ADHD is a condition that primarily impact’s a person’s executive functioning. This hinders their ability to use executive skills to attend to the things that are important to them, take good care of themselves, and to achieve long-term goals.
So, what exactly are executive skills? In the process of growing older and learning about the world around us, we develop skills that help us navigate it effectively. A few examples are organization, self-control, sticking to the task at hand, paying attention to the clock, remembering multiple pieces of information while we are doing something, thinking before we speak, and choosing whether or not to show our emotions at any given time. Very few people are perfect at all of these things, but that doesn’t mean we all have ADHD.
A child or adult with ADHD is at a level of executive functioning and skill development that is behind what is expected of them at their age.
A child with ADHD might call out in class more often than their peers, have trouble sitting still in their chair for more than a few minutes, daydream often, frequently forget to bring materials necessary for activities at school or at home, be the “class clown,” have more frequent emotional outbursts they cannot seem to control, or have difficulty managing their behavior the way other children their age seem to. Some but not all children with ADHD will get bad grades as a result of their symptoms. Sometimes, these various difficulties with self-management also make it more difficult for children with ADHD to make and keep friends, and they may be more likely to be targeted by bullies.
An adult with ADHD might have trouble being on time, frequently forget items necessary for what they are doing, or frequently lose things. They may struggle to begin, persist through, and finish a task, especially if they feel avoidant of it. Some adults with ADHD may receive feedback from others that they interrupt too much, talk too much, or switch topics too fast.
Some people find that their ADHD comes with a hidden superpower: hyperfocus. When someone is hyperfocused, they find themselves “glued” to a task or project in such a way that they can work on it for hours and hours and seemingly not be aware that time is passing. Many highly successful people with ADHD have learned to use their hyperfocus state to their advantage to achieve great things.
Adults and children with ADHD may find that it has been somewhat difficult for them to make and keep friends and romantic partnerships throughout their life, because managing relationships successfully requires a great deal of executive functioning. Remembering plans that have been made, not impulsively making other plans on top of them, being on time for those plans, remembering people’s birthdays, reaching out on a regular basis (but not TOO often!) and being attentive to the needs and feelings of others can be very difficult for someone with ADHD, even when they deeply care for the people involved. Hurt feelings and misunderstandings often develop as a result, putting a strain on that person’s relationships.
Not all children with ADHD will go on to become adults with ADHD, as some will eventually “catch up” in developing the executive skills that are on par with their peers. However, nearly all adults with ADHD will have at least some presence of symptoms during childhood, often evident in report cards or in the shared memories of adults who knew them as children. Still, ADHD frequently goes undiagnosed until well into adulthood as a person moves through new life stages and their responsibilities begin to mount.
The good news is, ADHD responds well to treatment! Appropriate medication from a psychiatrist or other physician has a high success rate for treating ADHD and managing its challenging symptoms. The success rate becomes even higher when medication is supplemented by therapy or coaching sessions with a specialist who is familiar with ADHD and can help support the formation of new habits and lifestyle changes that can bring ADHD’s life-disrupting symptoms even further under control.
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Sarah is a therapist certified in treating ADHD and executive functioning deficits in adults. She is a Senior Social Worker at Service Program for Older People (SPOP) in New York, and owns a small private practice that operates virtually with clients in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. You can contact her through her MyWellbeing profile or directly on her website.