High intelligence does not protect you from the effects of ADHD. Period. Research tells us that, including research 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 said: “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. But all scientists don’t have ADHD! Unfortunately, believing these stereotypes 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 Industrial Complex.” 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, currently in cancer genetics. When someone we know is diagnosed with cancer, I’m sad but he’s angry. Cancer is his sworn enemy. He’s impatient for better treatments.
Another motivating factor? The terrifying prospect of doing physical labor the rest of his life! In his high school and early college days, 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. He knew he would not survive in that kind of job.
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.
Executive Functions: Unrelated to Intelligence
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 often 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, Thomas E. Brown, PhD.
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.
49 thoughts on “Can You Be “Too Smart to Have ADHD?””
This. I’m trying not to cry reading this. I’ve been denied an adhd diagnosis for this exact reason EVEN THOUGH the specialist told me that according to her test I’d have adhd. She told me my IQ was tol high and I did too well in school and university. Also my own mother and aunt are both diagnosed but since their IQs are a little bit lower, it was fine.
I should explain that I’m currently studying for a double degree in law and languages (english/chinese). So every time I’m bringing up the effets of adhd they’re telling me it’s only because I work so right now. It’s not it was always like that and they don’t listen to me. They don’t see how hard I’m working to keep me floating, to make sure I won’t fail. They can’t see how much I’m forcing myself, fighting against my own brain and making so many sacrifices. Should I start failing for them to finally listen to me ?
I will try and see another specialist next year and I hope this time it will work
I’m glad you found this important post.
Unfortunately, and sometimes tragically, mental health workers fail us. And fail us horribly.
To “take charge” of this issue, we truly must self-educate so as to be prepared to self-advocate.
I hope this helps you to get the help you deserve.
High IQ has hidden ADHD and ADHD has hidden high IQ for decades… I realised I had a high IQ when I was around 27 or 28, and realised I had ADHD two years ago, I’m 36. And now I have a psychiatrist who told me yesterday that hyperfocus is not compatible with ADHD since ADHD struggle with focus so yeah. I found a genius who thinks the stereotypes about ADHD from 20 years ago are still relevant today.
I need to find a new one but they’re rare, often not available and I need to call and I hate to call so yeah that’s awesome.
Yes, “Two E” (Twice Exceptional) folks with ADHD really can fall through the cracks.
It doesn’t help that the “ADHD Gifters” give the public and professionals the idea that the high IQ is because of ADHD — and you don’t want to “medicate away the gifts.”
If I had a dollar for every nitwit psychiatrist/therapist story, I’d be rolling in dough. It’s insane, really. A huge public-health menace.
You know, these online “tele health” clinics are largely a Silicon Valley venture-capital play by people who don’t know the first thing about psychiatry or mental health. BUT, some people with ADHD are finding them helpful, having given up on local resources.
Best of luck to you. You deserve better!
I won’t say I was a genius as a kid, but I was always in the top classes (I’m 55), told I was gifted when I was younger, and graduated high school with a 4.0 and in the top 10 of a pretty large class. I got to college and had no idea how to study, plan my time, go to all my classes or do anything much but party! I graduated with a decent GPA and floundered when I moved out of state. I got into credit card debt, managed to only get fired once (from a job where I was responsible for proofing newsletters – excruciating!) and finally met a man who is extremely organized and calm. For our 20+ years of marriage, he has been frustrated by my inability to finish anything. I take a 10 mg dose of Adderol to focus at work when I need it (but now realize I need to really figure out the Rx with a doctor who knows adult ADHD. Our very bright 21 yr old son’s recent diagnosis (poor kid flew under the radar his entire life but hopefully we’re starting the right road to get him the real help he needs) caused both my husband and me to completely re-think and research how profoundly ADHD can impact someone’s life. Thank you Gina for your work and your resources!
Classic! Cruised through school via innate smarts, so you never had to deal with all the pragmatics the rest of us had to deal with! 🙂
Definitely, you want medication to be active during “interaction times” at home, on the weekend.
10 mg of Adderall might not be cutting it, even during worktime. There can be a rebound/crash, too.
I’m almost ready to launch Course 2 in my program, on sleep and medication. Stay tuned!
And, I do believe Course 1 – “Foundations” – will be very useful to you and your husband — and you can share with your son.
Hello wonderful kindred souls. I was labeled gifted around 7 years old.
The MGM mentally gifted minors program resulted in my not having to do things that the other kids had to do. I got to skip required classes. The person who decided after testing me that I was gifted also made a notation that I seemed to distracted. My 5th grade teacher sorry add and told my mother that I had a behavioral problem but my mother said I was a member of Mensa and decided that she was a bad teacher.
