September 30th, 2022

ADHD Isn’t a Superpower

Another day, another poorly written article about ADHD as a superpower. It’s a lovely reframe, and a nice way to try to not put down neurodiversity, but it just isn’t true. Neurodiversity is great! Normal doesn’t exist! I’m here for all of that, but I also want realistic expectations to be set for people who may be struggling. Some kid out there (or 30-something who never got a formal diagnosis) is out there with an ADHD brain wondering why they can’t go all Superman on their homework, or housework, or whatever menial task their brain just can’t get motivated to finish. So, let’s reframe without having a backhanded unrealistic expectation. 

This is definitely not the most important point to make, but this would be a terrible superpower. First of all, my sensory issues (fun lesser-known fact that ADHD often comes with sensory issues!)  would only allow for a limited selection of costume, like, I can’t tolerate clothes on my wrists, so that’s a problem. Second, what superhero only sometimes has access to their powers, and never by choice? That’s a pretty common story arc for nearly every superhero at some point. Spiderman suddenly can’t shoot any webs or Bruce Banner can’t turn into Hulk when he needs to. It’s basically a trope in and of itself at this point. With ADHD, you don’t wake up one day and have really great focus, and then need to recharge for a bit. It just comes and goes, without a ton of reason. Yes, diet, exercise, and sleep all create a healthier baseline for your brain so the variation isn’t so extreme, but even with all of that stuff some days are just going to be low dopamine days where we can’t get much done. I’ll get to the more technical part, but as a fan of superheroes, I literally can’t think of a worse set-up for a super power. 

So, ADHD is a bit of a soapbox topic for me, because I’m a mental health professional, but I also have ADHD. It’s a weird hyper-awareness, and it constantly reminds me of the shortcomings of my chosen profession. So, the criteria for diagnosis of ADHD is odd in that it is all written from a societal standpoint, next to none of it is about what the person with ADHD is experiencing. That is true for parts of most diagnoses in the DSM (the field’s chosen diagnostic manual) but particularly skewed in the case of ADHD. Like, all of the criteria are complaints a teacher or parent would have, whereas something like depression is based on self-report of feeling down or experiences of depressed mood. People with ADHD don’t feel impulsive, the fidgeting or hyperactivity is usually tied to stress or boredom, and the actual symptoms that cause distress aren’t even in the manual (like sensory issues!), which is how so many adults can make it into adulthood without ever getting a proper diagnosis. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was done with grad school, and while it should have been super apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of psychology, no one bothered to talk to me about it because I got good grades. I hated school, was bored constantly, and felt like I didn’t fit in because so much of my classmate’s experiences weren’t relatable to me. In college my grades stayed high but my personal functioning deteriorated with the lack of structure, but my symptoms looked a lot more like depression and anger than anything mentioned in an ADHD diagnosis. ADHD, combined with some terrible sleep and dietary habits, was the root issue causing those other things, but at that point I was only familiar with what everyone thought ADHD was, lack of focus and fidgeting, and I was comfortable self-diagnosing that without needing to change much in my life. And that’s why this “ADHD is a superpower” can be so harmful. It takes the conversation away from what having ADHD is really like, what the experience actually feels like on a daily basis, and again forces it to be about some sense of productivity, which is arbitrarily focused on because we happen to live in a capitalist country that thinks productivity somehow relates to health and happiness (spoiler: it doesn’t). But when people learn that they have ADHD, and what it is actually like rather than just the stereotypes or the sensationalized version shown in popular media (and on Insta, yeesh, those ADHD influencers are terrible), then they can start to build a meaningful management plan and grow with it. ADHD isn’t a superpower, but it isn’t a death sentence either. Having a good, clear awareness of how your brain works is helpful to everyone, neurodiverse and neurotypical both. So, not a superpower, but with realistic expectations and a good management plan, it doesn’t have to really be an issue either. If you or someone you know needs help with creating that individualized management plan, hit me up and our ADHD brains can collaborate.