ADHD & Our 23 Strengths

By Rick Green 

There are a lot of hot button issues around ADHD.  Not just around medication, or the cost of getting a proper diagnosis, or the ongoing stigma and dismissal, that ‘ADHD isn’t real.’

In particular, there is the contentious claim that, “people with ADHD have real strengths.”

In our book, ADD Stole My Car Keys, we list 155 traits, symptoms, beliefs, and behaviors common to people with ADHD.  Of course not everyone has them all.  Each of us is blessed with our own personal grab bag of issues.  While most adults struggle with restlessness and impulsivity, a substantial minority are dealing only with the ‘Inattentive’ problems: distractions, focus, memory, follow-through, prioritizing, procrastinating, organizing, etc..

“I Do That! Is That ADHD?”

My intention for ADD Stole My Car Keys was to show the vast range of ways that ADHD shows up in real life.  It’s hard to recognize myself on the list of symptoms.  Since most of us are born this way, because this is so highly genetic, it’s all we know.  It is our normal.

So, when someone suggests there’s something wrong with us, or that we are abnormal, or at least unusual, part of a small subset of the population, we can be forgiven for doubting that we have a disorder.

Instead, we assume everybody struggles with these issues to the same degree that we do, that life really is this hard, and that no human being is able to sit and focus for hours doing routine paperwork. Much less actually finish what they start in one go.

A Book I’d Actually Read

I tried to create a book that I myself would read, containing information that I wish I had had when my child was diagnosed, and then when I recognized, “This is me”!

155 different traits or beliefs.  One per page, that you can read in any order.  Illustrated with some cartoons.  Perfect for anyone with ADHD, right?

But there is one part of the book that is controversial.  Even to me.  It’s the final chapter, listing 23 strengths that are common to people with ADHD.  Strengths!  Of course no one has them all.  Some people may not have any.  (Though I’ve never met those people–and I’ve met a lot of people with ADHD since our documentary ADD & Loving It?! debuted on PBS.)

Some of the strengths seem obvious for a mind that jumps around a lot… “Creative.”  “Lateral thinker.” “Sense of humor.”

Other strengths seem more like the result of coping with struggling for a lifetime with an ADHD brain. For example, #147, Empathetic and Sensitive.  Drawn to people and animals that are suffering.  We can be great social workers, therapists, or social crusaders because of these qualities.

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Chicken or Egg? A Result or a Reaction?

Here’s the question: are these strengths part of your ADHD?  Or are they result of struggling with ADHD?

Are they an aspect of this mindset?  A result of this neurology?  Or a reaction to it?  Are these traits we develop to cope with having this mindset?  Just as our higher rates of addiction, risk-taking, and substance abuse are things we do to cope.

Do blind people instantly have better hearing, a more sensitive ear?  Or is it what they develop to compensate for the inability to see?

One of the studies I mention frequently deals with creativity and ADHD.  It was conducted at the University of Memphis.  60 University students were given 11 standard tests for creativity.  These are tests designed by psychologists to measure one’s creative skills.  Visually.  Verbally.  Coming up with new ideas.  (There are a lot of ways to express creativity!)

30 of the students in the study have ADHD.  30 do not – they are ‘normal’, or rather non-ADHD.

The 30 students who have ADHD scored higher than the non-ADHD students on all 11 tests.

We’re More Creative! Science Proves It!

When I read through the summary of this study, I came to the obvious conclusion that people with ADHD are more creative.  Logical.  Right?  60 students isn’t a huge population for a study.  30,000 would have been better.  But still, they scored higher on ALL of the tests.  So let’s assume it’s not a fluke.

What I have realized since is that this study, like all studies, wasn’t exactly random.  It wasn’t a representative sample of the entire population.  It was a series of tests given to people who had managed to get in to university.

Knowing that many studies have shown that people with ADHD are more likely to struggle in school, or dropout, or suffer from learning disorders, face financial problems, etc., one would expect that fewer of us would make it into university, let alone graduate.  And a number of studies have suggested that is the case.

