It’s so hard to know what to believe — or not to believe — about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The internet is overflowing with articles on ADHD. Some of those articles are good, but some are… not so good. With so much reading material to choose from, how can we know what’s fact, what’s fiction, and everything in between?
There are many myths about ADHD, and I’ve heard them all (I think). Here are some of the most persistent myths that continually come up on my radar. Let’s get to the bottom of this and debunk these tall tales, once and for all!
Myth #1: ADHD isn’t real — it’s a made-up disorder
This is one of the most commonly heard myths that just doesn’t seem to go away, despite all of the research that finds ADHD does indeed exist. It’s like saying depression doesn’t exist. Like depression, ADHD is an invisible condition that doesn’t show up on blood tests or X-rays. We can see high cholesterol on blood tests and broken bones on X-rays, but many folks have a hard time accepting conditions — like ADHD — that aren’t obvious to the naked eye.
Well, ADHD is real, and there’s hard scientific evidence that the condition exists. In fact, researchers have even been able to identify patterns in brain scans and genetic variationslinked to ADHD. As the MIT Technology Review reported, this shows there’s actually a neurological basis for ADHD.
As well, Dr. Philip Shaw, a neuroscientist from the National Institute of Mental Health, led a study showing that there are neurological differences in the brains of children with ADHD. This demonstrated a genetically determined pattern of brain development — specifically, a variation in dopamine receptors.
Another study focusing on adults with ADHD revealed that there are differences in dopamine levels in the brain.
Moreover, the most highly respected and reputable medical associations and organizations recognize ADHD as a real medical disorder: the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institute of Health, just to name a few. ADHD is also listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), which is the official mental health “bible” used by mental health professionals in many countries to diagnose psychiatric and other brain disorders.
Myth #2: Having ADHD means you’re dumb
Let’s get straight to the facts. People with ADHD can be of average, below average, or above average intelligence. Having ADHD doesn’t mean you’re dumb.
And guess what? Dr. Thomas E. Brown, an internationally renowned expert in the field of ADHD, wrote in Psychology Today, “Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has nothing to do with how smart a person is. Some individuals with ADD are super-smart on IQ tests, many score in the average range, and some are much lower.”
He further explains that people with ADHD may score lower on IQ tests (even those with high intelligence) because of difficulties in executive function and problems with short-term memory.
It’s important to know that ADHD doesn’t equate with failure. In fact, there are many extremely successful and talented adults with ADHD. A couple of the more visible ones include:
And there are many more!
Having ADHD doesn’t mean you’re any less intelligent than anyone else. Period.
Myth #3: If you only tried harder, you wouldn’t have ADHD symptoms
This one really gets to me because it suggests that ADHD is something a person can control by sheer determination. It’s like telling someone with severe depression to “just get over it.”
ADHD isn’t a problem of paying attention — it’s a problem of directing or managing your attention appropriately. Being distracted means your attention is elsewhere, and not on the task at hand. When something is intrinsically of interest, people with ADHD can focus, even hyper-focus, for hours. But give them something that is a boring task (I’m thinking paperwork, or worse, your taxes), and most adults with ADHD will shut down faster than a virus-laden computer.
Suggesting that if you only tried harder, you’d get over your ADHD is akin to saying you have a character flaw, and that just isn’t true. You have a true neurobiological disorder that makes it hard to complete tasks, control clutter, and more.
Myth #4: ADHD is a gift
If ADHD is a gift, then why are so many people struggling with keeping their homes and offices in order, getting bills paid on time, and taming impulsive behaviors that can end marriages and get them in trouble at work? Most people who have ADHD don’t think of it as a gift, but rather a curse.
However, some top ADHD experts have said that if someone with ADHD can rein in their symptoms, then it’s much easier for them to access their gifts. Those gifts might include being a talented writer, musician, entrepreneur, or a kind-hearted volunteer who wants to make this world a better place.
If ADHD is a gift, then why is it considered a potential disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Now to be fair, my own experience has shown that many, if not most, adults with ADHD do tend to be creative types who think outside the box. So in some ways, ADHD can be a terrific asset! But a gift? Only if you can untangle yourself from the symptoms that can be pretty debilitating for many.
Myth #5: ADHD is due to poor diet
Remember when your parents or grandparents scolded you for giving your child sugary treats, saying it would make them more hyperactive and cause ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms? Study after study — like this research published in Nutrition Reviews — shows that not to be true.
What we do generally see — for children, anyway — is an increase in activity level in situations where a lot of sugar is offered. Think birthday parties. And along with birthday parties comes excitement and overstimulation. And that combination typically means high activity levels.
In adult settings, we might see this hyper-excitability, as well. Just watch the audience at a hockey game — they all look like they have ADHD! Eating poorly doesn’t cause ADHD. Energy drinks or excessive caffeine, on the other hand, certainly can increase hyperactivity. And a poor diet in general can make people more irritable, lethargic, and just plain unhealthy.
Use good common sense. What you feed your body feeds your brain — but it won’t cause ADHD.
Myth #6: If you can spend hours on computer games and social media, you can’t have ADHD
Ah, this one is a favorite of mine because it shows how poorly understood ADHD is. It’s faulty logic to think that having ADHD means you can’t possibly stick to any activity for any period of time. Some teachers are prone to this sort of thinking — especially when they see their ADHD students unable to sit still, pay attention, or finish their schoolwork.
These teachers might ask, “How is it that a child with ADHD can play Nintendo for hours but not read a page from their assigned reading?”
Why do adults spend hours a day on Facebook, to the point of putting their jobs and relationships in jeopardy?
What we understand now is that ADHD is about self-regulation —controlling our attention and behaviors. Activities that stimulate the ADHD brain can keep that brain fixated for hours on end. And often those activities aren’t very productive or healthy. The ADHD brain is always hungry for stimulation.
It’s not that people with ADHD can’t focus. They can’t “control” their ability to focus or concentrate if the activity isn’t intrinsically interesting. At work, an adult with ADHD may only be able to give 10 minutes of attention to returning important phone calls. Yet at home, they can hyper-focus for hours on activities that are of interest.
This is what makes ADHD so hard to understand. How is it that you can’t seem to stick with a boring task like pulling weeds, doing laundry, or filing paperwork, yet you can easily play a computer game for four hours straight?
The short answer is that the ADHD brain can hyper-focus for hours on end if it’s a brain-stimulating activity. If it’s not, then concentration generally gets derailed into an inner world of thoughts, distractions, or a complete change of an activity of high interest.
So the next time someone tells you that there’s no way you can have ADHD because you can station yourself in front of a TV for hours, try explaining to them that your brain is always searching for interesting things — and the outcome isn’t necessarily enjoyable for you. Your brain can keep you preoccupied for hours.
Keep debunking ADHD myths
How can you help dispel the many myths surrounding ADHD? Keep educating yourself! Read up on the latest research. Pick up the latest books on the topic.
Once you’re up to speed on what’s real and what’s false, you can then educate those around you. Don’t be afraid to tell someone that they’re wrong about ADHD. It’s only by continuing to educate our friends, family, and neighbors about the realities of ADHD that we can lay the myths to rest — permanently.
NPS-US-NP-00291 May 2018