ADHD: Smarter isn’t Better

Been there, done that.

Why Being Smart Doesn’t Help People With ADHD

For bright kids with ADHD, parents and teachers tend to assume the problem is their motivation or will power. These presumptions can follow patients throughout their childhoods and seriously impact their education.

Hat tip to Overexcitable.

My Books

By the way, this is my 200th post, so yay me.


Fake ADHD Isn’t Real (Part 4 of 7)

Many people have an old-fashioned notion of willpower, leftover, I think, from a Victorian notion of morality.  Technology, science, and medicine change rapidly, but culture and social structure, in many ways, change at a glacial pace.  Slavery ended in 1863, yet we arguably still feel effects of this scourge today.

Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in the 1890’s is about post-partum depression/psychosis and the popular “rest cure” for well-off women of that era which consisted of nothing less than solitary confinement.  In the story, the narrator complains to her husband that although she may be getting better in body, she’s not making any progress in her mind and may be getting worse.  His reply:

I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.

This dialogue belies a belief that many people have today.  If one is depressed, the advice is “just don’t let it bother you,” that one can just shut it out.  Likewise, the common advice for those suffering from ADHD is to “try harder.”  (The better advice is “try differently,” but that’s for another post.)

Part of intellectual maturity is to recognize that people are different in mind and see the world and function in different ways. This lesson comes to me all the time when I grade papers with students.  I’ve had students thank me for a D and storm out of my office for a B+.  I’ve always thought that personal essays are more fun and easier to write than research papers, but I’ve had students tell me the opposite is true for them.  Having autistic children helps me understand different minds too.

(Next: Everyone is a little ADHD. Especially professors.)

All my posts on ADHD Fakeness.


Photo by flood llama

Fake ADHD Isn’t Real (Part 3 of 7)

Another source of ADHD denial is the way we’ve defined freedom and discrimination in the United States.  In a class I taught, I once posed a question about discrimination.  Way back in the olden days I sold cell phones, the kind that only made phone calls and had roughly 18 minutes of battery time.  If you wanted to listen to music on your phone you had to duct tape a cd player to it.  The store where I worked required a two-year contract and a $250 deposit if a customer did not have a credit card.  One customer who did not have a credit card complained to me that the policy was “discrimination.”  I asked my students if they agreed. They said no.

We had a long discussion and came to the conclusion that in broad terms “discrimination” applies to being judged negatively based only on things which one has no control, such as race or gender or height or whatever, whereas other kinds of decisions are based more on things people can control. There are lots of exceptions, but that seemed, for everyone in the room at least, a good starting point. A customer with poor credit did not merit a credit line. You can argue about to what degree people have actual control over their finances, and there may be systemic discrimination in play, but the popular conception is that one has some control, or at least should.

I think for less serious forms of mental illness, that many people believe the symptoms would be controllable if the sufferer just tried harder.  According to this line of thinking, for someone who is not obviously mentally ill, not ranting and writing manifestoes and wearing unwashed clothes, what’s the big deal?  Just buck up like everyone else.  And that person better not get any special help! It’s okay to discriminate against people with mental-illness-lite because those people are suffering the consequences of their own actions.  No one says to me You wear glasses?  You should just try harder to see more clearly But I was told a thousand times you could do your homework on time if you really wanted to.

Everyone experiences sadness, grief, loss,  and hopelessness at times and for some people such emotions turn into clinical depression and others they do not.  Everyone at some time has trouble settling down to focus, but people who have more trouble may look like they’re just not trying.  Hyperfocus confuses the issue because ADHDers have tons of attention for things they like.  It’s true for me. I can spend hours reading a book when I really need to spend ten minutes opening my mail.  Turning off that hyperfocus kind of attention is just as hard as turning on other kinds.  And it has nothing to do with intelligence.

In the United States, these discussions of deficit and agency and accommodation take place in a context where traditional values include self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the meritocracy.  As an example, see the “you didn’t build that” dustup from the 2012 presidential election, where a vague pronoun turned into a tussle about American values.

(Next: Victorians mess up everything.)

All my posts on ADHD Fakeness.

A Motorola DynaTAC 8000X from 1984. This phone...

No cell for you! Next!

