Is ADHD a Gift or a Curse?

by Parent Co. May 18, 2016

ADHD is not easy to live with. No one will argue otherwise.

But what if ADHD weren't a disability but a gift? Would we feel better about ADHD and its effects if we could see it as something sought after, or even desirable? Would that be a good thing to do, to put a spin on the way we see ADHD? Or would that just be a little game we play with ourselves, a way of looking for the rainbow after the rain or the silver-lining in the cloud? After all, ADHD is a recognized mental disorder, according to the DSM-V. It's not fun. And if it weren't a disorder, we wouldn't treat it with medication, or request special help for our children so they can get an education.

Should we make light of a disorder?

Should we be making light of that? Minimizing the impact of that idea? Besides, isn't that a bit, well, dishonest? How could it be a good thing to lie about a disability? On the other hand, those of us with ADHD look to famous people who have the condition for inspiration. People like Channing Tatum, Justin Timberlake, and Terry Bradshaw. We look at them and think, "If they could do all that with ADHD, then I can do it, too!" Maybe rising to the top in spite of ADHD means more than rising to the top without it. In that sense, you could call ADHD a challenge rather than an obstacle. A challenge that makes achievement more sweet, perhaps more meaningful. Take Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps, for instance. Phelps wrote a book about succeeding in spite of ADHD. “When I’m focused, there is not one single thing, person, anything that can stand in the way of my doing something," said Phelps. "There is not. If I want something bad enough, I feel I’m gonna get there.”

Hyperfocus and Drive

Now what does that sound like? It sounds like drive. It sounds like hyperfocus. It sounds like something you need to succeed. And it sounds like ADHD. Michael Phelps' book, by the way, is entitled, No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Because as we all know, people with ADHD have trouble limiting their behavior. They're impulsive. If they want to do something, they will do it right now, and no one is going to get in their way. And as it happens, that is just the sort of attitude one needs to become a champion. Michael Phelps is convinced of that. ADHD did not stop him from getting gold medals. On the contrary, Phelps credits ADHD with helping him realize his dreams. Couldn't someone with ADHD then, reasonably conclude the condition need not serve as an impediment to reaching the top? Couldn't one go further then, and say that ADHD might even serve as a catalyst for attaining greatness and fame? Perhaps the bigger question to ask is this: would Phelps, Channing Tatum, Justin Timberlake, and Terry Bradshaw be where they are today without ADHD? Did ADHD give these celebrities a leg up in attaining their greatness, their fame? Is it reasonable to conclude that ADHD helped them more than it hindered them? If you agree that this might be the case, let's now take this one step further: what if they hadn't had ADHD. Would they be where they are today? Could it be true then, that ADHD is something to covet? Could there be a gift there, lurking in the nasty, no-good, very bad condition that is ADHD?

True ADHD Comes With Impairment

Not according to Ann Abramowitz, PhD, an Emory University psychologist. In an article for Web MD, Abramowitz serves her truth straight up, "If a child has ADHD symptoms but is not impaired, we don't diagnose ADHD.” There's some plain talk for you: ADHD, far from being a gift, is an impairment. It's something that's wrong with you. Something that needs fixing, something that requires help. By the way, in case you're wondering about her CV's, Abramowitz headed up Emory's Center for Learning and Attention Deficit Disorders for over a decade. Her credibility is sterling. And still, you'll find other experts who completely disagree with Abramowitz. Take child psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, for instance. Honos-Webb wrote a book, The Gift of ADHD. She won't call ADHD a brain "disorder." She insists that ADHD is only a brain "difference." She sees all these amazing qualities that are specific to ADHD, for instance:
  • Creativity
  • Exuberance
  • Emotional expressiveness
  • Interpersonal intuition
  • A special relationship with nature
  • Leadership
So she wrote a book, you're thinking? That's not quite on the same level as heading up a learning center with a focus on attention deficit at Emory. Maybe so, but Bonnie Cramond took that thought, the idea that ADHD comes with qualities, and ran with it. A professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia, Cramond reviewed the literature on traits, both positive and negative, associated with creativity. She found a great deal of overlap with the traits associated with ADHD. According to Scientific American, these overlapping traits include "higher levels of spontaneous idea-generation, mind-wandering, daydreaming, sensation-seeking, energy, and impulsivity." In other words, there's an upside and a downside to ADHD. Do the positive and negative traits cancel each other out? It's possible. But the positives are positives one might not have were it not for the condition—attributes you need to rise above average in your field in a sea of neurotypicals. Psychologist Darya Zabelina, PhD, of Northwestern University, talks about this. Zabelina speaks of creative people as having a "leaky" brain filter which allows them to broaden their perspective, a mental process not unlike that of those with ADHD. The ADHD brain flits about here and there and comes up with associations that would not occur to the average, neurotypical person, because their mental processes are orderly, set, in a word: boring. Their brains don't let them think outside the box which is where all the creative ideas lie. People with ADHD, on the other hand, can't stay inside the box. Thinking outside the box is their normal thinking mode. They, people with ADHD, are by definition, creative thinkers.

