Is ADHD real?
Yes. Yes, it is.
ADHD affects 5 to 10% of people worldwide, and is a very common form of neurodivergence. But there are still a lot of people out there who believe that ADHD doesn't exist, and is some kind of conspiracy or hoax.
There are a lot of reasons that some people have the question, "Is ADHD real?" One of the most common reasons is that there are a lot of different symptoms and traits associated with ADHD.
How could one root difference in the brain cause so many neurodivergent traits? Is it possible that the requirements to be diagnosed are so broad that anybody could be diagnosed as ADHD?
Is ADHD Real? Yes!
Let's be clear up front: ADHD is real, and disavowing reality doesn't change reality. But it's still important to talk about what this myth is and why it's incorrect.
Why Don't People Believe in ADHD?
First, some groundwork: just because ADHD is real, doesn't mean ADHD isn't confusing. It is true that ADHD traits vary a lot among different people. Traits also vary in severity, or in how much they affect a person's day-to-day life and wellbeing. Let's look at this list of common ADHD traits from the Mayo Clinic:
"Adult ADHD symptoms may include:
- Disorganization and problems prioritizing
- Poor time management skills
- Problems focusing on a task
- Trouble multitasking
- Excessive activity or restlessness
- Poor planning
- Low frustration tolerance
- Frequent mood swings
- Problems following through and completing tasks
- Hot temper
- Trouble coping with stress"
So this is a list of 12 of the most common traits the medical community recognizes in adults with ADHD. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but even at a glance, we can see that some of these symptoms seem to group together better than others. For example, it makes sense that one adult with ADHD might have both "poor planning" and "poor time management skills."
But, to someone not well-versed in how ADHD works, what do "impulsiveness" and "hot temper" have in common with each other? Moreover, how do you link those with someone who is bad at planning ahead?
It makes sense that some people would see a list of traits like this, and feel justified in saying that ADHD diagnostic criteria are too broad to be helpful to anybody.
It's also true that diagnosis criteria for ADHD have changed a lot over the past 20 years, as scientific and medical knowledge has progressed. Diagnostic criteria have had to be adapted as we've learned more about neuroscience, neurodivergence, and how the human brain grows and functions.
But saying that ADHD is not real just because it has a lot of facets betrays a lack of knowledge about how human bodies work. Likewise, saying ADHD is not real because doctors and scientists keep changing the definition of it betrays a lack of understand of medical and scientific progress over time.
If you're interested in learning more about neurodiversity in general, or in reading more about autism, ADHD, or sensory processing challenges specifically, here are some of my favorite books!
People Are Complex Creatures
Let's stop thinking about ADHD specifically, for a minute. Instead, let's think about a concern that most people have experienced, regardless of their specific kind of brain. Let's think about seasonal allergies.
Seasonal allergies can show up differently in different people. I sneeze, but that's it. My daughter coughs, and that's it. My partner has a headache, a runny nose, and can't think well. But even though our symptoms are different, we're all reacting to the same underlying issue - there's pollen in the air that our bodies aren't happy with.
So if we were to go to the doctor, they would notice that we all have different symptoms, AND that our symptoms only occur at certain times of the year, and in certain kinds of weather.
Oh, and sometimes I have no symptoms, but my daughter does. And sometimes she has symptoms, but my partner doesn't. My partner's fuzzy head isn't obviously related to my sneezing. What the heck is going on?
Well, a doctor knows that there are a lot of symptoms associated with seasonal allergies, and she also knows that different folks experience different sets of symptoms at different pollen thresholds. So, she can compare what we're going through to what her experience and knowledge of seasonal allergies tells her, and make an informed diagnosis.
But, without an understanding of pollen, and the many and varied mechanisms by which your body responds to irritants, this set of symptoms can instead seem random and unrelated. Similarly, without an understanding of hormones, brain chemistry, and how sensory integration works, ADHD seems like a set of random symptoms. But that doesn't mean it is random.
Everybody Lies, But Not About ADHD
Am I aging myself too much with that subtitle? Regardless, anyone with a disability knows that 75% of the struggle is just getting people to believe you when you tell them about your life. We struggle with our doctors, our insurance companies, our families, and our friends, everyday, just to have decent lives. Please don't make us struggle against you, too.
Disabled people are not lying about their symptoms. We are telling you the truth.
Most of the folks who say that the number of ADHD symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic above are too many or too varied, just have not educated themselves enough to understand that real people can and do display that many ADHD traits. If you don't have an ADHD brain, you can't know anything about it. Focus on your own brain and let ADHD folks focus on theirs.
If you see someone who claims to have ADHD who is having a really good, focused, calm day, they must be lying about their ADHD, right? I don't know, have you ever had a really bad, unfocused, frustrating, disaster day? Were you lying about not having ADHD? I mean, maybe, let me know if you need some resources to check that out, but... probably not.
When you go to the doctor for seasonal allergy symptoms, does you doctor say, "Well, you don’t have the symptoms right now, in my office, so your condition can’t be real?" I sincerely hope not! If they do, you might want to find a new doctor.
It’s normal for certain conditions to be dependent on environment, or other triggers. ADHD traits are the same.
Is ADHD Real?
Is ADHD real? Absolutely, yes, ADHD is real. It is a normal neurodivergence that's been understood in the scientific literature for over 100 years, and has been understood in cultural contexts for over a thousand. Over 300 million people with ADHD are wandering around on this planet as you are reading this.
ADHD is not a hoax or a sham. It is merely, like all neurodivergences, and a great many other human conditions, complex.