That means that we are under-represented in universities.

Natural Selection? Only the Creative Ones Survive High School.

I’m going to make up some figures just so we have something to work with…

Let’s say that 50% of kids get into college or university.

And lets say that kids with ADHD are twice as likely to drop out or fail to finish high school.  (Or earn grades lower than they should based on their abilities.  Sadly these numbers are pretty close to the actual figures.)  That means that only about 25% of kids with ADHD will get into college or university.

And what is it that these kids had that allowed them to manage to succeed despite having problems with focus, memory, restlessness, etc.?

Does Creativity Compensate for ADHD?

Perhaps, dare I suggest, the more creative a person with ADHD is, the better the odds they have of negotiating the school system.  What they lacked in willpower they made up for in creativity.  They found ways to compensate.

I know for myself, in my 2nd year of a 4 year honors program to earn a degree in physics, I was struggling.  Had I been diagnosed at that point, things might have turned out differently.  Instead, I settled for a three-year general science degree.  In most of my science courses, my marks were in the 60s and 70s.  And a few 50s.

However, in the few arts courses that I took–film, figure drawing, painting—I scored 80’s and 90’s. Those marks saved me.

When I should have been studying for my physics courses, I was doing comedy on the campus radio station, or writing jokes at $.25 a pop for a local AM radio DJ.  That was my 1st paying comedy gig.  Since I didn’t own a typewriter, I actually had to print up the jokes at a university computer terminal, which then transferred them onto IBM punch cards, so I could print them off on long reams of green computer paper.

What Does It Mean?

So, does ADHD endow us with certain unalienable strengths?  Or do we develop strengths to compensate?

Or is it a mixture of both?

I will mention that #137 of the 155 traits in our book is ‘Class Clown.’

I know a lot of comedians, and almost all of them told me they were diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, or they took our online test and scored through the roof, or their friends and family have begged them to get tested and find out.

Most of them don’t get tested.  They’re afraid they’ll lose their edge, and become boring.  Which is interesting, because in that University of Memphis study, half of the 30 kids with ADHD were taking medication and the other half were not.  Yet there was no measurable difference in their creativity.

Thoughts?  What are you strengths?  Did they come part and parcel with your ADHD?  Or did you develop some strengths to survive and thrive?

22 Replies to “ADHD & Our 23 Strengths”

  1. I have never thought of them as my strengths but just as a gift, but I have an exceptional verbal recall system that allowed me to sit for exams and actually remember word for word the answers. Of course since i had not handed in any course work or maintained any notes I was accused of cheating. 50 plus years later I continue to have an audio memory which allows me to memorize the bass parts to well over 100 new choral works a year having heard them only 3 or 4 times. I used the same skill in school to memorize shakespeare in the 5 minutes before classes started. This memory and an almost savant like skill in math formed the basis for my career in consulting.Employee Benefits and Pensions. While my contempories were Actuaries, Accountants and Lawyers,and Commerce grads I was that ADHD highschool dropout. After a stint as V.P. Of one of the largest firms in our industry in my mid thirties I founded our own practise and thrived as an entrepreneur.. Flunked badly at marriage though.. 3 times.

    1. Could it be the ADHD/ASD crossover? We expect we will be given a dual diagnosis at next appointment looking at the Attwood forms but it’s good if it can add to the medical control of symptoms so our family members can get along better.

  2. After my son was diagnosed with ADD, I realized “that’s me!” The realization was confusing for my parents because I was an honor roll student and graduated from LSU with a high grade point average. I see now that I am on medicine, that I accomplished this by throwing myself into crisis mode constantly. I never realized life shouldn’t be this hard until I experienced the other, calmer, more organized brain space that medication gives me. At first I regretted not knowing at a younger age. I felt like I could have rocked life and it would have been 100 times easier. But, I see now that the struggle was real and it has only made me stronger. I give credit to this website, it’s videos, emails,and Friday funnies for helping me through this strange year of personal insight. I have never felt like anyone “got” me. Now I don’t feel like such an odd duck.

