What are we to make of adults who exhibit the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but are nevertheless high-functioning and successful? A trio of British investigators has just published six case studies that explore this question. It would have been better for them to have conducted a much larger, controlled research study but, in the absence of such data in the area, these case studies are intriguing and may help guide more informative research.
The authors recruited six successful men between the ages of 30 and 65 from a National Health Service tertiary service in London. Four were in long-term relationships, with children. All had good jobs.
In open-ended taped interviews of up to an hour in length, each was asked three questions:
1. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of having ADHD?
2. Please describe a time when you felt that your ADHD helped you to achieve something?
3. What aspects of your ADHD would you miss if it went away?
Hyper-focus in ADHD is generally considered a deficit, inset-shifting, and task-switching. But the authors report that participants associated it with productivity. One said, “I think the energy that the ADHD brain seems to have....it’s unfocused, quite scattered, chaotic and a bit random...but give that brain something that you can tune into, and it’s your interest, then all that random stuff just goes boom... I get this incredible intense concentration and that’s great for work.”
Participants also saw advantages in divergent thinking, with one stating, “I’m an artist.... a creative type... a Bohemian.... you are most likely to be a creative person if you are a divergent thinker....and not convergent... I am very creative and that’s through and through... I’m a fine art graduate, a musician, a published poet, an entrepreneur, a performer.”
All the participants reported being seen as nonconformists. Depending on a viewpoint, that can be seen as either detrimental or advantageous.
Impulsivity is a core symptom of ADHD. Participants however related it to bravery, and more specifically adventurousness, spontaneity, and thrill-seeking. One said, “thrill-seeking is an ADHD thing... I can list in my life have done white water rafting, bungee jumping, hand-glider pilot … I have done a lot in my life and achieved a lot and experienced a lot... Furthermore, I would see a lot of that as being quite positive, and a lot of that is ADHD drive.”
Another common theme was high energy and “spirit.” One participant said, “I’ve got all this energy.... a lot of energy... whatever it's to do with... nature/nurture/spiritual stuff.”
These testimonials are useful as a check on the usual narrative of impairment. ADHD does not predestine all it afflicts to an unfulfilling life. Many, often assisted by medication, still lead exciting, successful, rewarding lives. Yet, we must be cautious in concluding that these individuals were successful because of their ADHD. It is possible, even likely, that they had other strengths such as high intelligence that compensated for their ADHD symptoms. We can not know from this report if their lives had been even more fulfilling or successful in the absence of ADHD. See, for example, my blog about highly intelligent people with ADHD: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141126141502-65669938-smart-people-can-have-adhd-too/.
While the authors concede that “generalizing the findings of this study is not easy to do,” they inexplicably “also argue that the positive aspects we found are relevant to other adults with ADHD regardless of sample size, age, gender or ethnicity.” It is not possible to draw such a definitive conclusion without a much larger sample.
On a hopeful note, they conclude, “This is a study that reaches out to people with lived experience of ADHD: service users, patients, family members, carers, partners, to say that not all symptoms of ADHD are maleficent. Recovery, high functionality, and flourishing with ADHD are possible. Too often people with lived experience hear about ADHD deficits, functional impairments, and associations with substance misuse, criminality, or other disadvantages on almost every level of life (school, work, relationships). … This study affirms the positive human qualities, assets, and attributes in ADHD that can promote and sustain high functioning and flourishing.” I fully endorse the idea that those with ADHD can have wonderful lives, especially if they receive appropriate treatment, both medical and psychological.