ADHD Awareness Month

For years I thought ADHD Awareness Month was November. Imagine that…I was only one month late! And I used to think of it as an oxymoron, as “inattention” and “awareness” are incompatible concepts. 

In all seriousness, too many people don’t understand what ADHD is, and some people still doubt that it is a thing…despite the science. Some people still believe that it is only a childhood disorder and that kids grow out of it. There is some reason for that misunderstanding. There is nothing in pediatric mental health that has been researched more than ADHD, but research in adult ADHD is relatively new. For nearly thirty years, we have used mostly children’s criteria for diganosing adults. There are important differences. 

Researchers continue to debate whether we should have an age-of-onset criterion for diagnosing ADHD. Until recently, the symptoms had to be present before age seven. Increasing the age of onset still doesn’t capture every adult with the disorder. The sypmtoms sometimes are not evident until well into adulthood. Symptoms must impair daily functioning in some way, but they might not have impairing effects until the features intersect with increasing complexities in life. For example, entering college may be the first time symptoms become evident. Entering a career, a marriage, or parenthood may be the first time symptoms impair functioning. 

When the symptoms arrive at that intersection…that life transition…adults with undiagnosed ADHD wonder what happened…or their spouses wonder what happened. How does one lose competence suddenly? The onset of symptoms wasn’t sudden…the life transition was…and they met at the intersection. 

Sometimes we are just too defensive about having these features, even after a professional diagnosis, to adapt effectively in life transitions. Those who are less defensive do better. That is why my mission has been to help adults with ADHD accept their different brains in order to live well with them. There is much to gain, and nothing to lose, by being open to a fresh perspective on what we call an attention deficit disorder.

We would be better served calling it an attention management disorder. Effective attention management requires inhibiting a surplus of attention. Lacking an effecive attention manager, our brains are trying to attend to too much. No one can do that well enough to attend effectively to one thing at a time. That is why we can feel overwhelmed by tasks that we think should be manageable. 

I have been embarrased when my symptoms have caused problems for me, or for others around me. That is why I believe we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of embarrassment. If we can to that, we are better able to develop new skills, incorporate new strategies, use new tools, and work more skillfully with others. The alterntive is to deny the disorder and underachieve, or harm our relationships. 

Let’s continue to educate others about the reality of ADHD in adults. If you want to arm yourself with facts, read ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says, by Barkley, Murphy, and Fischer. I would suggest reading the results and summaries, as the chapters are structured like professional journal articles…boring in style and important in content. 

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