According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 4.4% of adults aged 18 to 44 are diagnosed with ADHD in the US, with lifetime prevalence rates as high as 8%. ADHD is a culturally well-known diagnosis that is primarily categorized by inattention, hyperactivity, and distraction. People with ADHD can struggle to initiate and complete routine tasks, meet deadlines, and focus at work or school. However, this two-dimensional understanding of ADHD often fails to capture the dynamic experience of those who live with it and the many unique abilities people with ADHD possess.
Often, an initial barrier to ADHD treatment is one’s own sense of shame and guilt about their perceived deficits and inability to meet social and cultural expectations around managing day-to-day tasks, such as being on time or focusing at work or school. While skills training and lifestyle changes can help with these challenges, as clinicians we find that it is especially important to remind clients with ADHD that their humanity comes first—before the market, before their boss’ opinion of them, before their GPA—and that they are human above all. In fact, people with ADHD often possess traits that truly allow them to outshine their neurotypical counterparts. We often wonder, outside of our late-stage capitalist and task-oriented society that rewards productivity above all else, would the ADHD brain even be considered challenging? Let’s explore some of the ways people with ADHD thrive, despite living in a society obsessed with productivity.
Creativity and Imagination
One of the inspiring aspects of working with clients who have ADHD is to bear witness to their ability to take an imaginative approach to their own issues. When given the therapeutic space to do so, clients with ADHD can create games out of obstacles, set their own perspective aside to look at it from all angles, and arrive at bespoke solutions to their own problems. Even clients who do not consider themselves traditionally “creative” consistently demonstrate a capacity for cognitive flexibility that is rarely observed in neurotypical clients.
The label of “attention-deficit” is somewhat of a misnomer as clients with ADHD routinely spend the most time researching their symptoms and actively seeking to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and how their brain works. When a client with ADHD requests additional information about a topic covered during session, that client is not unlikely to soon become a pseudo-expert on the topic in question. It seems people with ADHD never lose their sense of child-like wonder about the world around them—which is the exact same energy that allows them to approach their own obstacles with a kind of unhinged originality. There’s something meandering and insatiably curious about the brains of people with ADHD and this often leads them to unique solutions.
As mentioned above, people with ADHD do not lack the ability to pay attention to something—when it interests them. And when something does interest them, whether it’s learning about their own symptoms, a new hobby, or a recently discovered topic of interest, no one is able to pour their attention into a subject like a person with ADHD. This is what is known as hyper-focus. Although it can be frustrating to be unable to pay attention when others are expecting you to or when you are trying to exercise discipline to achieve a goal, rest assured that the ability to pay attention remains intact (if not always under their full control).
Self-imposed High Standards
Although this can sometimes be to their own detriment, people with ADHD consistently hold themselves to exceptionally high standards. Because of their uncanny ability to focus intently on a task, they are aware of the high-level results they can achieve when they put their mind to it. Even when supervisors, teachers, or loved ones don’t expect them to, clients with ADHD often adhere to their own set of standards and produce work that goes above and beyond.
People with ADHD are uniquely cued into the environment around them, and this includes other people. Whether it stems from a mental flexibility that allows them to easily take on the perspective of another or from experiencing how difficult it can be to manage their own emotions, clients with ADHD frequently display uncommon levels of sensitivity towards others. This sensitivity can manifest in ways such as an unwavering sense of social justice or as an empathic awareness of how the people around them are feeling.
People with ADHD See the World Differently
We need the bendable, distractable, intense, and vibrant minds of people with ADHD (and other neurodivergent folks) to create new systems and ways of being in the world that wouldn’t otherwise be dreamed up. Pathologizing the ADHD brain is a waste of potential and a gross misunderstanding of the innate talent and ingenuity possessed by individuals living with ADHD. With some patience, appreciation for their abilities, and adaptations to the workflow, people with ADHD consistently make invaluable teammates, employees, and leaders.