Life in the 21st Century is already tough. Cost of living is outstripping wage growth for almost everybody who isn’t already ultra rich, and society seems fractured along a bunch of different lines. Our relationships to work, government, businesses, technology, friendship circles, our family, and strangers in general have all become more complex.
The classic ADHD symptoms make it super easy to just kick back and give up on the lot of it. If all this is overwhelming to a person with a ‘neurotypical brain’ (one that can hold onto the big picture while spinning all the plates necessary to survive), how is an ADHD brain supposed to get by?
Not only do adults with ADHD brains legitimately struggle with daily tasks like planning meals and remembering to pay our phone bill, but insult really adds to injury when family, friends and co-workers tell us to ‘stop making excuses, everyone is a little ADHD these days.’
Hang on though… isn’t everyone a little ADHD nowadays?
Dr. Edward Hallowell is one of the world’s leading experts on ADHD. He has ADHD himself, and has written 20 books on the subject. In his latest book with Dr. John Ratey, ADHD 2.0 (2021) Hallowell acknowledges: “because of our lightning-fast access to information and the rapid-fire nature of incoming stimuli - images, sounds and data everywhere - it’s also probable that all of us are indeed ‘a little ADHD’... more scatterbrained, forgetful and unfocused than ever before.”
But, as Hallowell goes on to demonstrate in his book, ADHD is much more than just getting distracted by your phone a few times a day, and the term “everyone’s a little ADHD” oversimplifies what is, in fact, a highly complex condition that neuroscience is discovering more about every day.
While the increasing our culture of smartphone addiction, distractibility and fast-paced media forms geared towards ‘snackable content’ is worth noting, it isn’t just ‘diluted ADHD’ because ADHD develops in utero and very early infancy, and the behaviours ADHDers exhibit are due to a brain that is fundamentally wired differently… down to the synapses.
So yes, everyone experiences forgetfulness, emotional reactivity, impulsivity or distractibility at times, but it’s the combination of these traits (and many more not mentioned) and the extent and regularity with which they impact the individual’s life and the lives of those around them that contribute to a diagnosis of adult ADHD.
To put it simply - everyone pees. But if you’re peeing 50 times a day, you will want to see a specialist.
So why is the ADHD label important then?
Labels that seek to specify and differentiate the lived experience of individuals previously considered ‘outside the norm’ are crucial, because they push past the stereotypes of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, instead promoting the concept of neurodiversity in all its forms.
As Thomas Armstrong, author of The Power of Neurodiversity (2010) writes: “Instead of pretending there is hidden away in a vault somewhere a perfectly ‘normal’ brain to which all other brains must be compared, we need to admit there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standar cultural or racial group.”
In the past 20 years, similar concepts of cultural diversity, gender diversity and biodiversity have taken hold at least in many western countries (if not globally) and the idea of neurodiversity is now increasingly a cultural and scientific focus in the west, with a recent focus on the adult experience of ADHD since the DSM updated it’s criteria to include ‘adult ADHD’ (as opposed to just identifying ADHD in children) in 2017,
We at Future ADHD (and so many others) are working to educate, de-stigmatise and de-mystify the complexities of this unique brain wiring, and are using ADHD as a label to gather our tribe, be searchable by others seeking information, and grow a community who want to help shape the future of ADHD.
We want recognition, but believe ADHD isn’t the best label
Many neurodivergent adults believe that the term ADHD is actually misleading, because:
- It oversimplifies the traits of the condition down to just the attention and hyperactivity domains
- We don’t have an attention deficit, we have a surplus of attention, and trouble regulating it
- We don’t agree that it’s a disorder, but more so a natural brain difference (which incidentally, also comes with a huge number of powerhouse strengths).
The ADHD label may be imperfect, but it’s also the only scientific body of evidence we have that demonstrates that these neurobiological differences are legitimate, impactful, and in many cases the cause of incredible suffering and tragedy.
The only current way that anyone with ADHD is able to get significant support, both in medication, tailored psychotherapy and workplace accommodations, is by being diagnosed using this label.
So, what are the more serious ramifications of ADHD?
The below list of symptoms are particularly sobering because they occur often when ADHD is undiagnosed, unmedicated, poorly treated and the individual doesn’t receive psychological or environmental support. Tragically, a gross misunderstanding of what ADHD actually is by parents, teachers and society at large, means - in many cases - young people are shamed horribly and discriminated against, eroding their self-efficacy and self-worth, and increasing their likelihood of the below risk factors.
- We commit suicide more - some studies show three times, some show as high as eight times more
- We lose friendships and jobs and romantic partners more
- We get addicted to things way more easily - video games, gambling, drugs of addiction, unhealthy or premature relationships
- With less impulse control, we make thoughtless mistakes like cheating, falling in love too soon, speeding, overspending, and getting caught debt traps
- We get extra mental disorders because having a brain like this and not knowing about it can make a homie depressed or anxious or obsessive. Only one in three people with ADHD have *only ADHD*. The other two in three have extra challenges
Does the label need to change?
Has the science caught up yet?
Not a chance.
As my diagnosing psychologist admitted, science is always around 10 years behind the lived experiences shared by people in online groups, TikTok and YouTube confessionals. While social media may seem ‘unscientific’ as a source, this is anthropological evidence, rapidly building on a scale unprecedented in the scientific field to date. As millions more share their story (especially women), they bring nuance and specificity to the outdated DSM-5 criteria. These stories, shared by people on social media worldwide (a far broader and diverse sample size than the Western data sets in most scientific studies) are helping many feel understood and seen for the first time in their life.
Do we need a label at all?
Yes. Until neurodiversity and inclusivity is the accepted understanding on a political, educational, and cultural/interpersonal level, and until labels like neurotypical are abandoned (both in science and common vernacular), we need to unite under this label and fiercely push forward create a world more suited to support and empower those with brain-based differences.
In the apt words of Thomas Armstrong:
“Diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity, and the diversity among cultures and races.”