Fourth grade I scored 12th month or 12th year and 9th month on their competency exams. Everything was boring and easy and I couldn’t wait to learn things that were interesting.
When I got to Junior College and found out that they didn’t take roll and that it wasn’t going to be interesting for 2 or 3 years I knew that I would never succeed so I just decided to educate myself through living. I used methamphetamine medicinal leaf for years until iron across a man who was structured disciplined and turned out to be my boyfriend.
The way he used methamphetamine was completely different and so I became addicted. I’ve wasted my 20s and 30s and 40s and most of my 50s I’ve learned a great deal about spirituality and people that know me through mindfulness groups and community support groups think that I am wonderful.
I’ve just passed 10 years of sobriety and only did the first three steps lately I felt like I should just do all 12 steps since I’ve been there for so long in na. But when I start trying to write my inventory I find that the things that are listed as Character defects or the manifestations of add that I’ve been struggling with all my life. I’m at a loss as to what to do about it. It’s wonderful to have found this blog. I think it will be part of my resolution of this completing the 12 Steps problem.
I need to be kind to myself. Besides how awful would it be to ask God to take away my Character defects and then have it not work LOL.
Thank you for listening.
I am on 50 mg a day of Vyvanse but it is not enough I was on 70 and it was fairly effective. I’m afraid to get a job because I’m afraid to screw up.
I need two more years to qualify for social security. I have a new Doctor Who is very very good and we’ve talked about increasing the dose back to 70. Yesterday she said she was willing to do it but would rather have me go see my primary care physician about my blood pressure first it’s not that high but it’s a little high so amazing ly to me I told her that I would do that first. I feel like I am not a drug addict seeking amphetamines. I feel like I’ve been struggling all my life gave up methamphetamine and trusted the doctors to help me. I’m so afraid that by saying I need more that they will try to tell me that I don’t really need more and that I need to address my addiction problems. Once again thank you for listening. Affectionately Kelly
I really appreciate your sharing your story, as painful as it is to read.
re: Vyvanse…you know some folks think they need a larger dose when what they really need is a second dose — 6-10 hours later. Just a thought.
I’m really glad you found a doctor who would prescribe first-line ADHD medications to someone with the history you describe.
You might be interested in this post — and the comments:
I was Addicted to Meth When I Was Diagnosed with ADHD
Thanks for reading and commenting.
My. husband has two PhDs, one in Organic Chemistry and one in Pharmacology. After skipping several grades and doing college in two years, he even had his first PhD at 21 but no one would hire him. So he got his second PhD and then had long life in research and development. He also got the ADHD diagnosed after our adopted children were diagnosed. He misplaces everything. He had never been able to tell left from right until he chopped off part of one finger on the left side while chopping wood. He also had no life outside of the lab except when he was working nights as a longshore man, the lone white person working out of a black union in Galveston, Texas, in order to feed his two cats (and secondarily himself). He is kind, gentle, and extremely loyal.
Wow, that is ….stunning. Kudos to your husband for soldering on.
You know ADHD from soooo many angles. 🙂
Thanks for your comment.
I diagnosed myself at 42 after taking a course with a Harvard expert on ADHD. I am a clinical psychologist. The first week I went on meds, I
wrote in one afternoon a brochure for my practice I had been working on for seven years, with a file drawer of materials. It is a poem and a statement of my philosophy that deeply expresses me even now when I am 73 and still in practice in a small way. I had scholarships to high school, college and graduate school. With medicine, ADHD still affects me in many ways with inefficiency, pain and blockages, but I am grateful for how much the medicine and the understanding of ADHD have improved my life.
Thank you for sharing that inspiring story! And kudos to you — and that Harvard expert. Harvard is THE place for ADHD expertise.
Thanks for the Thomas Brown research links. As the grandmother of an eleven year old grandson diagnosed a year ago with ADHD, I want to learn about this problem to see what steps should be taken with a young child so there are no “missteps”— so his parents and myself, who cares about his well-being sooo much, do not leave any stones unturned. Sometimes it’s hard to sort the information out there—the most accurate based on authentic medical studies and here say info. Your blog has been of enormous help in allowing me to read some of the best information. Thank you and God Bless You for all that you are and all that you do!
Thank you for letting me know. That means so much to me.
I care about your grandson, too. He deserves the best clinical standards possible.
Sometimes loved ones have to make that happen. So kudos for maximizing self-education.
With children, in particular, there are so many other fields vying for a claim on ADHD-related issues. Educational specialists. Occupational specialists. Learning disabilities specialists. Speech therapists. As with the people each having their hand on one part of the elephant — and describing the elephant only by that part.
