BY DR. JENNIFER SULLIVAN
ADHD only occurs in childhood. Wrong.
Doesn’t everybody have ADHD? Nope.
Adult ADHD is just an excuse for laziness. No!
Myths and misconceptions about adult ADHD abound. They can have harmful consequences, such as those with ADHD going undiagnosed and untreated. Worse still, those with undiagnosed ADHD may attribute their symptoms to personal shortcomings, resulting in feelings of shame and guilt, low self-esteem, and a negative self-concept.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work dispelling some of the most common myths about adult ADHD!
MYTH: ADHD only occurs in childhood.
FACT: Although some children may outgrow ADHD, at least 60 percent will continue to experience symptoms in adulthood. This myth likely persists because symptoms of ADHD in adulthood present differently and are often less obvious to others. In Canada, there are about 1.1 million adults with ADHD according to the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada.
MYTH: Adult ADHD is mainly a problem with poor focus.
FACT: The problems experienced by adults with ADHD are much broader than attentional difficulties. Experts describe ADHD as a disorder involving executive functioning (EF) deficits. In layman’s terms, executive functioning is "the management system of the brain," and involve skills that help us "set goals, plan, and get things done," says Understood.org.
Here are some of the many ways that executive functioning difficulties may manifest in adult ADHD:
- difficulty making decisions
- boredom proneness (becomes bored easily)
- problems focusing on tasks that aren’t intrinsically interesting
- chronic disorganization (despite efforts to get organized)
- forgetful in everyday tasks; often misplaces items such as phone, keys, etc.
- trouble resisting distractions; gets off-task easily
- struggles with prioritizing tasks
- has a hard time starting tasks (chronically procrastinates), especially when tasks are boring or require significant mental effort
- trouble finishing tasks; takes much longer than expected to complete work
- struggles with task persistence/perseverance; gives up easily on difficult tasks
- poor time management; difficulty estimating time—can lead to chronic lateness
- trouble setting goals (due to problems thinking about/preparing for future events)
- has a hard time ‘shifting gears’ (transitioning between tasks)
- difficulty retaining what they have heard or read
MYTH: Adults who can focus on things they are interested in can’t have ADHD.
FACT: ADHD doesn’t involve a complete lack of focus--the problem has to do with the regulation of attention. For instance, those with ADHD have more difficulties with attention when they are bored or when tasks require significant mental effort. On the other hand, they can focus quite well (or even hyperfocus) during activities they enjoy or when an immediate reward for task completion is available.
MYTH: Adult ADHD is just an excuse for laziness or lack of motivation.
FACT: Adult ADHD isn’t a cop-out for laziness. In reality, adult ADHD’ers often have to work harder to fulfill their work and home-life responsibilities than their non-ADHD counterparts. A significant amount of rigorous scientific research shows that ADHD is a neurological disorder; in other words, symptoms of ADHD are due to differences in brain functioning. These symptoms begin in childhood, are longstanding, and permeate many aspects of one’s life.
MYTH: Everyone has ADHD to some extent.
FACT: Although most people will experience a few ADHD symptoms from time to time, not many actually have ADHD. Adults who meet the criteria for ADHD experience more symptoms, more frequently and with more impairment than those without ADHD.
MYTH: Having ADHD is no big deal.
FACT: Untreated adult ADHD can result in significant impairments, including problems in work performance, social life, relationships, and home life. Moreover, several health problems are associated with adult ADHD, including sleep problems, obesity, hypertension, accidental injuries, and driving-related problems. “As adults, people with ADHD are five times more likely to speed and three times more likely to have their licenses revoked than other people. They’re more likely to experience accidental injuries—burns, poisoning, traffic accidents, all kinds of trauma—than other people,” writes ADHD expert Russel Barkley.
Educating yourself about ADHD is the best way to gain accurate knowledge and ensure you aren’t subscribing to or spreading damaging misinformation about adult ADHD. But, caveat emptor—be careful where you get your information. Choose only reputable and science-backed sources. Here are a few to get you started:
- The Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC) www.caddac.ca
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) www.chadd.org
- Attention Deficit Information www.attentiondeficit-info.com
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association www.add.org
- ADDitude Magazine www.additudemag.com
Changing the Conversation is a monthly column by Jennifer Sullivan, Psychologist and CEO of Sullivan + Associates Clinical Psychology, that focuses on normalizing mental health issues through education and public awareness. It appears on the Healthstyle page on the second Tuesday of each month.