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. 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.

too smart to have ADHD

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.

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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.

—Gina Pera

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