Adult ADHD Isn’t What You Think It Is

When most people think of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, they think of a 10 year old boy who can’t sit still and who gets distracted by any new shiny object.  And in fact, the DSM V diagnostic criteria for ADHD is still based on research of the externally observable behavior of boys under the age of 12.   But ADHD in adults is so much more about our internal experience, and it isn’t actually about a deficit of attention or about observable hyperactivity. In fact, adults with ADHD tend to pay attention to everything, which can cause an internal hyperactivity. We can also devote intense focus and energy on a task or topic when activated to do so. Sound familiar?

And the “disorder” label implies that that ADHD results in “clinically significant distress or disability.”  Yes, adults with ADHD are presented with challenges because of their ADHD, but they are also granted a number of gifts or unique strengths that I think of as “superpowers.”  These can include such talents as high levels of imagination and creativity, a strong sense of intuition or the ability to “connect the dots” before anyone else can, and the ability to shift gears rapidly as external priorities change, to name few.

So how can we call ADHD a “disorder” when it bestows so many gifts?  I prefer to think of it simply as a “brain difference”, or as an “Interest-based nervous system” as Dr. William Dodson describes it after decades of working with adults with ADHD.  He describes two fundamentally different nervous systems in adults:

Neurotypical or “Importance-Based Nervous System”
This is what people without ADHD — or neurotypical people — often have. They find motivation for and engage on tasks based on importance. The task or topic may be important to themselves or to others, such as a boss, co-workers, spouse, family member, or friend. And the degree of importance may be related to a reward for doing the work or punishment for not doing it. Knowing the importance of doing the work and the related potential for reward or punishment is enough to provide these individuals with the motivation they need to “engage on demand” on tasks or projects.

ADHD or “Interest-Based Nervous System”
Adults with ADHD, however, are typically not motivated by importance, reward, or punishment.  Instead, we need to have an authentic or intrinsic interest in the task or topic in order to muster the motivation we need to engage with it.  And this interest takes one of the following forms: 

  • Interesting: A topic, task, or project is intellectually stimulating or intriguing enough to trigger genuine curiosity or a desire to learn more or solve a problem.

  • Challenging: I like to think of this as “challenging in a good way” because we all think of challenges differently. Some of us become highly motivated to take on a big challenge, especially when others think it’s impossible or dare us to try it. “You can’t do that!” is often the motivator some need to dive into a task and prove the other person wrong.

  • Novel or Creative: This is when a task or project provides an opportunity to develop something new or approach a problem in a creative or completely different way.

  • Passion: Current research appears to indicate that for some their values or attachments to causes – or perhaps to those they love – can provide interest-based motivation.

  • Urgency: Many adults with ADHD have become “urgency junkies,” waiting until the last minute to engage on a project, because the urgency of a looming deadline provides the motivation they need to engage and focus.  But waiting until the last minute often doesn’t produce the best results, and our work may suffer. 

Understanding the differences between neurotypical people and those of us with ADHD is key to laying the foundation for living our best lives (see my Model for Success with ADHD ).  Other keys are medical (medication) support, physical self-care, and support from others. 

In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about the importance of leading with your superpowers, managing your challenges, and practicing self-compassion. 

If you’d like to learn more about my individual coaching or my soon-to-be announced coaching groups, please get in touch.