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.
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?