Can You Be “Too Smart to Have ADHD?”

can you be too smart to have ADHD? Dr Thomas E. Brown's research says no.

High intelligence does not protect you from the effects of ADHD. Research tells us that, including that from Thomas E. Brown, PhD, below. Yet, it’s too often assumed—from childhood well into adulthood—that high IQ rules out ADHD entirely. In other words, you can be too smart to have ADHD.

When my husband, a molecular biologist, and I started dating, I thought, “Wow, he’s the absent-minded professor in the flesh.”

I asked my friend, a fellow journalist married to a biochemist, “Does he always miss the freeway exit?” She deadpanned: “All the freakin’ time.”

The implication was clear: Scientists live on another plane of existence. Don’t expect them to be connected to the mundane realities of life. Just accept it. Appreciate their intelligence in other areas. That’s the common wisdom.  Unfortunately, too often that means that many high-intelligence people with ADHD never get the help they deserve.

Case in Point: My Husband

It would be another two years before I would connect the dots from my husband’s many puzzling behaviors to this thing called ADHD.  Turns out, my husband got through his doctoral program not because he is a blazing genius. His peers were very smart, too. Rather, he did it  because he summoned every ounce of sheer grit and willpower he had.  Oh, and he consumed tankards of coffee while wearing earphones in the library basement. Did I mention he had no life outside the lab?

Still, over 20 years I’ve heard again and again: “Well, your husband is so brilliant because of his ADHD.”  I know where they get this assumption. It’s a popular marketing angle in the “Adult ADHD industry.”  But I find this trope misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

My husband got through PhD school because he was smart and extremely motivated.  He loves his work. Moreover, the idea doing physical labor the rest of his life? Terrifying!  Back then, he simply did not have the motivation and initiation for any kind of exercise except cycling.  There was no way he could do physical work every day.

The bottom line is: Earning that PhD was immensely harder for him than it was for his peers. It didn’t have to be that hard.

too smart to have ADHD

If you’re like me, you know several people with ADHD (diagnosed or not) who’ve been trying to finish their Ph.D. thesis for ages. This is often what brings folks to my Palo Alto  Adult ADHD group: trying to finish a PhD at Berkeley or Stanford.

Do them a favor, and forward to them this post. They might be glad to know if heir challenges in procrastinating, prioritizing, and all the other Executive Functions have nothing to do with intelligence—high or low. Nor does it indicate they aren’t “cut out for” that field of study. Or, worse, they “aren’t serious about it.”

Now I’ll turn you over to a preeminent ADHD expert.

From Thomas E. Brown, PhD:

Psychologist Thomas E. Brown is now based in Southern California. His Brown Clinic in Manhattan Beach is a point of light there in an otherwise bleak landscape for ADHD.

During his many years at Yale University, Dr. Brown conducted several studies to learn more about high IQ individuals with ADHD. Here is an excerpt from his 2007 newsletter. It’s as true today as it was then.  You’ll find links to the abstract and/or full text of the now-published papers.

High IQ Children and Adults with ADHD

Often, high IQ children and adults who suffer from ADHD are told by parents, educators, and clinicians that they cannot have this disorder because they are so bright. Many seem to assume that being very bright protects individuals from having ADHD. Recent research at Harvard and at Yale has demonstrated that individuals with high IQ can and do suffer from ADHD.

In the J. of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2007, 48: 7 pp. 687-694), Antshel and colleagues at Harvard reported on samples of children with IQ ≥ 120, 49 with ADHD diagnosis and 92 matched controls. They found that in comparison to controls, those children with ADHD:

  • Repeated grades more often
  • Needed more academic supports
  • Had more comorbid psychopathology
  • Were rated by their parents as having more functional impairments

ADHD was also shown to have elevated incidence rates in relatives of those with high IQ and ADHD.

When compared with a group of high IQ children without ADHD and to normal IQ children without ADHD, those with both high IQ and ADHD had a much higher incidence of ADHD among their relatives than did high IQ controls as well as normal IQ controls (23% vs 2.5% vs. 5.9%).

These data suggest that the ADHD of those in the high IQ sample cannot be explained as a consequence of their having high IQ.

You can read the paper here:  Is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder a valid diagnosis in the presence of high IQ? Results from the MGH Longitudinal Family Studies of ADHD

Brown Et Al Studies: High IQ Subjects with ADHD

My colleagues and I completed two somewhat similar studies at Yale.

First, n our study of 157 adults with ADHD and IQ ≥ 120, we found that 73% were significantly impaired on at least 5 of 8 measures of executive function (working memory index and processing speed index on the WAIS-IQ test, index score for short term memory of stories just heard; 5 cluster scores of Brown ADD Scale).

