For her whole life, Emma Mahony has shamed and blamed herself for not being like ‘neurotypical’ women. It wasn’t until her son was diagnosed with ADHD that her journey of self-discovery began, leading to her own diagnosis at 52
Because of the way my brain is wired, I can’t help but get things wrong. Even at the age of one, when I learnt to speak, I would say everything backwards. Butter was ‘tubba’, birds were ‘dubbies’ and it took a while for my parents to transpose the letters and see that I was making sense.
The merest trifles that most people do naturally - arriving at places on time, remembering their wallet, not losing things constantly, such as keys, mobile phones, and credit cards, paying fines, avoiding speeding tickets - are rather boring things at which to excel in my world. I’ve made them that way so as not to beat myself up when I fail at them regularly.
However, the older I get, the more I realise that these boring things are actually important, and how exasperating it is for people when they think that I do them ‘on purpose’ or, more recently since my diagnosis, that I ‘use ADHD as an excuse’.
ADHD is not a moral failing; it is a neurological one. It is not ‘all in your head’, and there’s no ‘subconscious intention to forget something’, as one professional continually suggested before diagnosis. It is just that I am neuroatypical.
In 2019, ADDISS, the UK information service, gave October ADHD Awareness month the slogan “ADHD is real” and canvassed the ADHD world for the 10 most common myths about the condition. Here, I offer you the condensed version of their findings, and comments from experts, as published in my recent book about adult diagnosis: Better Late Than Never.
Myth #1 - ADHD doesn’t exist
Dr Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Treatment Centre, education and practitioner has published 23 books on ADHD. Here he writes: “References to ADHD appear in medical textbooks going back to 1775, and there are more than 100,000 articles in science journals referencing it.
“The prefrontal lobe network, or executive brain (which is thought to be affected in those with ADHD) provides mental abilities necessary for goal-directed, future-oriented action, self-awareness, inhibition, working memory, emotional self-regulation, self-motivation, and planning/problem-solving.
“As such, ADHD is linked to a nearly doubled risk of early mortality before the age of 10, and more than four times the risk of early deaths in adults before the age of 45”.
Myth #2 - ADHD is just an excuse for laziness
Thomas E Brown, professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California, is director of the Brown Clinic for ADHD and Related Disorders at Manhattan Beach California. He writes: “ADHD often looks like a lack of willpower, an excuse for laziness when it’s not.
“ADHD is really a problem with the chemical dynamics of the brain, it’s not under voluntary control. ADHD symptoms are the result of neural messages in the brain not being effectively transmitted unless the activity or task is something that is really interesting.
“If messages are not sufficient to activate a person, it is likely to make them seem unmotivated or lazy. For 80-90% of people with ADHD, medication can significantly improve such problems”.
Myth #3 - All children grow out of ADHD
Dr Russell Barkley writes: “Children diagnosed with ADHD are not likely to grow out of it. By adolescence, around 80% are still highly symptomatic and impaired, and while some of the children may recover by the age of 21-27 or adulthood, around 50%-86% will still have the full disorder.”
Myth #4 - Children with ADHD just need more discipline
Professor Eric Taylor is emeritus professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Kings College London and is a recipient of the Heinrich Hoffman medal from the World ADHD Federation.
He writes: “Improving discipline does not alter the core problems. Many trials have shown that behavioural interventions such as learning to praise positive behaviour, encouragement to ignore minor misbehaviour, providing consistent disciplinary consequences for major misbehaviour, does decrease disruptiveness, aggression and disobedience.
“However, the same trials have also made it plain that improving discipline (not the same as punishment) does not alter the core problems of inattention and impulsiveness. ADHD itself continues, and with it, the long-term risks for social adjustment.”
Myth #5 - Ritalin and other stimulant medications for ADHD lead to addiction
Professor Stephen Faraone is a professor in the department of psychiatry and neuroscience at the State University of New York and president of the World Federation of ADHD.
“About 15 years ago, I reviewed all available studies and found no evidence that the use of stimulant medications for ADHD in childhood led to addictive disorders in adolescence or adulthood.
“Instead, we found some evidence that the stimulant medications for ADHD protected patients from subsequent substance use disorder. So, the data is clear and unequivocal. When used orally and therapeutically, the stimulant medications for ADHD do not cause addiction.
