High intelligence does not protect you from the effects of ADHD, research shows (more about that 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, and unfortunately, I bet 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 connected the dots from my husband’s many puzzling behaviors to ADHD. Turns out, my husband got through his doctoral program not because he is a blazing genius—his peers were all smart, too—but because he summoned all that he had in the way of sheer grit and willpower. Plus, he consumed tankards of coffee while wearing earphones in the library basement—and had no life outside the lab.
Still, over 20 years I’ve been told 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 it misguided at best and dangerous at worse.
My husband got through it because he was smart and extremely motivated (he loves his work)—plus, he was terrified at doing physical labor the rest of his life. Back then, he simply did not have the motivation and initiation to do 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.
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 that their challenges in procrastinating, prioritizing, and all the other executive functions have nothing to do with intelligence—high or low.
From Dr. Brown:
Psychologist Thomas E. Brown is a preeminent ADHD expert now based in Southern California. While he was still at Yale, he conducted several studies to learn more about high IQ individuals with ADHD. Here is an excerpt from his 2007 newsletter, as true today as it was then. I’ve updated links to abstracts 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.
Brown Et Al Studies: High IQ Subjects with ADHD
My colleagues and I completed two somewhat similar studies at Yale. In 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).
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.
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.
Thomas E. Brown, PhD
How about you? Did high IQ obscure ADHD for you personally or for a loved one?