ADHD: Why We Do What We Do

Those of us with attention deficit have always known we're different — now here's an explanation, finally, of why we act the way we do.

A group of people holding question mark signs in front of their faces. These ADHD people want to know why they do what they do.

Each ADDer has his own brain library and own way of storing that material. No wonder the average ADDer cannot access the right piece of information at the moment it is needed.

What I have come to understand — something that people with ADHD know from an early age — is that, if you have an ADHD nervous system, you might as well have been born on a different planet.

Most people with ADHD have always known they are different. They were told by parents, teachers, employers, spouses, and friends that they did not fit the common mold and that they had better shape up in a hurry if they wanted to make something of themselves.

As if they were immigrants, they were told to assimilate into the dominant culture and become like everyone else. Unfortunately, no one told them how to do this. No one revealed the bigger secret: It couldn't be done, no matter how hard they tried. The only outcome would be failure, made worse by the accusation that they will never succeed because they don't try hard enough or long enough.

It seems odd to call a condition a disorder when the condition comes with so many positive features. People with an ADHD-style nervous system tend to be great problem-solvers. They wade into problems that have stumped everyone else and jump to the answer. They are affable, likable people with a sense of humor. They have what Paul Wender called "relentless determination." When they get hooked on a challenge, they tackle it with one approach after another until they master the problem — and they may lose interest entirely when it is no longer a challenge.

If I could name the qualities that would assure a person's success in life, I would say being bright, being creative with that intelligence, and being well-liked. I would also choose hardworking and diligent. I would want many of the traits that ADDers possess.

The main obstacle to understanding and managing ADHD has been the unstated and incorrect assumption that ADDers could and should be like the rest of us. For neurotypicals and ADDers alike, here is a detailed portrait of why those with attention deficit do what they do.

Why We Don't Function Well in a Linear World

The ADHD world is curvilinear. Past, present, and future are never separate and distinct. Everything is now. ADDers live in a permanent present and have a hard time learning from the past or looking into the future to see the inescapable consequences of their actions. "Acting without thinking" is the definition of impulsivity, and one of the reasons that ADDers have trouble learning from experience.

It also means that ADDers aren't good at ordination — planning and doing parts of a task in order. Tasks in the neurotypical world have a beginning, a middle, and an end. ADDers don't know where and how to start, since they can't find the beginning. They jump into the middle of a task and work in all directions at once. Organization becomes an unsustainable task because organizational systems work on linearity, importance, and time.

Why We Are Overwhelmed

People in the ADHD world experience life more intensely, more passionately than neurotypicals. They have a low threshold for outside sensory experience because the day-to-day experience of their five senses and their thoughts is always on high volume. The ADHD nervous system is overwhelmed by life experiences because its intensity is so high.

The ADHD nervous system is rarely at rest. It wants to be engaged in something interesting and challenging. Attention is never "deficit." It is always excessive, constantly occupied with internal reveries and engagements. When ADDers are not in The Zone, in hyperfocus, they have four or five things rattling around in their minds, all at once and for no obvious reason, like five people talking to you simultaneously. Nothing gets sustained, undivided attention. Nothing gets done well.

Many people with ADHD can't screen out sensory input. Sometimes this is related to only one sensory realm, such as hearing. In fact, the phenomenon is called hyperacusis (amplified hearing), even when the disruption comes from another of the five senses. Here are some examples:

> The slightest sound in the house prevents falling asleep and overwhelms the ability to disregard it.

> Any movement, no matter how small, is distracting.

> Certain smells, which others barely notice, cause people with ADD to leave the room.

ADDers have their worlds constantly disrupted by experiences of which the neurotypical is unaware. This disruption enforces the perception of the ADHD person as being odd, prickly, demanding, and high-maintenance. But this is all that ADDers have ever known. It is their normal. The notion of being different, and that difference being perceived as unacceptable by others, is made a part of how they are regarded. It is a part of the ADDer's identity.

Next: Why We Thrive on Adrenaline

You know you have ADHD when you lose the remote in the freezer. Or head out to meet a friend and wind up at the grocery store instead. Download your free digital copy of You Know You Have ADD When... for more humorous reminder moments. Plus, get email tips for managing adult ADHD.

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