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ADHD: What it really looks like

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

When someone mentions "ADD" or "ADHD" what do you picture in your head? What does ADHD look like to you? Is it that out-of-control 6 year old in the grocery store throwing a fit? Is it the class clown in your son's 7th grade class? Is it the kid who spends an hour to answer 3 math problems? ADD doesn't always fit our stigmatized expectations of it. It can look like this:

"I get good grades, but I have to study a lot harder than my classmates do. Sometimes, it feels like all the information is overwhelming. Other times, I "wake up" in class and realize that I've missed the last five things my teacher said. I try to pay attention to everything, which ends up meaning I can't focus on anything specific. I get distracted really easily, but I'm not a behavior problem."

"I'm really creative, and smart too, but I "zone out" unless we're talking about my favorite TV show. I can watch it for hours and not get bored! I get bored in class because the thoughts in my head are more interesting than the ones on the paper. I think that there are some really cool things about science, but I'd rather learn them myself instead of reading about them. It's hard to pay attention when the teacher is just reading from the book."

"I have trouble getting things done on time at work, and meeting long term deadlines is next to impossible! I can play video games for eight hours straight, no problem, but finishing a PowerPoint for the meeting? It's tough! Somehow, I can lose myself in the game, but when I have to sit down at my office and work I get agitated. I'm not being lazy, I just find it hard to do"

These examples are consistent with the real life situations that my clients report when they first come in. They are generally bright, motivated individuals, but they have some struggles related to their sustained and/or executive attention. Now, the examples above are of individuals who experience primarily inattentive ADHD, but there are the hyperactive examples as well.

"I run everywhere. Why not? I like the feeling of moving fast! Sitting still and not talking makes me nervous. Before you know it, I have to get up again. After I move around for a minute, I feel better. I get into trouble at school... a lot. The teacher is always yelling at me to 'sit back down and get back to work,' and I do try, but my muscles want to move. If I'm not allowed to get out of my seat, then I kick my legs or wiggle. That helps sometimes. I wish I could learn on the playground. Then I wouldn't get in trouble."

But what is ADHD, really? Is it a behavior problem or a learning disorder? Is it just bad parenting? Actually, it is none of the above. ADHD alone is not a behavior problem, and it is not a learning disorder. Being ADHD doesn't mean you are stupid, lazy, or that you have a bad attitude. It does mean that you have trouble paying attention to the important things for extended periods of time without intervention. It's that simple. Things your brain finds stimulating, like a video game, can be done without as much, if any, difficulty, becuase you are invested in the activity. Chances are, that activity is between you and a stimulating input, and distractions can be pushed out of the environment. The stimuli could be mental (as in the case of a video game), physical (such as a sport or exercise), or social (think talking on the phone for long periods of time). ADHD just means that rather than pay attention to the things we need to notice and ignoring everything else, everything in our environment is given equal importance, and we try to categorize and analyse everything. That is executive attention. The way we express ADHD differs for each of us, though, and it isn't always in motor movement. It can be by doodling on homework, daydreaming, or procrastinating. You can fight it (hyperactivity) or go with it (inattention), but the brain is doing the same thing in all cases: It's working too slowly to diferentiate stimuli into important and not.

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