It’s exhausting and dizzying. So much time and effort (not to mention money) is spent attempting to address ADHD “side effects” with therapy, etc.. For example, auditory processing disorder typically is secondary to ADHD, and medication treatment typically helps.
Knowing the facts reduces vulnerability to these kinds of distractions.
Oh, yes indeed. All of this spoke to me exactly.
I have a Ph.D in English. I also have a law degree and spent a few years practicing law (didn’t like it, struggled with the paperwork and keeping track of deadlines).
Like Gina’s husband, what it took to get those degrees was sheer, dogged determination, hyper-focus, and probably putting in more study and writing hours than my neurotypical friends.
I didn’t know that I had this thing called AD/HD until my mid-30s– although my parents had been told by my first grade teacher that I had “minimal brain dysfunction,” as it was called in 1969. I just thought what I’d been told until grad school in English: I was “underachieving” and “inconsistent.”
If I’m working with words–writing, reading, teaching others how to use words well–I’m happy. It’s hard, but it’s fun. But what’s been incredibly painful is losing jobs because of AD/HD-related issues, especially losing a tenure-track professor job.
Being a professor had been my dream since childhood, and getting a good job is extremely competitive. But this particular job involved a heavy dose of administrative work. What doomed a career I’d spent 10 years working towards was, basically, timesheets, payroll, sending the correct forms to the correct places, and other paperwork. I’d prefer being “normal intelligence” but without AD/HD. But I’m okay. That same grit and determination has helped me lead a pretty happy life despite my job disappointments. As poet Dylan Thomas put it in another context, “I sing in my chains like the sea.”
Thank you for your comment!
I hear so much anger from parents that “the school wanted to put my child on drugs!” But most of the time, I think the concern is genuine and on-point.
You achieved so much, against an “invisible force”, and then …. a “heavy dose” of administrative work. Ugh.
I’m glad you’ve led a “pretty happy life” despite those disappointments. Resilience is a powerful ally.
Love the Dylan Thomas quote….
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The other Gina
I like this. I have taken myself of meds for 14 days and i want to have an IQ test done as well as an occupational assessment.
Then i want to go back on 84 as i should and see what the results are.
Undiagnose i became a principal and a John maxell coach. More interesting is that someone saw the value in a document i wrote in 1997 so as to use the concept on which our current Education system is based on.
Taking ideas without understanding why it was design will not be a solution if you cannot explain why it was done that way.
There is more people with ADHD in this world then the people who dont have it.
Or to rephrase. Everyone has it but only the brave will embrace it and make it work for the benifit of others.
That sounds like an interesting experiment. Please let us know when you get the results!
Of course you want to be sure that you’re not taking too-high a dose of stimulants.
My son was diagnosed with Adhd in the third grade always had the supports in high school and did well until he got to college now he wants to succeed but struggles and refuses to get accomodations to help him
Unfortunately, that’s a too-common story. And, it’s a cautionary tale about overly relying on accommodations and support in the younger years. Once the child leaves that support, he or she can really struggle. Especially if medication has not been part of the childhood strategy.
But sometimes it happens when children have taken medication as well. They leave home and think they can make their own decisions, and leaving behind ADHD treatment is one of them.
Some college-entry young people with ADHD do best by sticking close to home, at least for the first two years. The shock of leaving the home supports and being faced with all the distractions of dorm life can be too much.
Some college students with ADHD don’t want to be accused of “cheating” by getting accommodations, such as longer test time.
It’s probably easier for everyone if the groundwork is set up before entering college. Otherwise, it can be tricky to intervene later, from afar.
Maybe if you could investigate the accommodations office for him, that might help him overcome one hurdle.
I have been diagnosed at age 56. I have a degree and got halfway through an MA, but organising a thesis was ‘too hard’ though the work was easy enough. My career path has been less than stellar and I have lived a life of unfulfilled potential. Yes, I have written two novels and have a collection of writing awards, but there are twenty unfinished books and the ones that are done and out there took half a lifetime to complete. Trying not to regret too much but look forward instead. My husband, undiagnosed but almost definitely ADD too, has a successful professional career but comes home utterly exhausted every night. My biggest regret is that our daughter wasn’t diagnosed until after she imploded in her final year of school, left home to study a non-accademic course but flunked out of college in term 1, and nearly killed herself with ‘self-medicating’. Her psychiatric report, that concluded she had ADD, states she is of ‘above average intelligence’.