“Instead, because these medications control the symptoms of ADHD, they reduce the likelihood that a child with ADHD will, eventually, develop subsequent addictive disorders.”
Myth #6 - Everyone has a little ADHD
The American organisation, ADDA, the world’s leading ADHD foundation for adults, writes: “The symptoms of ADHD exist within a continuum of typical human behaviour. Most people lose their keys from time to time, they tune out in meetings, they’re late to class, and they have trouble delaying gratification. But these are not the same as ADHD.
“With ADHD the reason is neurological in origin, it’s not a choice, a fluke or a bad day. For people with ADHD, these behaviours are disruptive, and they happen more often, with greater intensity, severity and chronicity than for people without ADHD”.
Myth #7 - ADHD is overdiagnosed
“Epidemiological research has found that prevalence does not vary much between countries, and the most authoritative reviews of studies puts its prevalence at about 7% of children internationally,” writes Professor Eric Taylor.
“The differences are based mainly on diagnostic criteria and measurement methods adopted. The conservative implication is that more than half of the affected children at any one time have never been identified as such”.
Myth #8 - ADHD is caused by bad parenting
“Parents do not cause ADHD,” states Professor Stephen Faraone. “The disorder comes from the accumulation of many environmental and genetic risk factors – ie the genes we inherit from our parents and adverse environments to which we are exposed.
“The environmental risk factors for ADHD have been proved because identical twin studies show that the risk to the co-twin is not 100%. Scientists have discovered that many of the environmental risk factors occur very early in the development of the brain, for example, children who have a complicated birth are at a higher risk for ADHD, especially if the complication affects the flow of oxygen to the brain.
“When children are exposed to toxins, e.g. lead, pesticide, pollution, that can also increase the risk for ADHD.”
Myth #9 - Only boys have ADHD
Clinical psychologist Dr Frank specialises in providing diagnostic and treatment services to individuals with ADHD.
Writing about how diagnosis figures are still lower for girls although it affects both genders equally, he states: “One reason is that girls are less likely to present with hyperactive behaviour compared to boys, and are more likely to be diagnosed with predominantly inattentive symptoms that can be overlooked or misperceived, for example in a classroom, where they are less likely to cause a disturbance.
“Women and girls with ADHD have a higher incidence of depression and anxiety, which could be to do with women exhibiting ‘internalising behaviours’ and are initially referred for treatment due to these symptoms, and ADHD may be missed.
“A number of complex factors further influence the female experience of ADHD such as fluctuating hormone levels, estrogen in particular, which complicate how symptoms are seen”.
Myth #10 - People with ADHD just can’t concentrate
ADHD Coaches Organisation, INC, writes: “People with ADHD can concentrate when they are interested in what they are doing. New, unusual or exciting things capture their interest, particularly when they are challenging, rewarding, and fast-moving.
“The problem is not a lack of attention, but difficulty sustaining attention - particularly when the task is boring. It is also common for individuals with ADHD to talk about intense moments of concentration called ‘hyperfocus’.
“While in hyperfocus, people may become oblivious to everything around them, including time, chores, or the surrounding environment.”
Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive and Thrive - Midlife ADHD Diagnosis by Emma Mahony is out now (Trigger Publishing, £14.99).
Support for ADHD
If you or your child is living with ADHD, there is support available in helping you understand the diagnosis. Counselling can help relieve symptoms and make day-to-day tasks easier. Typically, treatment will consist of medication or therapy, or a combination of the two. Visit Counselling Directory to learn more about counselling for ADHD, and to find a therapist online or near you.
Meanwhile, ADHD coaching can be an option for those looking to develop a new element of control, order and structure in their lives. In ‘Living with ADHD: How coaching can help you find your focus’, ADHD coach Sarah Clark explains that clients typically come to her because they feel overwhelmed, like things are out of balance and in need of some clarity.
“Coaching can help support people with ADHD to work on their goals, stay on task, avoid procrastinating, reduce anxiety-inducing behaviours and become more effective at organisation skills. It can also increase interpersonal skills and assertiveness, helping them ‘get into the flow’ with motivation and address low frustration tolerance.”
Visit Life Coach Directory to find a coach online or near you.