I have ADHD. Obviously, I’ve always had ADHD, and in retrospect it explains so much. The reason I know I have ADHD is because my oldest, who is a teenager, was diagnosed with ADHD, and I recognized in them what I went through and how I behave and react and feel and (over)think. I decided to get tested and the result was unsurprising.
My youngest, who is headed towards ten years of age, has been diagnosed with autism, though his is not quite typical and they are still puzzling out the specifics. (I had previously assumed he has ADHD because he regularly copes through hyperactivity.) He’s always had autism, obviously, and again in retrospect it explains so much of his behavior, his responses, his emotions and his thought processes.
Both autism and ADHD are classified as a neurodivergence – also called neurodiversity – meaning that there are connections and processes in these brains that are just a little different from those in the neuronormative brain. With both my children of school-going age, I have seen a notable distinction in how each is perceived, though: ADHD is generally taken a lot less seriously than autism.
What do I mean when I say this?
There is a difference between the way people respond to ADHD vs autism. Autistic people are, for better or worse, considered defined and constricted by their condition, and as such there is a tendency to understand that certain adaptations and adjustments should reasonably be made in order to allow autistic people to function, even thrive. Schools, entertainment venues and many other places make those adjustments and offer options to accommodate people who have autism. They rightly understand that there is only so much that autistic people can process and handle, and that there are certain things they cannot deal with.
I see this in the amount of help my youngest gets in school, and the modifications his teachers make to prevent him from getting overloaded and shutting down, never mind getting his work done. I’m very grateful for this, and I’m so happy that it’s possible. My son needs the adjustments that he’s getting, because without them he would simply not cope.
My oldest, the one with ADHD, is very lucky to be in a school that does its best to make allowances where possible, but the difference with autism as a neurodivergence becomes clear when we see that there are some teachers who believe that, because they take medication – a therapy, not a cure – which makes it possible for them to focus better and maintain concentration for longer – at the expense of an enormous amount of energy, it should be noted – their ADHD should somehow not be a factor. My kid gets high marks, they pay attention in class. See? If they take their pills, the ADHD is gone and they don’t need anything extra; no difference in approach, no attempts to reduce stimuli, no measures, such as additional preparation time for projects or tests to prevent crushing stress. There is no reason for them to be overly sensitive to sharp tones, chaos or loud noises, expectations, stress, because the pills are taking care of all that and so they now need nothing more than the other students do.
For people with ADHD who are not on medication, it often seems like the assumption is that now that they know they have ADHD they can just put a little extra effort into not being so busy or concentrating a little better. I’ve even heard someone say that ADHD is a lot harder on the people dealing with someone with ADHD than it is for the person who has ADHD, because these ADHD folks are so busy; it’s exhausting!
That, to me, is just delightfully and infuriatingly ironic, because that overload that “normal” people experience when interacting with people with ADHD is the overload that we experience all day every day interacting with a world filled with neuronormative people. On a regular person’s busiest day, I can promise that their heads are likely at most half as busy as mine is on a regular day, even when I’m on medication.
The main disconnect is in the idea that ADHD is still seen by too many people as somehow voluntary, willful, a choice. That somehow, we choose to have filters that don’t work well, minds that are constantly going and in directions we have little control over half the time, heightened emotional vulnerability, a need to vent the constant activity in our heads through excessive talking or movement, difficulty with impulse control. All of this wouldn’t be an issue if we just applied ourselves.
Well, let’s get to the science behind that for a minute. ADHD is essentially a dopamine regulation issue. We all produce dopamine, but where a non-ADHD brain has enough extracellular dopamine floating around to direct it to where it is needed, ADHD brains will re-absorb the extracellular dopamine, causing a deficiency which results in inhibited executive function. This is why someone with ADHD has trouble directing focus, maintaining concentration, sitting still, planning, correctly estimating time and duration, etc. These executive skills can be taught, but for someone with ADHD that simply takes more time and it also requires a lot more energy.
The dopamine deficiency also causes our “filters” to work inefficiently, if they work at all. A non-ADHD brain will make a preselection of what is relevant, interesting or necessary to be dealt with or even enter the brain, meaning that there is far less for it to process because there is a manageable amount of information that comes in.
An ADHD brain doesn’t really filter very well, if at all: every bit of information enters, resulting in a quickly overloaded processing center, because not only is everything that is seen, heard or felt there to be processed, there is no clear order or priority in which to do that. In a normal, calm environment that’s already challenging; now imagine a situation in which there are more and stronger stimuli than usual – a PE class, a free homework period, a class project.
Now, knowing this, compare this with the level of understanding and support given to a student with autism.
I think it’s obvious where I’m going with this: while ADHD often seems less constrictive than autism, often looks more like a case of too much energy, and has pharmacotherapeutical options to help reduce its effects, it is a real neuropsychological condition and the people that have it deserve to be taken seriously. Like people with autism, they need accommodations, adaptations, adjustments, understanding and acceptance. There are things they are not able to do the way neuronormative people can – just as there are things they can do that neuronormative people cannot.
We know enough about autism to know that those who are on the spectrum deserve our kindness, our patience and our best efforts to help them learn, grow and succeed. I really hope that we can make ADHD better understood, so that those who have it will be given the same consideration that is extended to people on the autism spectrum.
In the end, what we should all want is for these children to not only manage but thrive, to have confidence and to enjoy themselves. And for that, they also need our kindness, our patience, and our best efforts to help them succeed.