This is certainly a factor in why my ADHD was not diagnosed until recently (I’m 37). I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder as a teen and again in my early twenties, but from early primary school my emotional volatility was always the largest concern for the adults in my life. Back then (and probably still though awareness is improving), a child with intense emotions, especially a girl with excellent grades, doesn’t necessarily signal ADHD in the minds of parents and teachers.
In hindsight, all the symptoms were there, the classic distractibility and even the less-common-in-girls hyperactivity. But since my dysregulated emotions were so much more severe, that stuff was simply viewed as a secondary effect. They thought I was distractible because I was so distressed, or spaced out because I was so depressed, or hyperactive because I had such intense anxiety. And of course there was always this pervasive attitude that I “just wanted attention”, that somehow all this turmoil and behavior was simply manipulative.
I’m in the beginning stages of medication for ADHD now for the first time, and so far stimulants are helping relieve my BPD symptoms better than the antidepressants and mood stabilizers I’ve tried before. There are still a lot of kinks to work out, and probably antidepressants to add back in, but I’m cautiously optimistic I’ll be able to live a fuller life now that the ADHD has been caught.
Basically my therapist and I think at this point that my untreated ADHD combined with being punished for my emotions by confused parents and teachers created the BPD, which is thought these days to be caused by an “innate sensitivity” (which the ADHD would have provided) coupled by a “chronically invalidating environment” (being punished and shamed not only for emotional behavior but for the emotions themselves: being grounded for crying, being told the emotions are fake, etc).
I try not to think about how different my life would have been if I’d been able to be treated for ADHD at a younger age. However, going forward, it’s really looking like it might make an enormous difference even starting at this later point.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. In psychiatric forums and at conferences, I often have the occasion to point out the confusion around borderline personality disorder and ADHD, especially in young women.
There was a lot less skepticism about BPD than there was about ADHD, for example, at the last American Psychiatric Association conference I attended, a few years ago. Honestly, I think many psychiatrists find BPD more “interesting” and more demanding of their “talk” interventions than ADHD. Which is not the case.
From what I’ve read, Dr. Joseph Biederman shares the theory that you mention — unrecognized ADHD compounded by a “chronically invalidating environment”.
I’m very glad that you have learned, at age 37, this potentially core contributor to your challenges and can now pursue strategies that are likely to work. That is definitely something to celebrate, because it can make a huge difference in your life going forward.
Definitely, antidepressants and mood stabilizers will not do much for ADHD-related emotional dysregulation. They can even intensify it. So, it’s not surprising that you find the stimulants more effective with what have been described as your BPD symptoms.
I wish you continued progress in your treatment.
Wow, Chloe, it sounds like we almost had the same childhood. I had several abusive teachers that said the same things! So did my parents. I survived it and got decent grades due to being absolutely and completely determined to beat both the bullying teachers and kids. They’d make fun of me for crying so back in the classroom, I’d wreck the grade curve by doing the best on all of the tests. By seventh grade, my mother went to speak with the principal about all of the girls who were threatening to beat me up over this issue.
My social skills still stink. I ran out of gas by college and have never been able to finish even a B.S. due to changing my major 10+ times. Everything (except accounting) is at least briefly fascinating!
I’m taking Ritalin now so while it’s helping, I am terrified of returning to college for fear it will just happen again…
thanks for joining the conversation.
I strongly encourage you to consider returning to your studies. But first, I hope you will look into optimizing your medical treatment. “Taking Ritalin” might not be enough to take you to the finish line.
I detail how to get best results from medication in my book. It’s really important to self-advocate and not simply depend on the average prescriber for best results.
Yeah, Robin, I hear you on not being ready to return to college, or maybe not even being ready to even consider returning. I definitely want to be further along before I try, because I’m afraid that another “fail” will make it even more impossible to try again. I want to be on meds a while first and actually experience some smaller tests of confidence first, and I want to do more work in therapy, then maybe break this stuff into chunks. Maybe take one class just for fun, for example, once I’m ready. Even that I would guess is a few years away, realistically? I still don’t like to put deadlines on anything. I’m terrified of failure, so pushing myself to do much of anything still backfires. The medication has been really great though for at least being able to see that more things might be possible down the road, and that is far more optimism than I’ve had in years and years.
I definitely agree on taking it slowly! I am doing the same. Lots of good luck to both of us!!
I’m also married to an absent-minded professor (physics) and for far too long believed that he was simply a typical science guy; he’s actually a typical adult ADD. Several years ago, he was involved in a program at the Fermi lab in Chicago, and had neglected to send in one of the forms required. I called about it and woman in charge of paperwork actually laughed, because missing ONLY one form didn’t qualify as a problem to her – she said that made him one of the more organized physicists involved. Makes me wonder how many “absent-minded” professors are really ADD professors.