Flipside of Something Positive

Still there are those who see this idea as utter hogwash. Behavioral-developmental pediatrician Lawrence Diller, MD, for instance, the guy who wrote Remembering Ritalin.

"Impulsivity can be seen as spontaneity, and hyperactivity could be vitality—but . . . once you go beyond the mild, ADHD is the flipside of something positive. The children's struggles with family, schools, and peers diminish the positiveness of it."

He's right. It's certainly true that people with ADHD suffer aplenty. They suffer in school. They suffer at home. They suffer in their relationships. They have trouble remembering things, staying organized. They get antsy. They overeat. ADHD is no picnic. But Honos-Webb says that focusing on the bad traits of ADHD is simply the wrong focus, especially for those who have ADHD. People with ADHD, she says, should be finding and focusing on their gifts. She says that we should think of the "Gift of ADHD" as an intervention." Just by finding and focusing on gifts, people change in positive, noticeable ways. They feel better because of improved confidence and motivation," says Honos-Webb. "They are not focused on having a disorder that contributes to them feeling like something is wrong with them. They experience real world results—including better grades, higher income for entrepreneurs, better work reviews, and marriages that go from difficult challenges to highly satisfying."

Seeing ADHD as a Gift

Is that, could that be true? Could just seeing ADHD as a gift (even if it isn't) produce better academic and life outcomes? It sure would be great to know, considering the fact that so many people with ADHD experience difficulties in school and in the work force and with their relationships, too. It would be wonderful if just finding and focusing on the "gifts" could alleviate some of these quite serious issues.
Could just seeing ADHD as a gift (even if it isn't) produce better academic and life outcomes?
It makes sense that having a positive mindset and looking for the good inside the bad would improve one's situation, whether that situation involves ADHD or any other challenge. Anyone who has ever served as a mentor can relate to this idea. (Which is how this author arrived at this topic.) The rate of ADHD diagnosis is increasing. That may be because we are better at spotting the condition than once upon a time. We now know that girls with ADHD go quiet. And we know that boys with ADHD aren't just a "little wild." We are way past that.

Summer Medication Issues

And the volunteers who staff TheZone, a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains in part underwritten by Kars4Kids, are seeing lots of ADHD. How well these staff members are able to mentor campers with ADHD still depends in large measure on whether or not the kids are taking their ADHD medication. Henny Libersohn, TeenZone Division Head, outlined her predicament. "During the school year, kids with ADHD may have a hard time concentrating on their school work and are not appreciated for their personality. When the summer comes, parents may think that they should take a medicated child off of their medication and let them come to camp as a ‘regular’ child. While at times this may work, many times it does not." "There are behaviors that come along with ADHD and medication keeps the child ‘in check’ allowing them to form healthy relationships with children their own age as well as with their mentors. During the summer these positive relationships that are not based on marks or prior knowledge about the child can help him/her build self esteem as people appreciate them for who they are." "It is important to let the direct head staff of the child know that they are on medication so they can monitor medication use," says Libersohn, who sees ADHD as something to manage, rather than as a gift. The implication is that properly managed, campers with ADHD can flower at camp, not because they have ADHD, but in spite of it.

Not a Curse

Conversely, Peter Shankman, described by the New York Times as a "public relations all-star who knows everything about new media and then some," absolutely believes that ADHD is the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, Shankman just launched a new website, Faster Than Normal (FTN), with a focus on illustrating exactly that point. Shankman calls FTN a space "where we know that ADHD is a gift, not a curse." In a podcast Shankman created with Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports, the two explore what it is about ADHD that feeds their respective successes. Speaking a mile a minute, Steiner says, "I enjoy my out of the box thinking. . . out of the box, creative thinking. I've always had an awkward way of looking at things. I think it's just about getting comfortable with the idea that hey, you're not normal." Normal? Not normal? Or perhaps a gift?

The Bottom Line: A Brain Difference

The bottom line seems to be that people with ADHD may have a creative bent, due in part to the leaky filtering of their brains, as Zabelina suggests and as so many people with ADHD seem to agree. The "creatives" with ADHD seem to wear their condition as a badge of honor, crediting the "brain difference" for their successes. One wonders if this is a little disingenuous: would anyone choose to be born with ADHD?

Is it worth it?

Leaky brain filter and all, it must be hard reining in the impulsivity long enough to nail down an idea and bring it to any sort of productive fruition. Are the free-flowing, often disjointed ideas really worth the hassle and the pain of being different? It seems it depends on which expert you choose, which celebrity with ADHD you decide to emulate on any given day. Maybe someday, the science will firm up and we'll know for sure whether ADHD is a blessing or a curse, but in the meantime, it's pick a side, any side. Because it's anybody's guess. How do you see you or your child's ADHD? Gift, curse, or something in between?


Parent Co.

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