic intelligence and more. The reality is that everyone has stronger areas of intelligence than others — ADHD or not. But even if you’re simply concerned about IQ, ADHD is not correlated with someone having a a higher or lower score.
People with ADHD struggle with attending to and remembering certain subjects that they’re not interested in–more so than their peers. This is because their memory and attention works differently. What people with ADHD attend to, learn and remember is often determined by what elicits a stronger dopamine response.
This doesn’t mean that they can’t succeed in subjects that don’t interest them, it’s just much more difficult for them. However, people with ADHD can — and often DO — excel in subjects, and especially those that interest them! They can even hyperfocus on interests and activities that attract their attention (which can be, but is not always, a positive experience).
A person with ADHD might also have a lot of knowledge on a subject but struggle with the format of the “tests” that they’re given. Many people with ADHD think, process and recall better in less distracting environments. Some think better when they can move around or fidget. They might need more testing time and/or the flexibility to express their knowledge in different ways. Thus, we can’t effectively assess everyone’s intelligence with a single testing system that wasn’t designed for neurodiverse people.
It’s a common and dangerous ADHD misconception to think low intelligence is linked to ADHD. It can harm confidence and self-esteem.
How you can respond:
So how do you respond to this hurtful ADHD misconception? Try saying: “ADHD doesn’t correlate with higher or lower intelligence. There are many types of intelligence, and people with ADHD are often intelligent in areas that interest us compared to areas that don’t because of how our attention is regulated. Though people with ADHD can struggle in school, it has much more to do with the accessibility and flexibility of the learning and testing systems than it does our intelligence.”
Though people might want to point out your challenges, I encourage you to reflect on, and focus on, your strengths and interests.
4. ADHD means less success.
- “My partner thinks our teenager won’t get into a good college because of his ADHD.”
- “I don’t see the point of trying to sell my art, no one’s going to want it anyways.”
- “People think that those with ADHD will always be ‘a little behind’ their peers.”
Growing up, it might have seemed like adults assessed how well we would “succeed in life” based on our school grades, athletic achievements, ability to make and keep friends, etc. Sometimes, it felt that our “success” as a teenager was going to determine the rest of our lives! Kids and teens can get the impression that they’re destined for failure when they experience struggles in school. That is far from the truth! But, unfortunately, this belief can negatively impact their mood, self-esteem and motivation.
Adults with ADHD still experience difficulties, such as executive functioning, emotional dysregulation and impulsivity challenges. But they can also have a greater understanding of their needs and strengths. They have more experience trying what works and what doesn’t. Even though adulthood brings more challenges (it certainly does), there are also more opportunities for exploration, self-discovery, connections, joy and “success.”
It’s hard to ignore the many societal influences we encounter everyday that promotes a limited idea of what “success” should look like, but it’s important to reflect on what “success” means to you, personally. This way, you make choices that reflect your own goals. Focus on your strengths, interests and values. What would YOU like to accomplish because YOU want to accomplish it? If you have ADHD, you might notice your interests change more frequently than your peers. This might mean your idea of “success” is changing, too, and that’s okay!
How you can respond:
If someone is questioning you or your child’s ability to “succeed,” consider saying something like this: “What it means to ‘succeed’ is often different from one person to the next. People with ADHD might need accommodations in certain school, work, social and community settings, but we can thrive academically, professionally, socially, creatively and in other various ways. We often live successful and fulfilling lives.”
Rather than believing people with ADHD don’t have the means to “succeed,” how can we focus more on helping people with ADHD access the support and accommodations they need so they have more opportunities to succeed?
Read more blog posts:
- Celebrate ADHD Awareness Month by Accepting the Wonderful Uniqueness of Living with ADHD
- Responding to ADHD Doubters: Learn history and science that debunks 5 common ADHD myths
- Negative Memory Bias and ADHD: Tips to Help Kids and Youth with ADHD Remember the Positives
Watch on Dr. Saline’s YouTube Channel:
- How to Deal with & Educate ADHD Doubters
(ADDitude ADHD Q&A with Dr. Saline)
- What the world gets wrong about ADHD – ADHD Awareness Month
(ADDitude ADHD Q&A with Dr. Saline)
- Tips to help your kids make a smooth transition back to school
(WWLP 22 News Mass Appeal interview with Dr. Saline)
Cherry, K. (2019, July 17). Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Verywell Mind. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/gardners-theory-of-multiple-intelligences-2795161.
Fletcher, J. (2019, July 11). ADHD and high IQ: What’s the link? Medical News Today. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325715#are-there-any-links.