Here is the link to that paper’s abstract, in a 2009 issue of Journal of Attention Disorders: Executive Function Impairments in High-IQ Adults with ADHD

Second, in our study of 117 children with high IQ and ADHD (ages 6 to 17 years), 62% showed significant impairment in at least 5 of 8 similar EF measures.

Here is the link to that full paper:  Executive Function Impairments in High-IQ Children and Adolescents

Meanwhile, taken together, these three studies offer substantial evidence to support the notion that ADHD does occur in very bright children and adults.

In some ways, these very bright individuals with ADHD may be at greater risk than many others because their ADD impairments often are not recognized by educators, parents or themselves until they have suffered years of frustration and underachievement in school.


Did high IQ or achievement in your field obscure ADHD for you personally or for a loved one?

We’d love to know your perspective on this topic.

—Gina Pera

33 thoughts on “Can You Be “Too Smart to Have ADHD?””

  1. It’s pretty obvious now that with my duo autism and ADD diagnosis, it’s ADD that’s doing the majority of damage. Had a diagnosis since being a child but I feel like something is not working. Did well enough in private school (with learning disability support) but struggled socially in college. Got a degree but barely used it.

    20’s kindof sucked with social and job stagnation. Low self esteem and mixed motivation. Attend classes and pass tests but struggle in further application. Dating life non-existent.

    Very close to 30 and scared for future. Feel like a pit where so many resources have gone in and barely anything has come out. About a year and a half ago committed to overhauling mental health throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it. I’ll admit it might be starting to go off the rails.

    I’m so sick of forgetting things.
    I’m sick of feeling like a fuck up.
    I’m so tired of the ADD meds.

    Dextro, Adderall, Concerta, Wellbutrin. Some helped to some degree but I despise their inconsistency. I felt horrible leaving my new Adderall at the grocery store and losing it despite already being on what should of been a solid dose of it. So after another week of mixed results, I want to flush the crap down the toilet.

    After going cold turkey for a while after college, I thought I would be an adult and go back to the same psychiatrist (since I was a kid) and try again. I remember why I am weary of these medications.

    Racing thoughts, ruminations and obsessions, anger, guilt.

    Getting a talking to by the chief that I had some complaints. I find them fair but still demoralizing. EMT volunteer might be a short stint. Meditation helps but the benefits are temporary. Eating more protein and watching diet but not too much improvement. Therapy was okay I guess. Certain ‘special’ mushrooms spiritually lifesaving but do absolutely nothing for ADD (my idea not my doc’s and no I’m not tripping while volunteering).

    Life is starting to feel like a death march.

    I got a feeling I need a chemical of sorts. I don’t want to be an addict to some stim but clearly something is missing in my brain. Something to balance things out.


    Yeah, I’m getting a new psychiatrist.

    1. I hear your frustration, Rookie.

      I’m afraid there aren’t magic answers, for anyone. But for some, it just is harder than for others.

      Medication won’t be the silver bullet. But getting consistent with it — and getting enough sleep/exercise and eating well —- can start making a difference. For most folks, anyway.

      My tendency is to ignore any duo autism/ADHD diagnosis until ADHD treatment is optimized. Maybe there is ASD, too. But maybe there was just a less-than-astute clinician who failed to understand ADHD-related contributions to social challenges, black/white thinking, etc..

      I understand wanting some relief via the mushrooms, but it could be working against you in the long run. Folks with ADHD need to improve communication among brain parts, not disrupt it.

      good luck,

    2. Rookie, are you me? But yeah, even medicated I still forget things a lot. I put a checklist app on my phone and its how I manage it now. Whenever I think of anything I want to do, need to do, or want to think about later, I write it in the app. It’s helped immensely, though sometimes I get self-conscious that I’m checking my phone a little too often.

  2. When I was 14 I was tested for ADD as I was struggling at school, going from being at the top of my class to nearly dropping out. Whilst the test result did conclude my IQ was 130>, the results on ADD were inconclusive and due to the high cost of a follow up test my parents did not believe it was worth taking. As a result I went undiagnosed for years, which led to tons of confusion and anger at myself as I did not understand what was holding me back from reaching the potential I was supposed to have. 4 years later at 18 I have finally been diagnosed and I must say it was a huge relief, yet part of me can’t help but be frustrated about how easy it is for me and peers to fly under the radar as we struggle trying to compensate for this issue. I hope I can help to spread some awareness so that others can get the help they need much sooner in life. I must say things are getting a lot easier now that I can search for and read blogs such as yours, it’s truly appreciated 🙂

    1. Hi Eline,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Honestly, as I was reading, I expected to learn that you are now 72 years old. :-). That’s because I hear it so much!

