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Why ADHD is Misunderstood

Why ADHD is MisunderstoodAttention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is regularly misunderstood. In fact, some believe that ADHD doesn’t even exist. One reason is the media. Some media perpetuate the myth that pharmaceutical companies created ADHD in order to cash in, said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “ADHD has been identified in medical books way before the advent of ADHD medications.”

Even medical and mental health professionals misunderstand ADHD. They “get little or no training on what ADHD is, let alone the treatment for it. So the naivete trickles down from there,” Matlen said.

It also may appear that people with ADHD don’t have a problem with attention because they’re able to focus on some tasks, such as playing video games or watching TV.

However, “attention is not always a deficit but rather, it’s the inability to ‘control’ attention,” Matlen said. People with ADHD are able to pay attention to stimuli that are intrinsically interesting, but their focus nosedives with activities that aren’t stimulating. “Boredom for someone with ADHD is intolerable.”

We also misunderstand ADHD because at times we’ve experienced some of the symptoms.

Everyone occasionally procrastinates, forgets something important or gets easily distracted (which might be more frequent thanks to technology). So we assume we know what ADHD feels like.

“This is like saying that someone can understand what it is like to be clinically depressed because they have been sad,” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Depression and sadness are two different experiences.” (Indeed they are.)

He also likened it to having a sore throat and headaches and feeling sluggish. Just because we’ve experienced these symptoms doesn’t mean we “understand having mononucleosis, which encapsulates all of those symptoms and others at once with intensity.”

Kelly Babcock, who pens the Psych Central blog “ADHD Man of DistrAction,” put it this way:

I say “I came in here and can’t remember what I was after,” and everyone else says, “Oh, I do that, I must have ADHD.” Or they say, “Everyone does that, that means ADHD isn’t real.”

But I’ve done it three times and gone back to what I was doing only to remember what the thing was and returned to get it and still haven’t managed. And that’s in the last 5 minutes, and that’s the 17th thing I’ve had this happen with … in the last hour. Everyone else is done what they were doing and I’m still gathering up the things I need to do this project… and it’s only 9:20 a.m.!

Douglas Cootey, author of the award-winning blog “A Splintered Mind,” summed it up: “ADHD manifests itself in ways that everyone can relate to, so they conclude that there is nothing special about ADHD, and that people with ADHD are just making excuses for themselves.”

But what people don’t realize, he said, are the quantity of incidents and severity of ADHD.

ADHD is forgetfulness and impulsiveness that gets you fired. ADHD is forgetting why you entered a room, forgetting what you wanted to say, putting the milk away with the teacups, talking over everybody before you forget what you wanted to say, and then getting distracted by your phone when they respond — all within 15 minutes or so. Each day. All day. It’s absentmindedness weaponized.

ADHD also is misunderstood because people who don’t have it are able to overcome challenges with willpower or other strategies, said Zoë Kessler, author of the Psych Central blog “ADHD from A to Zoë,” and the book ADHD According to Zoë: The Real Deal on Relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys.

“[T]hey don’t understand why we can’t do it too.” But the ADHD brain works differently. With treatment, support and the right environment, people with ADHD can thrive and accomplish incredible things, Kessler said.

People with the inattentive subtypes of ADHD also are commonly misunderstood by teachers, professionals and family members, said Matlen, author of The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done.

Because they don’t exhibit hyperactivity or impulsivity — the classic signs of ADHD — they often go undiagnosed and instead get labeled as “‘ditzy’ daydreamers who simply need to pull up their bootstraps and work harder.”

(Again, working harder isn’t the problem or the solution. The key lies in getting proper treatment and finding strategies that work best for each person with ADHD.)

As Matlen said, “What we do need to understand is that ADHD is a real medical condition, recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA), Surgeon General of the United States, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and more.”

What we do need is “more open-mindedness, more compassion, humanity and kindness, and a true willingness to accept others as they are — not as you are,” Kessler said.

What we do need is to educate ourselves on how ADHD manifests and what it feels like. Babcock shared this description:

[I]magine that you have all the knowledge of the social, political and physical needs of life, and you’re responsible for meeting those needs for yourself and possibly others, but you have the focus of a 5-year-old and that same 5-year-old’s need for instant gratification.

Now add flashes of brilliance, and an ability to focus intently, but only occasionally and you don’t always get to choose on what you’ll be able to focus. Stir in some anxiety and add a desire to please. Then take the works out of your watch so that the hands fly around randomly and put on a Tshirt that says ‘Don’t Believe Me When I Tell You About ADHD’ on the back. That’s about right.

Again, ADHD is a real condition. When we understand that, it’s a great thing for everyone.

In this piece, individuals share additional insights into what having ADHD really feels like.

Why ADHD is Misunderstood

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Why ADHD is Misunderstood. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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