Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects about four percent of U.S. adults (Kessler, Chiu, Demler & Walters, 2005). Still, many myths, stereotypes and downright fallacies abound — everything from questioning the very existence of ADHD to downplaying its seriousness. Below, we spoke with two experts who treat individuals with ADHD to set the record straight.
1. Myth: ADHD isn’t a real disorder.
Fact: ADHD is a mental disorder with a strong biological component (like most mental disorders). This includes an inherited biological component, notes Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a national certified counselor and licensed mental health counselor and author of four books on adult ADD, including Adult ADD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed.
For instance, studies have identified several genes associated with ADHD (e.g., Guan, Wang, Chen, Yang & Qian, 2009). One study revealed that kids with ADHD had hundreds of gene variations that weren’t found in other children (Elia et al., 2010).
2. Myth: ADHD only occurs in children.
Fact: Contrary to common belief, most people don’t magically outgrow ADHD. Rather they continue to struggle with the disorder, but their “symptoms just look different,” Sarkis said. Mainly, hyperactivity tends to diminish, said Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a psychologist and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Successful Strategies for Adults with ADHD.
“However, the inattentive symptoms still exist and if anything become more disabling because adults are expected to manage all the boring details that tend to fall through the cracks for folks with ADHD,” he said. According to Sarkis, adults might “still feel a sense of ‘inner restlessness,’” which she describes as “wanting to be on the go, an ‘itch’ or need to be active or on the move.”
3. Myth: Hyperactivity affects all adults with ADHD.
Fact: As mentioned above, for some people, hyperactivity — which Tuckman refers to as the “most visible symptom” — declines with adolescence and adulthood; other people were never hyperactive to begin with.
Some people “have what is known as the inattentive type of ADHD and struggle with distractibility, forgetfulness, poor time management, disorganization, etc.,” he said.
4. Myth: ADHD stimulant medication leads to addiction.
Fact: There’s actually no indication that taking stimulant medication causes addiction. (Not to mention that it decreases debilitating symptoms.) People with ADHD who take stimulant medication tend to have much lower rates of substance abuse than people with ADHD who don’t take the medication (e.g., Wilens, Faraone, Biederman & Gunawardene, 2003).
A recent long-term study looked at the link between childhood and early teen use of stimulant medication and early adulthood use of drugs, alcohol or nicotine in a group of males with ADHD. Researchers found neither an increase nor decrease in substance use (Biederman et. al, 2008).
(By the way, here’s a brief response from one of the researchers in ADDitude magazine.)
5. Myth: “Everyone has some ADHD these days,” Tuckman said.
Fact: Our technology-driven society has definitely caused many people to get easily distracted and overwhelmed. We get sidetracked during one project and feel forgetful about everything else. But as Tuckman clarified: “The difference is that people with ADHD pay a much higher price for their distracted moments and it happens much more often.”
Think of it this way: All of us feel anxious and depressed at certain points in our lives but that doesn’t mean that we have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, depression or bipolar disorder.
6. Myth: “People with ADHD don’t ‘want’ to focus or complete tasks,” Sarkis said.
Fact: It isn’t a matter of desire, but a matter of ability. As Sarkis explained, “It’s not that they don’t ‘want’ to follow through on projects; they just can’t. It’s not that they don’t want to stop by the grocery store on the way home from work; they just forget.”
7. Myth: “ADHD isn’t a big deal,” Tuckman said.
Fact: This couldn’t be further from the truth. Individuals with ADHD typically struggle in all areas of their lives, from the big responsibilities like job performance to simple tasks like paying bills on time, according to Tuckman. ADHD is also tough on relationships.
Plus, “There has even been research showing that people with ADHD have lower credit scores and higher blood cholesterol levels, revealing their difficulties with managing a broad range of lifestyle matters,” Tuckman said.
8. Myth: People with ADHD “don’t care about consequences,” Sarkis said.
Fact: Caring about consequences isn’t the issue; it’s the processing of consequences that’s a problem, Sarkis said. “We know we need to do something a certain way, but it’s tough to get that ‘certain way’ to stick in our brains.”
9. Myth: “People with ADHD just need to try harder,” Tuckman said.
Fact: While effort is important in overcoming obstacles caused by ADHD, it isn’t the whole story. Tuckman likened the misconception of working harder in ADHD to poor eyesight: “We don’t tell someone with bad vision that he just needs to try harder to see well.”
He added that: “People with ADHD have been trying harder their entire lives, but don’t have as much to show for their efforts. This is why it’s important to address ADHD with appropriate treatment and ADHD-friendly strategies that take into account how the ADHD brain processes information.”
Biederman, J., M. C. Monuteaux, T. Spencer, T. E. Wilens, H. A. MacPherson & Faraone, S.V. (2008). Stimulant therapy and risk for subsequent substance use disorders in male adults with ADHD: A naturalistic controlled 10-year follow-up study. American Journal of Psychiatry 165, 597–603.
Elia, J. deBerardinis, E. Frackelton, C. Kim, F. Lantieri, B. M. Muganga, L. Wang, T. Takeda, E. F. Rappaport, S. F. Grant, W, Berrettini, M. Devoto, T.H. Shaikh, H. Hakonarson, & White, P.S. (2010). Rare structural variants found in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are preferentially associated with neurodevelopmental genes. Molecular Psychiatry 15, 637–646.
Guan, L., B. Wang, Y. Chen, L. Yang, J. Li & Qian, Q. (2009). A high-density single-nucleotide polymorphism screen of 23 candidate genes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: Suggesting multiple susceptibility genes among Chinese Han population. Molecular Psychiatry 14, 546–554.
Kessler R.C., Chiu W.T., Demler O., Walters E.E. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 617-27.
Wilens, T. E., S. V. Faraone, J. Biederman & Gunawardene, S. (2003). Does stimulant therapy of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder beget later substance abuse? A meta-analytic review of the literature. Pediatrics 111, 179–185.