What is ADHD?

written by Serena Chen 

Clinically — ADHD, also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a common neurodiverse condition that affects both kids and adults. ADHD affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain responsible for rational decision-making.

 

  • Key symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that have significantly affected an individual in multiple settings before the age of 12. 

 

However, having ADHD entails much more than these commonly perceived and recognized symptoms.

  • Some comorbid symptoms of ADHD include sensory difficulties, social difficulties, forgetfulness, hypersensitivity, organizational and planning difficulties, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), low self esteem, depression, and anxiety. Read more about personal ADHD testimonies and experiences on our blog or here

 

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition. Although not formally classified as a learning disability, ADHD usually does, in fact, cause great difficulty with learning (ex. trouble focusing.) More than 50% of individuals with ADHD have a comorbid learning disability, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dyspraxia. ADHD is diagnosed through a comprehensive psychoeducational assessment.

 

There are three subtypes of ADHD.

  • ADHD combined type, difficulties with hyperactivity, attention, impulsivity, and emotion control — the most common subtype of ADHD 

  • ADHD, predominantly inattentive presentation (formerly known as ADD, attention deficit disorder)

  • ADHD, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation

 

Socially

  • ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls.

ADHD affects both girls and boys. However, girls are often heavily underdiagnosed due to society’s expectations of females, male-targeted diagnostic criteria, and an increased pressure to mask differences. 

 

ADHD presents differently in girls and boys. While a teacher or parent may be quick to identify the disruptive, hyperactive boy in class, the quiet, outwardly obedient girl who has trouble focusing may go completely under the radar to develop self-esteem issues in the future. Read more about ADHD in girls here

 

  • ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in Caucasian populations, and less so in Asian, Black, Latinx, or other BIPOC communities.

  • This is not because certain populations are more disposed to the condition, but rather that Caucasian families may be more open to a diagnosis and addressing the difficulties at hand. In immigrant or BIPOC families, lack of awareness, misconceptions, and stigma are still relatively rampant around neurodiversity, which reduces the likelihood of diagnosis despite tangible difficulties. Diagnosed individuals from minority backgrounds may feel alone or ashamed with their experiences and be less inclined to seek support. (This was actually one of the main reasons I created NeurodiverCity!) 

 

  • Individuals with ADHD have many diverse strengths.

Creativity, innovation, humor, and alternate solutions are among some of them. They're are also very detail-oriented, intelligent, and enthusiastic, all very strong qualities in school and the workplace. 


Personally? ADHD is an explanation, a validation for my personal experiences, and an intricate framework for how I perceive the world, think, and understand. Read more about my story here.

 

Busting ADHD Myths, from an ADHDer

What is ADHD not?

 

ADHD is not something that can be “cured.”

  • Medication can alleviate symptoms, but the reason behind ADHD lies in inherent variations within the wiring of the brain. 

 

Having ADHD is irrelevant to a person’s intelligence levels. 

  • ADHD does not equal stupidity or failure. Many individuals with ADHD are incredibly intelligent. On the other hand, there is no such thing as “being too smart to have ADHD.” ADHD can affect individuals of all intelligence levels. 

 

ADHD is not “an excuse” or a choice.

  • ADHD is a real condition caused by structural and chemical differences in the brain, creating both challenges and gifts that individuals have to work around every day. One cannot simply “stop having ADHD.”

 

ADHD is not a childhood-only disorder.

  • While psychologists may insist that some outgrow their ADHD in adulthood (because the prefrontal cortex continues developing until age 25), this is often only because an adult becomes better at managing or hiding their symptoms over time—not because they don't actually have ADHD anymore. Most will find that their neurodiverse condition stays with them throughout their life.

 

ADHD is not a burden, something to be ashamed of, or a limitation.

  • Albert Einstein had ADHD. Vincent Van Gogh had ADHD. ADHD bestows a unique thought process as well as a heightened sense of humor, artistic qualities, and creativity. Some of the world’s most famous musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, have ADHD! 

 
 

ADHD in school

Individuals with ADHD are incredibly intelligent, but often experience adverse situations in school because of the difficulties of and misconceptions surrounding ADHD.

 

Teachers and parents may not pick up on the different presentations of ADHD in the classroom, or students may be adept at masking but struggle inwardly with their difficulties — ADHD affects everyone differently. 

 

Common school-related struggles for all individuals with ADHD:

  • forgetfulness

  • difficulty paying attention

  • difficulty retaining information

  • difficulty managing homework and schoolwork

  • test performance that doesn’t match intelligence and effort. 

 

Read more about personal experiences with ADHD in school here, or share your experiences here

Comorbid Conditions of ADHD

 

Although ADHD is not formally classified as a learning disability, it can be a significant hindrance in school, making learning difficult if not recognized/addressed and accommodated. 50% of individuals with ADHD also have some type of comorbid learning disability.  

Learning “disabilities” and ADHD

What are learning disabilities?

  • Learning disabilities are discrepancies between an individual’s academic achievement and their potential (VeryWellMind)

 

  • Dyslexia: difficulty with reading 

  • Dyscalculia: difficulty with computing math 

  • Dyspraxia: difficulty with motor skills, such as balance, writing, 

  • Dysphasia/Aphasia: difficulty with language 

  • Auditory Processing Disorder

  • Visual Processing Disorder

 

Sensory Processing Disorder 

Although not formally recognized as a diagnosis, Sensory Processing Disorder is a common symptom that can co-occur with ADHD. The brain has a heightened response to the everyday stimuli that come through the senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and noise. Common symptoms include:

 

  • Hypersensitive hearing 

  • Hypersensitive touch 

  • Texture difficulties with food, clothing, etc.