      One 65-year-old man, married for 40 years (many of them rough indeed), finally hit upon the ADHD explanation. In talking with his mother, she said, “Oh yes, they wanted to diagnosed YOU with ADHD in the third grade but I wouldn’t let ’em!”

      “Did you ever plan on telling me this, Mom?”

      I hope that you have learned early enough to keep you strongly on your desired path in life. But I also hope you remember what it was like, not knowing…..and the millions of “alternate explanations.”

      I was an early online advocate….2006 if not earlier (I can’t remember!). The only time I felt I could let up is when lots of adults with ADHD started their blogs. Pretty soon, we had critical mass and we weren’t backing down.

      Take care!


  3. My high intelligence and ability to get good grades was what allowed my parents to write-off the possibility that I had ADHD. I got proficient in the material by reading the textbook in class, as I couldn’t concentrate on anything the teachers were saying. This caught up to me in college when the material got more difficult. I went from a 4.0 to a 2.5 overall gpa starting in my junior year and it completely derailed my life. If you think your child may have ADHD but they’re still top in their class in high school, I implore you to get the foundation set so they can get medicated if they need it for college. I lost five of the best years of my life.

    1. Hi Devon,

      Thanks for sharing that from-the-trenches advice.

      I’ve seen that so often…it’s just tragic.

      And of course, the “denial” of ADHD typically persists. Especially if they get in the clutches of a therapist who just keeps asking, “What’s changed to cause this problem?”

      They look for superficialities — problematic relationships, etc.

      They don’t look underneath.


  4. So what can you do when a clinician will not diagnos because of higher I. Q., but you still believe your child has it. I have a very very impulsive fifth grader who scores anywhere from the 60-96 percentile depending on the test. Huge inconsistencies. I believe that it is because sometimes he can’t shut off the other stimuli around him. His father and sister both have ADHD with average IQs so it is easier to detect. I really feel he has it, but am having a hard time finding some one who can see he is not reaching his individual potential because of ADHD because they just expect him to reach average.

    1. Hi Ashley,

      Obviously, can you find another clinician?

      Beyond that, perhaps try being more pro-active in making your case.

      We know the genetic basis for ADHD. The fact that his father and sister have ADHD should be a giant clue to any clinician who knows the first thing about ADHD (many do NOT).

      Also, write down in short bullet points what you perceive as your son’s challenges. Use the diagnostic list of symptoms for ADHD and provide examples for any that fit. Add anything from infancy that suggests physical issues related to ADHD (motor coordination, asthma, etc.)

      To be clear: I’m not suggesting that you “sell” a clinician on your child having ADHD. I’m suggesting that you provide what you see as the evidence, in clear, easy-to-read form (not long narratives, especially verbal).

      Also, ask your child to explain where he feels challenged…though admittedly it’s hard for a child with ADHD who has never been medically treated to know what the difference might be.

      Good luck!

  5. I have à high IQ and adhd that i just found out at the age of 38 . Im back on school for small motor mechanics because i cant stand sitting all Day especially in front office à computer especially doing Boring stuff. I tried i litterly go nuts. Except on class when it’s interesting and interactive. Im big on asking questions. I absolutly love learning. I didnt want to try meds at first but then i wanted to be an example to my two adhd boys and after when i work i dont want to ask my boss what did you say too often. It’s hard to accept your adhd when you know your Smart and even surprise your teachers. I asked my past sales teacher and hé Says im an excellent student. And my mechanics teachers have not complained either. Sometimes i wonder if im just too hard on myself and im not adhd even if i am diagnosed and can totally relate with other adhd People and that adhd explains everything i Do différent than others which really amazes me. Knowing other adhd People finally Makes me feel normal. Adhd normal ive lost the reason i was posting but it feels good to express this. Have à great Day

    1. Hi again Another Gina,

      I’m glad you found my blog and have expressed yourself here.

      Congratulations for finding out you have ADHD at age 38. Sooner might have been preferable. But some people don’t learn until they’re 80 or older — and some never learn.

      You are young enough to have diagnosis and treatment make a huge difference in your life.

      You’ve only been on medication a day or two. Give it some time to assess what it might be doing for you.

      Some people with even untreated ADHD do quite well at learning. It’s the application of learning, in a job, that is difficult for them.

      Now, it seems like you might be able to put your excellent aptitude for learning into a job you’ll love.

      Good luck!
      The other Gina

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