What ADHD Actually Is, Part 2

Since I wrote part 1 of this series, I’ve had a lot of wonderful positive feedback from people with ADHD and suggestions for topics to cover in the future. I’ll address more of those here!

(If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 covers the definition of executive function and how it explains ADHD symptoms, along with information about hyperactivity, depression and anxiety in people with ADHD, helpful resources, and how to go about getting a diagnosis and treatment. I recommend reading it first.)

What’s the difference between ADHD and ADD? 

Before 1994, when the DSM-IV came out, the acronym ADD was used to refer to what we now call the “inattentive type” of ADHD–that is, the type where you don’t have hyperactivity symptoms. [1] Now, however, the term “ADHD” is an umbrella term that covers all of the types. Just because the “H” is in there doesn’t mean you have to have hyperactivity symptoms to qualify for that label. “ADD” is outdated and only typically used by people who got diagnosed before 1994. But if it makes sense to you, you can obviously stick to it.

Personally, calling it ADHD regardless of type makes much more sense to me because very few people with the disorder don’t have any hyperactivity symptoms at all–they just might not look like the typical bouncing-off-the-walls stereotype, especially in girls and adults of all genders. Hyperactivity can also mean needing to fidget a lot, or preferring physical/manual activity to intellectual labor. It’s also possible for some people to suppress all of their hyperactive impulses, which means that their observable behavior wouldn’t qualify for the hyperactive type. That doesn’t mean the impulses aren’t there, though, or that it isn’t taking them lots of energy to suppress them.

Why is the prevalence of ADHD increasing?

It’s difficult to obtain accurate data on historical prevalence of mental diagnoses for many reasons–underreporting (especially when it comes to childhood disorders, which parents might want to keep under wraps due to stigma), different research methods, different diagnostic criteria, and so on. According to the CDC, ADHD prevalence really is increasing, but they caveat that claim in the same way I just did. [2]

There’s a difference between more people getting diagnosed with a disorder and more people actually having that disorder. Greater awareness and improved access to mental healthcare could both lead to increased rates of diagnosis, even if the actual prevalence of the disorder has remained the same. I do think that things like that are impacting rates of ADHD diagnosis.

But I also think that a greater proportion of people would qualify for that diagnosis than 50 or 100 years ago, and I think it has to do with the greater role that executive function plays in modern society.

If you think about the types of things most people did for a living prior to the mid- to late-20th century, they didn’t require that much self-regulation. Farming, factory work, housekeeping, mending–these jobs are physically (and often mentally) demanding, but not in the same way as forcing yourself to spend hours at a computer correcting errors in a spreadsheet or researching funding sources. In fact, today, many people with ADHD strive in professions that rely on physical labor, creativity, lots of small bursts of social interaction, or other things that don’t require sustained focus on one thing.

It’s no accident that so many childhood ADHD diagnoses happen because a child can’t sit still in a classroom. Although our current education system dates to the 19th century (and has had shamefully few updates since then), children in the 19th century didn’t necessarily sit in a classroom from 8 AM to 4 PM. They missed school to help on the farm, taught younger classmates (think one-room schoolhouse), and left school altogether at much younger ages than today’s kids are required to stay until.

That doesn’t mean that our education system is the sole cause of increased ADHD prevalence, and that if we went back to some imaginary historic ideal, the prevalence would drop. (Although our education system is pretty shitty for a variety of reasons.) It just means that school and its demands on executive function often reveal ADHD symptoms that might’ve otherwise stayed hidden until later in life–for instance, when the demands of adulthood push people with undiagnosed ADHD to a breaking point.

Didn’t you say that overdiagnosis might still be a thing?

Yeah, I did. I mentioned in the first part of this series that a disorder can be both over- and under-diagnosed if we look for it in places it isn’t and don’t look for it in places it is. One place where we may look for ADHD too single-mindedly is in children who are “disruptive” or “unfocused” in school.

Plenty of researchers and clinicians have observed that children from violent and chaotic neighborhoods often get diagnosed with ADHD because they present with many of its symptoms. [3] However, in children as well as adults, those symptoms might also be coming from trauma, especially the complex trauma that develops when severe life stressors are constant from early childhood on. [4]

When the role of trauma is ignored, these children (who are typically from low-income families of color) often get slapped with the ADHD label, along with its cousin, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). [5] Unfortunately, for children who are already bearing the burdens of racism and classism, these labels often serve to add on more stigma rather than help provide effective treatment. If you look at the criteria for ODD, they describe behavior that is completely rational and adaptive if many of the adults in the child’s life are violent, neglectful, and inconsistent. And if you look at the criteria for ADHD, they also describe what happens when undiagnosed PTSD limits your ability to self-regulate.

PTSD symptoms put a huge cognitive load on the brain. People with PTSD are usually hyper-vigilant, constantly looking for potential threats (often without realizing they’re doing it). Small disturbances or unpleasant surprises can cause strong reactions that seem excessive to others. When trauma comes from psychological abuse rather than physical violence or disaster, it can be even harder to notice when PTSD symptoms manifest.

A child who has complex trauma as a result of growing up amid violence and abuse is going to have serious issues paying attention in class and remembering their homework, along with maintaining healthy relationships with teachers and classmates and regulating their own emotions. On the surface, that can look like ADHD. But ADHD medication won’t help, and inappropriate use of ADHD medication on children can lead to those “zombie” symptoms everyone talks about. These kids need trauma-informed interventions, along with real structural changes that address racism, gun violence, poverty, and all of those myriad interweaving variables. No psychiatric label could possibly encompass that.