ADHD Awareness Month

Well, I’m late as usual on this because it is ADHD Awareness Month and I was only aware of it as of today, said month being nearly over.  But here is an important means of battling the ADHD myths:

7 Facts You Need to Know about ADHD:

  1. ADHD is real
  2. ADHD is a common, non-discriminatory disorder
  3. Diagnosing ADHD is a complex process
  4. Other mental health conditions often occur along with ADHD
  5. ADHD is not benign
  6. ADHD is nobody’s fault
  7. ADHD treatment is multi-faceted

Full discussion, handout, poster, and references here:

Anno Domini High Definition

I don’t know what this has to do with ADHD, but it’s pretty.


A good post on Reddit about ADHD and public perception, etc.

It’s amazing how much high quality scientific research is out there on the disorder. Put simply, we know a lot about the disorder; its causes, treatments and long-term outcomes of those affected. ADHD has been constantly studied, and we have a wealth of peer-reviewed studies pertaining to the disorder.

Often, journalists and other various people who claim to be ADHD “experts” constantly trivialize ADHD with their latest “theories” and “causes,” most of which have no understanding of the scientific findings of ADHD. Many of these people are just grabbing for attention at some media outlet. The problem I have with this stuff is that it does a disservice to those of us with the disorder, making it hard for us to get through all the bullshit and see what ADHD really is.

Full post and discussion here:

Image representing Reddit as depicted in Crunc...


ADHD and Fakeness

Two articles on the (un)reality of ADHD:

ADHD, or Childhood Narcissism?

The Atlantic

All too often, forces conspire in the doctor’s office to ensure that any discussion about a child’s predicament is brief, compact, and symptom-focused instead of long, explorative, and developmentally focused, as it should be. The compactness of the discussion in the doctor’s office may even be reassuring to parents who are baffled and exasperated by their kid’s behavior. It is easy to understand why parents may favor a sure and swift approach, with a discussion converging on checking off lists of symptoms, floating a diagnosis of ADHD, and reviewing options for medication.

Public Knowledge, Beliefs, and Treatment Preferences Concerning Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

(via NIH)


The public is not well informed about ADHD. Future media and educational efforts should seek to provide accurate information about ADHD, with a special effort to reach specific populations such as men, nonwhite minority groups, and older Americans.


Writing Sporks

Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty.  A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids.  Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged.  All things I resist.

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from...

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from U.S. Patent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder.  What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)

No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.

When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).

I knew early on that I had a knack for writing.  The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher.  I didn’t work that hard on it.  I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school.  In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”

After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals.  My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career.  A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.

But the awards did not come.  Nor did the acceptance.  I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because  I was special.  I had an M.F.A., after all.  I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions.  I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.

So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet  seemed foolish too.  I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family.  I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write.  Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).

But writing always nagged me.  A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks.  Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one).  I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center.  That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations.  Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade.  He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.

Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical.  It was granted.  I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences.  Approved.  I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.

Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation.  To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate.  Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections.  It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up.  What other profession requires enduring so much rejection?  Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.

So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life!  The bohemian lifestyle!  The freedom of the life of the mind!  Nope. My life is difficult.  I have two sons with autism.  My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt.  All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse.  Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that.  My sons are happy and innocent and young.  I’m married to a wonderful woman.  My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.

However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.

Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.   I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better.  I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.

There are many quirks to the ADHD mind.  One is hyperfocus.  A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus.  I can focus intensely.  I am a voracious reader.  I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity.  I just can’t often control what that activity is.  And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time.  I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.

I’ve learned to trick my mind.  If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep  the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.

DSC_9567But the thing I am never good at is tedium: paperwork, paying bills, doing laundry, or submitting work for publication.

Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”

Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time.  When I write I gain nourishment from that focus.  The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk.  A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.

Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay.  There can be no other explanation.  How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards?  How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough?  On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.

The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office.  It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway?  Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?”  Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event.  I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”

Death of Socrates, 1875

Death of Socrates, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing.  He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.


Dear friends, colleagues, students, employers, creditors, family, editors, medical providers, yoga instructors, Facebook friends, WordPress readers, and auto mechanics:

I have ADHD.  It’s a real thing. It’s hard because most of the world doesn’t.  Our society is built on steady, goal-directed effort and my brain does not work that way.  I will be a valuable person to interact with for a time, and then I will probably disappear.  I’m trying to fix that. It’s hard.  I lived for 40 years without knowing what was wrong, and it’s going to take some time to undo my bad habits and poor choices and the negative feelings that have grown up around them.

