How people like ADHD are just like everyone else…and how we’re different

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece originally intended for a personal blog. I am not describing the scientific consensus on ADHD, although to the best of my knowledge, research supports my theory. Stay tuned for links to relevant research studies, which I will add gradually as time permits.

When people with ADHD describe their difficulty focusing on boring things, memory lapses, emotional outbursts, restlessness, etc., some neurotypical invariably replies, “We all do that.” A more knowledgeable person will say, “We all do that, but less often and less intensely.”

Up to a point, that’s true. Everyone has had difficulty paying attention when not interested. Everyone has stood in front of an open fridge or cabinet wondering what they were looking for. It would be hard to name an ADHD trait, in or out of the DSM, that neurotypical people never experience.

Thus, neurotypicals have some frame of reference for understanding what it’s like to be us. We’re not alien beings, however different we may feel. That may be comforting both for them and for us.

The problem is when neurotypicals conclude that because we all have ADHD traits, our behavior should be interpreted the way a neurotypical person’s would be. Thus, when we run late, or forget to answer a message, or blurt out something in appropriate, in a situation where a neurotypical wouldn’t, they conclude we don’t care, or are lazy or rude.

That misinterpretation brings us to the crucial way that people with ADHD are different.

It’s not just that our brains fail us more often than do neurotypical peoples’ brains.

It’s that our brains fail us even when we are motivated, doing something important or something we love.

Neurotypical people often say, “If you couldn’t remember that, it must not be that important to you.” When you’ve forgotten a birthday, anniversary, or something they asked you to do, they often conclude, “I must not be that important to you.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. Like everyone else, we perform better when motivated. But we can be utterly motivated and still fail to function.

People with ADHD describe being starving, yet unable to go to the kitchen and make something to eat. We can be unable to focus on news from those we love most, or that new book we’ve been excited about for weeks, or those bills that must be submitted tomorrow or else. It feels frustrating and scary to know motivation can sometimes get us going, but sometimes, unpredictably, it can’t.

Why do we sometimes have difficulty doing things that matter to us (and occasionally succeed at things that don’t)? The most consistent finding in ADHD studies is inconsistent performance.

(You might think it would be inattention, hyperactivity, delay aversion, or working memory problems. Apparently, not so. The term for this inconsistency is “intraindividual variability,” because differences occur within each individual participant, not between participants).

In short, people with ADHD are both like neurotypical people and very different.

We are like neurotypicals in that we experience and do similar things, just more often and more intensely. We differ from neurotypicals in that our brains often refuse to work well no matter how motivated we are. What we can accomplish has little to do with how much we care.

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Emily Morson explains research on neurodivergent brains through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, SLP, & lived experience. #neurodiverseSTEM cofounder.

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Mosaic of Minds: A Disability Research Review

Mosaic of Minds: A Disability Research Review

Emily Morson explains research on neurodivergent brains through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, SLP, & lived experience. #neurodiverseSTEM cofounder.