  • Low tolerance for clothing

  • Touch aversion 

  • Pain tolerance 

 

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are neuroatypical conditions that often cooccur with ADHD, commonly due to the stressors of having to adapt and mask in a neurotypical society, heightened emotional processing and reaction, or late diagnosis/feelings of inferiority due to lack of accommodations and understanding. 

ADHD in females and minorities

ADHD is often heavily underdiagnosed in females, and even more so in BIPOC populations.

  • There is often a heavy stigma surrounding neurodiverse conditions, which ends up barring individuals from seeking the diagnosis or support they may need.

  • In many families (and from personal experience,) BIPOC individuals/girls with ADHD may be simply punished for their behavior rather than diagnosed. 

 

ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions are often heavily “hushed upon” in many cultures, which is both a product of and reason for rampant harmful misconceptions.

  • ADHD may be framed as a result of bad parenting, “stupidity,” or bad work ethic.

  • Parents may not want their kids to be diagnosed in fear bearing a “label,” and in lieu will usually continue the harsh cycle of punishment because their child isn’t behaving or performing accordingly. 

 

Additionally, parents may refuse school intervention efforts because of the heavy stigma and misconceptions. Many bright students may lose their passion for school because of the shortcomings and frequent punishments that come from their undiagnosed ADHD.

  • Without an explanation and accommodations, students with undiagnosed ADHD may think they are lacking, slow, or simply “stupid." This heavily contributes to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

 

… However, 

ADHD should not be a shame point or something to be hushed upon! Many individuals with ADHD are highly intelligent — At NeurodiverCity, we strive for neurodiverse individuals and their families to be able to embrace neurodiversity and be comfortable with speaking about their neurodiversity to perpetuate the advocacy. ADHD offers many strengths — including thinking outside of the box, identifying alternate solutions, willingness to take risks, hyperfocus, calmness in crises, detail orientation, energy, artistic ability, and creativity, just to name a few. 

Is it ADHD?

The path to diagnosis should not be a tricky road! 

 

For students: Talk to your parents, school’s learning specialist, counselor, psychologist, or doctor! Don’t be ashamed of advocating for your difficulties. Read more about the diagnostic process here. 

For parents: Discuss with your child. Contact the school counselor, learning specialist, doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist for details regarding a comprehensive psychoeducational assessment. 

 

For teachers: be patient and treat the student kindly.

  • Chances are, they are frustrated with themselves too. Students with undiagnosed ADHD may often act out (talking back, blurting out, cracking jokes), or seek attention inappropriately to cope with the difficulties caused by their unidentified condition (ex. difficulty understanding the material, completing homework, understanding social cues, or struggles at home.)

 

  • If the student frequently acts out in class… he or she is not doing so to spite you. The student is far more likely incredibly frustrated and confused with themselves, and is instead turning to an outlet where attention/validation is easily gained from classmates — strict punishment will most likely exacerbate this behavior and harden the child. Perhaps ask the student what’s going on, but respect their personal boundaries. If ADHD or another learning difference/neurodiverse condition is suspected, briefly outline the next steps of a psychoeducational assessment. Encourage the student to talk to a parent, counselor, or join “safe spaces” such as NeurodiverCity. 

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  • If the student “appears smart” but isn’t doing well… he or she is not purposely lazy or “not applying themselves.” This again is not done intentionally to spite or rebel against the teacher. Students with ADHD may “seem bright” but are often predisposed to a different learning style that they may not have figured out yet. Ask the student about his or her study/learning habits and encourage the student to communicate their struggles and seek help. Connect the student with resources and outline next steps, and contact the parent to discuss a psychoeducational assessment. 

  • Check with school and district guidelines, but be direct, and let both parent and student know of the recommendation to have the student “tested.” Link websites, such as this resource, to reduce any misconceptions and diminish the element of terror for both parent and student. Provide contact information for testing services and an email template to contact the tester if necessary (coming soon!) 

 

  • If the student would like additional support, NeurodiverCity offers online mentoring and student support groups, which can be found here



     For teachers/school counselors:

  • Middle/high school: If the student expresses learning difficulties, do not assume the issue simply lies in the difficulty or level of the student's course load. 

  • Believe the student when they express their difficulties — help provide them resources and don’t downplay their experiences or struggles. Never rule out a psychoeducational assessment simply because the student is outwardly high achieving. Most students with ADHD are often highly intelligent (Read more about twice exceptionality here).

 
 

What happens after diagnosis?

For parents: Your child is still the same child you knew your entire life, before the diagnosis, during the diagnosis, and after the diagnosis. If they don’t mind hugs, give them one and ask them if they want to talk about how they feel or if they want space. Don’t frame them to feel like a burden — strive towards understanding them rather than harmful dismissals such as “you weren’t like this before!”

 

Never invalidate your child’s experiences, intentionally or unintentionally. Read a little more about ADHD and different neurodiverse experiences — a few examples can be found on NeurodiverCity's blog and Instagram page.

 

Talk to your child about the next steps: school accommodations, available resources, possible medication, organization, and student support/mentorship on NeurodiverCity! Be sure to have them join our student chatrooms for neurodiverse support and embracement, and parents are welcome to join the FB group and follow our Instagram page as well! Check in with them, but also make sure to give them space. Neurodiversity is an amazing and profoundly unique trait — let your child know you’ll support them every step of the way <3 

 

For students:

Don’t be afraid to talk to your parents about your neurodiversity. Let them know what expressions may be invalidating, such as “you weren’t like this before!” Or “stop doing that on purpose!” Most of all, never be ashamed of yourself — embrace your neurodiversity and be sure to advocate for your accommodations and needs when necessary. For more tips, discussion, and embracement, join our student chatrooms here, or sign up for an online mentorship here!

 

Welcome to the community — and to exploring your hidden talent! <3