  3. Lala, I had a very similar coping mechanism, or motivating mechanism, by taking on so much, an overwhelming amount, that the adrenaline compensated for the shortage of dopamine. And thank you for the kind words. The videos, audios, and books we sell in our shop are what allow us to keep going and producing more.

  4. Lala – thanks for the comment, and pointing out that the “struggle was real and it has only made me stronger.” I’ve been struggling with the “why didn’t I know sooner” and your comment helps remind me to look forward and rely on the strengths I’ve build – regardless how or why they were built.

  5. I can add a “me too!” as well. I went for evaluation for ADD in my late 40s. The psychologist only had to do one test, one that had you watch numbers flash on the screen while a voice says different numbers and you have to click when you see a three or hear a seven. What a friggin’ nightmare! Initially the program kept reverting to the beginning (it turned out I was doing so badly, it thought I hadn’t understood the directions!) but I started to realize that it was the listening that was so challenging-my visual recognition was so strong, I could relax my vigilance on that part and just focus on listening for the 7. My anxiety level went down, and by the end of the test I was nailing it. The doctor, in summing up said, “I had no idea how you managed to get through Med School and Residency, but that test explained a lot. You have an incredible ability to develop a way to work around your deficits.” Three years later, I’m still struggling with a lot of shame for not functioning as well as my intellectual peers do, but I’m increasingly aware that they lack the sensitivity, creativity and visual strengths I take for granted. Although I desperately wish I’d know about my ADD earlier, my journey made me recognize the mix of empathy and grit that makes me “me”.
    Bless you, Rick, for your work on adult ADD–you are the best resource out there and your comments resonate and validate while making me laugh–you are a godsend!

  6. I’m a visual artist and creative arts therapist. I work for myself because other people equals more variables and distraction. I do yoga at home alone because a class has too much going on.
    I compensated so well all my life I only figured out I had ADHD 2 years ago.
    I went to Harvard which was a great place for people like me so I did well there; I avoided all situations with long papers and found a way to not write a thesis.
    I’ve seen how my mind works so I’m aware of minute aspects of ADHD when doing art. I start patterns and become bored in seconds and change the pattern. I do better with drawings than paintings that take too long even though I can get in hyper focus.
    I’ve always been told I go to “irrelevant” details so visual art is the only place where that’s a strength. People with ADHD organize horizontally not vertically.
    When I get hyper aware of what my brain is doing it’s like a gift and curse.

    1. Dear 275hyper,

      I am trying to get through my thesis (which is kind of a nightmare) and try to figure out ways to work through it more effectively.

      In your comment you say, ‘people with adhd organize horizontally not vertically’.
      Since one of my problems is organizing all the information, I would realy like to know what you mean by this. And where I might be able to find more information on this. Maybe from your own experience or an article.

      Kind regards,
      Jenesy

      (Disclaimer to moderator: This email was created for the purpose of using it on public websites.)

  7. I knew I had it before I was tested @ age 52! Working in mental health for years, I had suspected I had it. I’m into music — piano, acoustic guitar, organ & keyboard. Used to sing before an incurable condition. I’ve arranged music & composed a little. Loved to write poetry. Inherited a sense of humor. All this is great, but it gets in the way the older I get. I’m retired now because the job became too much. My mother has it & her mother had it. It hit me, my younger of 2 sons, his 2 sons, but missed his daughter. A load has lifted since I left work. Now I can get back into my creativity & hyperfocus!

  8. I’ve been wondering if the enhances creativity is a consequence of the way our brains release dopamine? I get so much more stimulated by beautiful visuals, writing, music, etc compared to people around me, it’s like my brain is flooded with dopamine and I get high on it, so I’m driven to be creative. I don’t think it’s a response to ADHD, for me it’s a fundamental part of how I experience it.
    Does that ring a bell for anyone?

  9. During high school I learned that humor was a great tool to distract from my shortfalls. In my senior year my class courses consisted of two choral classes, drama, student government, cheerleading, oh and yes, maybe English and History.

