ADHD: it’s not just for kids, and it’s not an excuse for parents to medicate their kids. In fact, the majority of people with the disorder are not hyperactive. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it’s more akin to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than to a mood disorder like Bipolar in that the person with ADHD has never known life without it. Because of this, it can be understood as a difference in perception--how you receive and respond to stimuli--that in turn makes it harder to meet expectations of our neurotypical society. But it’s important to remember that ADHD is not a hopeless diagnosis. You can’t change how your brain developed, but you can learn and improve skills to make your life easier.
The disorder is genetic, not caused by brain damage, environmental factors in utero, or things like video games. The neurobiological cause of ADHD is not fully understood, but for one reason or another, ADHD brains don’t receive enough dopamine, and different parts of the brain don’t communicate with each other as well as they should. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that contributes to many major functions of the brain such as reward-based motivation and reinforcement. It also contributes to executive function, an umbrella term that includes the ability to control attention and impulsive behavior, temporarily hold onto thoughts, tune out external stimuli, and switch between or think multiple thoughts at once.
A helpful analogy to understand this disorder is by pretending the brain is a car: the neurotypical brain has an automatic transmission and the ADHD brain has a manual one. Both brains are made up of the same basic parts, except for that extra component in neurotypical ones that enables the car to shift gears automatically. The stick shift works just as well as the automatic-- it’s just harder to drive.
Now imagine you have a manual transmission, except you don’t know it’s a manual. Or you do know, but either way you’re still expected to drive as if you have an automatic. Driving stick like it’s an automatic wouldn’t be very effective, and trying to teach yourself how to do it when you don’t even know what’s different about your transmission is probably not that easy.
In essence, ADHD results in impaired self-regulation and executive function, and general under stimulation re: lack of dopamine. Symptoms never work in isolation and often perpetuate one another. For example, when doing homework you dislike, you aren’t just bored but excruciatingly bored, as your brain is under stimulated and struggles to regulate emotions. You also struggle to prioritize, direct your attention, and control impulsive behavior, so you’re more likely to drop the homework for something you like instead. These same issues and the spike in dopamine make it hard to stop doing the thing you like. Add on an impaired response to reward-based motivation, and that homework assignment isn’t getting done. This, of course, is a generalized view of ADHD, which has 19+ symptoms and a spectrum of severity.
The disorder can also be pretty isolating. It’s hard for people without ADHD to understand how someone can struggle with something so easy they don’t have to think about it. Others will tell you that everyone struggles with those issues and dismiss you completely. The widespread tendency for others to view your symptoms as personal failures and character flaws leads you to do the same. It’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to be overwhelmed by self-loathing, feelings of shame, and low self-esteem. This is especially true for those who aren’t diagnosed or weren’t until adulthood.
People with ADHD want to be and are just as hard working, ambitious, thoughtful, and attentive as neurotypicals. ADHD isn’t a personality type, but an impairment. Telling someone with the disorder to “care more” or “work harder” does about as much as telling a blind person to see or a paralyzed person to walk. An ADHD diagnosis isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, it’s an explanation for why you struggle and an avenue towards getting help. Instead of punishment or judgement, people with ADHD need tools, resources, and compassion that allow them to work with their brain, not against it.
If any part of this article resonated with you, you can find more information at additudemag.com, chadd.org and add.org.
Charlotte Lerner-Wright graduated in 2018 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. An apparent masochist and downright nerd, she will return to school in the fall of 2019 to get her Master's in history at the University of Edinburgh. Outside the classroom, you can find Charlotte cuddling her three tiny dogs, drinking Thai iced tea, and drawing while binge-watching Netflix. She hopes to one day use history to empower the disenfranchised and invoke lasting change.