Over the last many years, throughout my husband’s various jobs in academia, think tanks, and industry, I’ve said many a time, “How much faster could science progress if ADHD were better recognized in the Halls of Science?” An order of magnitude, for sure!
Seriously! Whatever “gifts” ADHD allegedly brings to any of these individuals, it doesn’t matter when you drive a team into the ground because you can’t meet deadlines to retain grants, meet development goals, etc. Or when you drive away or demoralize productive people because you can’t stay focused in a meeting and instead distract everyone else with random ideas.
What’s worse is that there is so little “management” — everyone is just expected to work around these people. And when the “absent-minded” one is the boss? Oy.
There’s always “one” — always — in my husband’s work situations. It’s almost worse for him because he’s very on the ball and he notices when ADHD is “interfering with operations.” Yet, he can’t say anything. No one can. Oy.
Thanks for your comment,
All throughout my schooling teachers told my parents that I was bright but not applying myself. The phrase “capable of more” was consistently used to describe me. The problem was that I WAS applying myself (even over-exerting myself) and the effort I put in was never commensurate to the grades I received. I was mostly a B student, though, so no one ever thought to have me tested. It wasn’t until I got to college (and found myself taking three times as long as my classmates to get anything done) that I decided to get myself tested. The results were off the charts. The doctor could not believe I was a functioning college student with such severe ADD. All of my struggles in school (and outside of school) suddenly made sense.
Had I not gotten myself tested, diagnosed, and treated, I never would have made it through school. I recently talked about my experience with ADD on the Wrestling With Depression podcast (ep. 130 wrestlingwithdepression.com), and I have already heard from multiple people who’ve had similar experiences.
Thank you for addressing this topic.
Thank you for your comment.
It’s heartbreaking! To think of these legions of children over the years being told to “apply yourself.”
I was an okay student in grade school, and I don’t have ADHD. But I also sometimes got the “Gina doesn’t apply herself” feedback on report cards. I remember being confused, wondering, “well, what should I do differently? Can anybody give me a CLUE?” No, no one did.
Now that I think about it, it’s almost a sadistic thing to tell a child.
I’m glad to hear that you persevered and got yourself tested. Welcome to the 21st Century, and I appreciate your going on to tell your story so others can benefit. I’ll check out that podcast.
Oh boy did I relate to this! I was in the top 20 of my high school and graduated cum laude from the university in a science based degree. It was fairly easy for me. After graduating I went to work, but couldn’t seem to have any organization or ability to plan. I thought I was just burnt out or in the wrong profession. I tried lots of therapy, changed types of work, etc., and finally got someone who was able to help me figure that ADD was indeed my underlying issue. I have now had several years to try to undo the damage to my self-esteem, thinking I was lazy or crazy. I have been able to help parents see that their kid’s add is not the end of the world, and to celebrate the great things that come with it. I would tell people to address this early, so that the potential brilliance is not lost in the fray. I just hired my first ADD coach. It’s fantastic. Thanks for the blog.
Congratulations! I’m glad you finally discovered…ADHD.
It’s just insane to me that something this potentially obvious — and life-changing — is still considered by some to be “controversial.”
Where would you get an Adhd coach? How great is that. My son is 19 and struggles in college with motivation to do whats mecessary to finish .
You better believe you can be bright in reality but “mentally impaired” on paper!
In nearly every grade up to about the end of the 4th, I was ASSURED that my daughter was “gifted” and that she’d be a shoo-in for the gifted program. Never made it in there because she blew off the standardized tests which are the only criteria for that program in my district – if you believed the numbers, she rated everything from “low average” to functionally retarded. I even had her re-tested using different tests: she sat there jabbering away at the person administering the test, it was everything I could do to not go in there and break it up! Her scores were even worse there than from the ones administered to the entire class a few weeks earlier: again had you not known her, you would have thought she needed to go into the special education program just going by the numbers! The testing format bored her, and she couldn’t see the point in fooling around with the blocks when she’d rather paint or make stuff with clay. And this is a kid who was reading and comprehending on a college level by the time she was in the 4th grade!!!
That’s what we call a “twice exceptional” child.
My friend, educator Shari Gent, wrote about that for CHADD’s magazine:
[link no longer works. sorry]
I have a nephew that has an ADHD but he is really smart, you just need to give them better attention
In fact, I have been working on my thesis for, “well, a long time now.” How did you know? 😉
My wife is just finishing your book, and it’s my turn next.
Wish us luck, and thanks for your work.