    After high school I was prescribed stimulants for weight loss. Along with losing weight I functioned pretty normally in college. I have a fairly high IQ so I was able to figure many things out when others had to study more.

    My hyper focus and perfectionism allowed me to advance in my career. I always had detail oriented assistants so I was very high functioning and successful. When I had children I hired “helpers” to pick them up on time, shuttle them to practices, etc., when my husband wasn’t able to.

    When I was pregnant and afterwards I didn’t take diet pills. I’ve regularly met with psychiatrists and psychologists for at least 30 years.

    I changed jobs frequently and made a lot of money. I spent it impulsively and saved none.

    At age 59 I rose above 250 other applicants to obtain my dream job. There was a hitch. I didn’t have the support staff I’d had in the past and when it became overwhelming I fell apart.

    After years of misdiagnoses and ineffective medication a savvy psychologist tested me for ADHD. At 62 years old I was diagnosed with lifelong ADHD.

    I was at the same time relieved and angry. Life wouldn’t have been so exhausting and painful with a correct diagnosis, coaching, and medication.

    I hope those with this “gift” of ADHD are diagnosed and helped early on in their lives. Yes, I do feel more I’m more creative and open than other people and for that I’m thankful. It’s been an interesting journey.

  10. I was diagnosed at 6 with ADHD, and I have to say this seems to be pretty accurate (I didn’t read it all though).
    I’ve always really struggled with inatentivity, and everybody says I’m really funny.
    I also really fought against me having any sort of ADHD issue as a kid, becuse no one wants to admit there’s something different about them from “normal” people, but to the people who think they have it but are scared to confront a doctor remember getting diagnosed doesn’t mean you have to tell people.
    But a major tool i use besides medicine is actually caffine, when I know I need to be calm that day and not forget as much i drink straight coffee, not enough to make me pass out but enough to calm the rising tide of thoughts in my head.
    Also if anyone tells you it’s not real, don’t let it get to you because just like you can’t really think of life without it they can’t think of life with it.

  11. I almost dropped out of high school in my final year. In that same year, I think I was in every art extracurricular group in school, let alone submit a design for the grad’s book and draw pictures for a children’s book. It took me years to go back to university (in science) and I’m dragged towards dropping out again, so I decided to go part-time this year to pursue my artistic projects as well and give myself some space to think about whether I wanted to continue or settle for a more general degree that would still give me a strong basis in my field (since I know I’m doing this mostly to volunteer in rescue centres).

    1. Good choice, raph009! Keep in mind it’s not a race, it’s an experience. This is the path I took for my education as well-10 years to get a four year degree. I find it’s not the particular subjects of my education I draw on most, it’s the manner by which I learned them.

  12. Frankly, I’m coming to believe ADD was the driving force behind humanity’s evolution. I mean, who else would be crazy enough to leave their warm spot by the fireside just to see what’s on the other side of the hill, or notice certain rocks melted when in that fire and could be pounded into plowshares and spear heads? If it wasn’t for us, mankind would be full of folk content to sit in their kitchens and count their beans. I would be interested to learn the occurrence of ADD in aboriginal societies, as opposed to transient ones.
    As to ADD superpowers – does time slow down for anyone else in moments of crisis? I’ve had this happen often enough to believe it’s no fluke, but the product of a brain that finally has something to do. The first time I noticed this was when I looked up to find someone had fired a fastball at my head and I wasn’t even in the game. It seemed there was all the time in the world to pick it out of the air, just inches from my face. Driving provides a lot of these opportunities, like being able to steer out of a skid or avoid the dope who didn’t see the four way stop. The most curious occurrence was while on a home visit for my job as a social worker (funny you picked that example of career choice, Rick!). I had to confront a father who was making a very poor choice in his child-rearing practice. Despite the evidence in front of us, he denied his actions and grew increasingly agitated as I doggedly pointed out all the bits that supported my claim. He picked up this massive stereo speaker, held it over his head and came towards me. What I recall was clicking through all the reasons I was safe and didn’t need to panic: the speaker was four feet long and the hallway I stood in was about three feet wide – wouldn’t fit. If he turned it sideways and threw it, it wouldn’t go far. If I stayed calm, he would eventually quiet down, which he did.
    I wonder if this effect is why so many with ADD are thrill-seekers? It’s one of the few times we can feel we’re functioning as we should. Otherwise, on those same-old, same-old days, I know I’m prone to standing befuddled in the middle of a room and the only thing missing to complete the picture is a bit of drool dripping from the corner of my mouth.