I am not asking to be excused or pitied.  The life I have now is what I signed up for. No one twisted my arm and said I had to take a teaching job, and I am fully aware, dear creditors, that one has to pay back what one has borrowed. I want to be held accountable for my actions. That actually helps me improve.  Also, don’t tell me I’m brave. I am not. If I were, I would not have this problem in the first place.  Though it is tempting, I do not think martyring myself will be healthy. I want to be praised for my true talents and accomplishments, and bravery is not up there.  False flattery is a short-term fix that I’m trying to wean myself from.

The only thing I want is some way to explain my strangeness.

When I don’t do something I said I would do, I most likely did not forget about it. I do forget about tasks, but usually just minor ones. No, usually something happened to get in the way of my getting started or following through and I couldn’t do it.  I can guarantee it’s on a list or in a pile somewhere close by.

Motivation is tied to desire, but it is a complex interaction.  If you’ve ever tried and failed to quit smoking or stick to a diet you know what I mean.

I want to be the teacher that returns emails within 24 hours, for example. I think that’s an important and reasonable standard for my work. Sometimes I can do it.  Sometimes I can’t.  Even when I can’t, I think about it all the time. It’s not that I’m living this carefree life, trying to get away with doing as little work as possible, laughing all the way to the bank (my bank statement generally makes me want to stick my head under a pillow).  I greatly prefer being able to do my work, and the things I do to avoid it do not make me happy or satisfied.  I imagine my habits are similar to a maintenance alcoholic’s drinking; avoidance is a sort of self-medication.  It might help in the short term but it creates more problems in the long term.

Like every person, my interests and enthusiasm for projects and activities change all the time.  However, unlike the average person, it is really hard for me to work on something that does not have an intrinsic attraction or immediate deadline. When things get difficult or uncertain, my attention moves on to something else.  My waning attention does not mean I don’t value something in the long term. There’s just some minor hurdle that my brain’s turned into a wall.  Whatever hypothetical task we’re talking about now, I was interested and motivated to do it before and I will be again.  I’m just on a down cycle right now.

There are some things that are not going to change.  I have trouble recalling names and numbers, for example.  Can’t help it.    Remembering someone’s name has little to do with how important that person is to me. Sometimes I can’t even remember my own phone number. The hardest thing of all for me to do is sustain regular effort over the long term. I can do that sometimes and it will seem as easy as breathing, but sometimes answering my email is harder than eight hours of digging ditches.

I want you to understand that if I disappear on you, it’s most often not something that you did. When I disappear, something’s going on in my life that’s causing me to get stuck.  It often has nothing to do with you. In fact, sometimes, the more I value a person or a project the harder it is to get over my block. I’m working on changing that, and I am making good progress, but I have setbacks too.

One thing that helps is persistence on your end.  I know, that seems unfair, but kind reminders and contact helps me enormously.  Face time helps too.  If we can work together somehow, I’ll do much better work.  If I have to slog things out alone, I’ll get into trouble.  I think I’m the only person I know who likes long meetings.

And honesty helps too. If you tell me what you like and what you don’t, in the long run I like that better than guessing at what people are thinking. Although it is very difficult for me to hear criticism when I’m in a funk, it proves valuable in the end. (Apologies to my wife in that department.) You have to have an abundance of patience to work with me.  I’m fortunate to have many people around me with such patience.  Especially my wife.

I write all this because it is hard to understand for a person without ADHD to understand. Even people with ADHD have trouble understanding and thus explaining themselves.  I did not understand my habits for nearly 40 years; I’m used to hiding and covering for my deficits. I don’t expect the world to change for me. I’m finding a way to work in the world. Understanding my habits is not yet enough for me to overcome my challenges yet, but I’m on the way.

If I disappeared on you, all of the above is the real explanation. I can usually conjure a believable excuse which has some basis in reality, such as I was sick, my kids were sick, or the internet was down. Those things happen often enough.

But the real answer: I got into a funk, a freeze, a down cycle.  I’ll be back soon.