What’s the connection between ADHD and autism?

A lot of my friends have pointed out that they have been diagnosed with both ADHD and autism, and wonder what (if any) the connection between them is. I’ve also had lots of clients with both, although I obviously also know people with one or the other.

These disorders do co-occur more commonly than they would by chance alone. [6] Unlike mental illnesses, they both manifest in childhood and last for life (this is true even for people who don’t notice their ADHD symptoms until adulthood). They both involve executive dysfunction, and research suggests that some similar neural pathways may be involved in both. [7] They both tend to impact all areas of a person’s life, including school, work, relationships (platonic, romantic, familial, and others), self-care, personal pursuits, and so on.

This can make people stressed about figuring out which disorder they have, or if they have both. If this concerns you, remember that we made up these disorders and assigned sets of symptoms to them. They aren’t natural categories. Although diagnoses can be important for accessing treatment and support, the most important thing is identifying what it is that you struggle with and getting help with that.

If you have executive function issues, medication and/or coaching might help. If you have problems with talking over people and talking too much about your niche interests, it might help to get legitimate social skills advice (for instance, the excellent blog Real Social Skills [8]) or to seek out people who interact in similar ways to you. If you feel depressed or anxious as a result of the ways in which your disability impairs you or creates consequences for you in our (ableist) society, counseling can help.

Although there’s a lot of cool research going on involving brain scans and other relatively new techniques, that doesn’t actually explain why some people develop ADHD and/or autism and others don’t. It’s possible that the same set of root causes, both biological and environmental, can contribute to the development of both disorders.

Why can people with ADHD sometimes focus really well/get things done?

Remember, ADHD isn’t about being “unable to focus” or get things done. It’s about executive function. When a lot of executive function is needed to complete a task, people with ADHD will struggle with it. But when it isn’t, they may do very well.

Some situations in which people with ADHD may be very efficient or productive include:

  • when they’re really interested in the task
  • when it’s about to be due and panic kicks in
  • when it involves working with others
  • when they’re given a lot of structure

So, let’s examine each of these. Everyone has an easier time focusing on things they’re really interested in as opposed to things they find boring, and everyone generally finds it effortful to exercise their executive function. People with ADHD just find it harder than others. When you’re really interested in the task, you may not need to use executive function to do it. (You may need it to plan for or structure the task, though, which is why people with ADHD sometimes have difficulty accomplishing their over-arching goals even with stuff they’re really interested in.) Unfortunately, having issues with executive function can also make it more difficult to tear your focus away from something, which is why people with ADHD are prone to what’s called hyperfocus–spending too much time immersed in something to the detriment of other things that need to be done, including basic needs.

Remember, getting really into things you like doesn’t mean you don’t have ADHD. In fact, it could be good evidence that you do have it.

These principles also explain why so many people with ADHD procrastinate. It’s not just that they can’t get themselves to do the task in advance–it’s that procrastination works, but at a cost. When it’s the night before the 15-page paper you haven’t started is due and you’re completely panicking, executive function may no longer be necessary to get yourself to do the task. Other brain regions and processes take over–perhaps, for instance, the amygdala, which is involved in the processing of fear.

Social tasks can also be easier for people with ADHD to complete. The other people in the group may help them with staying on task, structuring the project, and perhaps doing the really boring parts that they don’t want to do. When working independently on a task, people with ADHD are liable to get stuck when they can’t motivate themselves to do a particularly boring or difficult task, or when they simply don’t know what the next step should be and get distracted by something more interesting before they figure it out. A team member may help them cross this hurdle.

Finally, people with ADHD may do very well with tasks when they’re given a lot of structure rather than having to create that structure for themselves. A person with ADHD may love their work (or studies, or whatever) and have few issues focusing on it, but effectively completing complex tasks requires being able to structure them–break them down into smaller tasks, put those tasks in the right order, and keep the big picture in mind rather than getting bogged down in one specific tiny part of the project. (Sometimes called microfocus, this can really get in the way of one’s goals.)

That kind of mental task requires executive function, too. Many people with ADHD do better in high school than in college because there’s more structure built in. For others, college provides enough structure, but work doesn’t provide enough. Still others luck out and find jobs in which structuring your own tasks isn’t required. That’s why many people with ADHD do well in or even enjoy working in retail or food service–as long as they can regulate their emotions well enough to avoid lashing out at irritating customers.

In sum, there are all kinds of situations in which the role of executive function is more minimal than it is in others, and many people with ADHD can thrive in these situations. That doesn’t negate the fact that they have a disability, or that it might still take them lots of effort and trial-and-error to get to that point.

People with ADHD can also learn to utilize the exact types of things that are hard for them–remembering to write things down, using planners, and so on–to make up for what they’re lacking in executive function. That, along with some other stuff I promised to get to (i.e. gender and ADHD), will be discussed in a future installment of this series.

[1] https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/add-vs-adhd/

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/timeline.html

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/how-childhood-trauma-could-be-mistaken-for-adhd/373328/

[4] https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma

[5] https://www.additudemag.com/oppositional-defiant-disorder-odd-and-adhd/

[6] https://www.additudemag.com/is-it-adhd-or-asd/

[7] https://nyulangone.org/news/tracing-neural-links-between-autism-adhd

[8] https://www.realsocialskills.org

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What ADHD Actually Is, Part 2
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