  13. That’s a very interesting question, Rick, and one for further study. It may explain why I find it so much easier to write than to read. Off the cuff, I think it’s a combination of both compensation and natural attribution for those of us with ADD. I managed to land a full ride scholarship to college for playing trumpet. But when I changed my major to Business, my GPA dropped to a 2.6. I graduated with the degree but just barely. Evidently, coping skills (or lack of them) made no difference in this instance.

  14. You know, karenlewsader, when I was at university earning my degree in Physics, I was barely passing some of the basic, ‘bird courses’ such as Optics and Electricity & Magnetism, while getting great marks in the really difficult courses like Quantum Mechanics & Relativity. What’s more, in my ‘Arts electives,’ the courses designed to expose scientist to culture, the arts, and humanities, I was scoring honours in Film and Fine Art Drawing. It never occurred to me that I was in the wrong course. I just assumed that I wasn’t smart enough. Rather than switch majors, I switched from a 4 year Honours program to the 3 year ‘General’ degree.

    When we made our video ‘Earning a Degree With ADHD’ I recognized so much of my own struggles in the expert’s explanations. My experience and struggle made such sense. The video also contains a vast number of strategies that help and accommodations that schools can provide. (Something that more and more schools are doing, as they realize our potential.)

    Hearing those strategies and editing that video was bittersweet. “If only I’d had these accommodations.” But ultimately, I realized that the core problem was that I was in the wrong course. The fact that I spent more time preparing for my weekly comedy show on the campus radio station than I did on my homework was a clue.

  15. So many great thoughts here.

    Pdreywood, you’re not the only person who has made the connection to ADHD and evolution. Things that are not ‘adaptive,’ the medical term for ‘good, helpful, positive, and better ensuring you survive to pass on your genes,’ tend to get weeded out of the human race over time.

    But as you point out, there are so many high-stress, high-stimulation careers and situations where we soar, that there are aspects of this ‘disorder’ that work. I can’t tell you how many E.R. doctors and nurses and Emergency Responders have told me that they have been diagnosed, or figure they have it since a few of their kids were diagnosed with it.

    One paramedic told me that when he finally got diagnosed, after 28 years of his wife asking him to please, check it out, told me that he can now spot it in many of his colleagues. He said that they are the ones who are calm in a crisis. And as Dr. Umesh Jain notes, “When things are calm, they are in crisis.” They are restless, frustrated, and often end up getting into trouble or stirring things up.

    In ADD & Loving It?!, Thom Hartmann, author of a lot of great books on ADHD, education, and intelligence, talks about how these traits can, in the right situation, be strengths. My restlessness explains why I’ve managed to write thousands of short skits for over 700 episodes of radio and television, but only ever finished one film script. And it was awful.

    The key is the right situation, where our disruptive, lateral-thinking, creativity can be harnessed and productive. In the video The Perfect Career for ADHD, some of my favourite ADHD specialists and career counsellors who specialize in ADHD point out that there is in fact no ‘Perfect’ career. Which is good. But there are certain fields where we soar.

    A few years ago I did my one man show about ADHD, “My Award-Winning, Coast-to-Coast Mental Disorder” at a comedy festival and after the show every comedian came up to me with questions, recognizing themselves. And all the spouses of the comedians cornered my wife and asked, “How do you stand it? What do you do? And how can I get my spouse diagnosed? ” Hilarious. (In a dark kind of way. But hey, comedians are like that.)

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