It seems like everyone has an opinion about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And that opinion may not be grounded in fact, according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“ADHD is one of the most misunderstood conditions.” And that misinformation leads to a litany of misconceptions, he said.
ADHD doesn’t exist. It was invented by drug companies to make money. It’s just an excuse to be lazy. Can’t you just try harder?
Everyone has ADHD. You can’t have ADHD. You have a college degree. You’re too smart.
ADHD doesn’t affect adults. It only affects kids.
As an adult with ADHD, hearing such remarks is no doubt difficult, especially if they come from loved ones. (Even mental health professionals hold these myths, Olivardia said.)
“It is hard not to be defensive, since a dismissive comment is invalidating your life experience,” he said.
But being defensive doesn’t solve the problem, said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach. Here’s what can.
See if they’re open to information.
The best approach is to first acknowledge that the above remarks are common reactions by people who misunderstand ADHD, Matlen said.
She and Olivardia underscored the importance of educating individuals – if they’re open to it.
“First ask a person if they are open to hearing more about ADHD, since there are so many misconceptions about it. Do they have an open mind?” Olivardia said.
He gave this example of what you might say: “Lots of people think they know what ADHD is, but there is much misinformation. I can tell you more if you are interested.”
If they have an open mind, explain what ADHD is, and how it affects you and others, Matlen said. “Try to stay calm, and use this as a learning experience.”
If they don’t, try not to be overly defensive, “even though you have every right to be,” Olivardia said. He suggested disengaging and leaving it up to the other person to tell you when they’re ready to receive the information.
Explain that ADHD is a real disorder.
According to Matlen, “Start the educating process by stating that ADHD is a real medical condition, recognized by medical and mental health professionals as well as by the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association, among others.”
Note that ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that affects people of all ages, she said. It is “as real as high blood pressure or diabetes and that with proper treatment, ADHD symptoms can be tamed.”
ADHD also tends to run in families because it’s highly genetic. Explain that “if one person has it in a family, chances are someone else does as well,” she said.
(In fact, according to Olivardia, “Be aware that family members might also have an additional resistance to hearing about ADHD, since the chances are higher that they too have it.”)
The symptoms, such as inattention and procrastination, may “look” like character flaws, Matlen said. But they’re not.
In reality, ADHD is a problem with executive functioning, Olivardia said. You can explain like this, he said: “ADD really should be called Intention Deficit Disorder, since it is a problem where someone has every intention of doing something yet find it difficult to execute the plan to achieve their goal. It can be very frustrating.”
Address the specific misconceptions.
For instance, if the other person believes that everyone has ADHD, Olivardia suggested explaining: “Saying ‘everyone has ADD’ is like saying that everyone is an addict because they might have had one night where they drank too much.”
If they believe ADHD only interferes with schoolwork, he suggested saying: “ADHD is more than any one trait. ADHD is not just about focus and academics. It can affect every life domain.”
“Metaphors often work well in putting ADHD in a context that others can understand,” Olivardia said. He gave this example: “You know how you feel when you have had four cups of coffee, that is me on a low energy day.”
Here’s another analogy: “Imagine trying to focus on something when you have had no sleep, no food and five loud noises going on simultaneously. That is what is like all the time for me in class.”
Try to understand their perspective.
“It can also help to understand where others are coming from,” Olivardia said. He shared this example: “I know it is hard to understand. You see me as bright and accomplished. It probably is hard to imagine that doing everyday things — like getting out of bed, chores, paying the bills — take so much effort for me, but they do. ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence.”
Ask the person if they’re willing to read more about ADHD, said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. For instance, she suggested the book Driven to Distraction by Drs. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey.
Talking with a person who questions the authenticity of ADHD or minimizes its effects can be incredibly frustrating, Matlen said. But remember that you get to decide “how much energy you want to put into this.”
“If you sense the person is totally incapable or unwilling to be open minded enough to learn more, then choose whether you want to interact with this person. The stress may not be worth it.”
Olivardia also suggested being patient with the people you care about, because oftentimes they do come around. “You cannot expect to undo years of misinformation in one day. Introduce one tidbit of knowledge at a time.”