Think You Understand ADHD? Think Again

Most people today are familiar with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but promoting public awareness of this disorder is only the first step in managing it. To ensure people with ADHD receive the understanding, support, and acceptance they need, we must also debunk common misconceptions about the disorder.

ADHD specialists such as myself field lots of questions from people who are learning about ADHD for the first time. Some of these questions—such as “Is ADHD real?”, “Can adults have ADHD?”, and “Can people with ADHD be successful?”—reveal just how misunderstood ADHD remains today. In this week’s post, I would like to address these questions and debunk the myths that underlie them.

If you’ve been exposed to Hollywood portrayals and sensationalist news articles about ADHD, you may be misinformed. By reading this article, you can play a role in dismantling social stigma and become an ally to individuals with ADHD. If you suspect you have ADHD yourself, this post can prepare you for common misconceptions you may encounter and empower you with the knowledge to combat them.

Here are seven common myths about ADHD and explanations as to why they are false:

Myth #1: ADHD Isn’t Real

Ongoing research is improving our understanding of ADHD, which has resulted in increased public awareness. This increased awareness has caused diagnoses to spike, making some people question whether ADHD is just a trend (or an excuse for bad behavior). Some people even ask themselves, “Is ADHD real?”

The recent surge in new ADHD cases does make it seem like this disorder has come out of nowhere, which begs the question, “Where did ADHD come from?”. Some people blame increasing diagnoses on modern technology, and it’s easy to see why. Many children with ADHD find their phones, video game consoles, and other devices so tempting that it’s harder to focus on other tasks. Similarly, adults with ADHD sometimes struggle to stay on task given constant interruptions from emails and instant messages.

Despite all this, modern technology didn’t cause ADHD; it has merely made it more difficult for people who have ADHD to cope with daily life because of all the distractions and interruptions. ADHD is not new. Psychological conditions with symptoms very similar to ADHD have been showing up in the medical literature for hundreds of years. Because ADHD is now better understood—and symptoms are more apparent—diagnosis rates have naturally increased.

Myth #2: ADHD Is An Excuse For Laziness

Parents of children with ADHD—particularly undiagnosed ADHD—often assume that their children aren’t trying hard enough. Because essential tasks aren’t getting done, they think their children aren’t trying or don’t care.

In reality, ADHD is a brain difference. Laziness is seldom a problem for individuals with ADHD. Most of my clients already have a strong desire to be productive and focused. They may seem uninterested on the outside, but on the inside, they are trying harder than most neurotypical folks. Something that doesn’t take any effort for you may demand three times as much effort for an ADHD-er to complete. And asking them to “just try harder” will only frustrate and discourage them. What they need, instead, is support, structure, and the right coping skills.

Myth #3: Children With ADHD Are Hyperactive

This is often—but not always—the case. Hyperactivity in children tends to cause problems at home and in the classroom. As a result, the parents of hyperactive children are more likely to consult with mental health professionals. If their children have ADHD, they are likely to be diagnosed. This was especially true in the 1980s when mental health professionals strongly associated ADHD with hyperactivity.

This created a self-fulfilling prophecy where hyperactivity became a trademark feature of ADHD. Since then, however, subtypes of ADHD that lack symptoms of hyperactivity have been recognized. There are three recognized subtypes: predominantly hyperactive, predominantly inattentive, and combined. Many people (often females) with ADHD fail to exhibit any of the fidgeting or “bouncing off the walls” behaviors other children with ADHD do.[1] And, as a result, they’re often overlooked and misdiagnosed.

Myth #4: ADHD Only Affects Children

ADHD is typically diagnosed during childhood. By the time these children mature, they generally have developed coping strategies that make their symptoms less obvious. Unbeknownst to others, they exert an enormous amount of effort and mental energy to appear “normal.” So it’s not too surprising that many neurotypical people continue to ask questions like, “Can adults have ADHD?” and sometimes also “Can ADHD go away?”.

ADHD symptoms don’t magically go away when someone becomes an adult. In fact, their symptoms may become more troublesome or apparent when they encounter new challenges or changes in their routine, experience periods of depression or anxiety, or take on new responsibilities. The coping strategies that worked for them in the past may either stop working, or require too much energy to maintain. As a result, an increasing number of people receive ADHD diagnoses during adulthood.

Myth #5: People With ADHD Are Less Successful

Adults with untreated ADHD often struggle professionally. As a result, some people wonder, “Can adults with ADHD be successful?”. This idea is extremely harmful because it can lead individuals with ADHD to avoid treatment (because what would be the point?) or give up on their professional goals. This myth can also cause neurotypical people to dismiss successful individuals’ struggles with ADHD unfairly.

With the right support, people with ADHD can overcome their difficulties, leverage their strengths, and achieve the same level of success as their neurotypical peers. On the contrary, some of America’s most successful individuals have been diagnosed with ADHD, including Justin Timberlake, Simone Biles, and Richard Branson.[2]

Myth #6: People With ADHD Can Never Pay Attention

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Understandably, many people look at that acronym and assume that people with ADHD have a deficit of attention. Despite the name, ADHD doesn’t prevent people from focusing on tasks they’re interested in. While people with ADHD may have a hard time controlling their attention, they still have plenty of it.

Knowing when to shift their focus—and actually making that shift—is where most people with ADHD struggle. They can become so hyperfocused on an activity they enjoy that they lose all sense of time. Hyperfocus problems among ADHD patients, now well-known to most ADHD specialists, still hasn’t been formally recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. That omission has likely resulted in some people with ADHD going undiagnosed.

Myth #7: ADHD Is A Mental Illness

Where does ADHD come from? Some people mistakenly assume ADHD results from bad parenting, psychological trauma, or some other environmental trigger. They believe that ADHD is a problem to be fixed. In reality, the brains of individuals with ADHD aren’t broken; they are just different. In certain environments, like traditional schooling, those differences can be detrimental. In other environments, like fast-paced, creative ones, ADHD brains thrive. Contrary to popular belief, people with ADHD can function successfully, given the right environment and tools.

Some people wonder whether ADHD can be cured, but that’s not what people with ADHD genuinely need. They need to be understood, supported, and accepted. As a neurodiversity-affirmative ADHD specialist, I help people with ADHD manage their struggles without buying into ableist views about ADHD. Visit my contact page to send me a message or set up a free, 20-minute phone consultation to see how I can help.


[1] Williams, 2019

[2] Shoot, 2020