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“ADHD Is Not a Real Superpower. Claiming It Is Helps No One.”

“In the ongoing fight to raise much-needed awareness around ADHD, it’s vital we don’t romanticize it. Pithy expressions do little to help people with ADHD when they’re called unproductive at work or disruptive in the classroom. Instead of being cute, we should be clear.”

Young man in superhero costume sitting on top of building
Young man in superhero costume sitting on top of building

Apparently, I have superpowers. But unlike regular superpowers — invisibility, shape-shifting abilities, laser-beam eyes — my superpowers are a bit more prosaic.

So prosaic, in fact, they don’t look much like superpowers at all: Lethargy. Impulsivity. Substance abuse. Chronic distractibility. Abject frustration. Unemployment. Neuroses. Irritability.

The Misadventures of ADHD-Man

Who can forget Marvel Comics #27? ADHD-Man rises after noon to defeat leftover takeout and doom scroll on Twitter while nursing a nagging urge to do something productive.

That obviously isn’t a real comic. And ADHD isn’t a real superpower. Not when I was a kid, and not today as others proudly brandish the irony-tinged proclamation across social media.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why some people would refer to their ADHD symptoms as superpowers. I understand that it’s meant, in part, to communicate the neuroatypical advantages we have, like hyperfocus, boundless energy, and creativity. But these traits are a small part of the ADHD puzzle. Because what good is a creative brain, say, if it’s unable to apply itself? That isn’t cool; that’s Kafka.

[Read: 7 Myths About ADHD… Debunked!]

And yes, I also get that “ADHD is my superpower” is a defiant two-finger salute to a world that tries to tear neurodivergent people down. It’s also a nice thing to say to kids who are struggling with identity and ADHD.

I know what you’re thinking: Why am I getting worked up over something fairly benign? Because I was ADHD-Man for a long time. In my darkest days of pre-treatment, I was a substance-abusing, suicidal mess. I didn’t feel like a superhero. I didn’t even feel human.

Let’s Be Honest: There’s Nothing Romantic About ADHD

Historically misunderstood conditions enjoy greater recognition today than ever before. But there is much more work to be done. I’m certain a “What is ADHD?” vox pop on my city’s streets would produce more than a few shoulder shrugs and remarks like, “Oh, is ADHD the one where all the kids run about crazy and the parents give them ricin, or vitamins, or whatever to calm them down? That one?”

In the ongoing fight to raise much-needed awareness around ADHD, it’s vital we don’t romanticize it. Pithy expressions do little to help people with ADHD when they’re called unproductive at work or disruptive in the classroom. Instead of being cute, we should be clear.

[Read: 10 Things I Wish the World Knew About ADHD]

We should explain the endless love-loss pattern of hyperfixation that scuppers our chances of gaining proficiency in a hobby and often leaves us with clutter: unstrummed guitars in the closet; squash-racquets-turned-fly swatters; forgotten knitting needles threatening to rise from beneath the couch cushions. Others should know about our internal chaos and total inability to apply ourselves despite having the desire to do something, anything, other than perform an infinite start-stop loop.

We should explain the truly ugly side of ADHD. The stuff that, left unchecked, can cap a person’s potential and ruin their life. The consequences of missing a diagnosis in childhood. The yo-yoing employment status in adulthood. The susceptibility to substance abuse and other negative outcomes.

But nobody’s going to put all that in a Twitter bio.

Treatment Is the Real Superpower

The antidote to ADHD isn’t #slogans; it’s medication, therapy, and exercise. It’s formulating a game plan and running it each and every day so you don’t end up like ADHD-Man.

When I think back to my life before I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 32, it makes me doubly grateful for where I am now.

To me, the true superheroes are the people — far cleverer than I — who were able to devise solutions to help those like me. Thanks to them, I’m able to take a pill each morning that allows me to make healthy decisions, gives me greater control of executive functions, and helps me concentrate on tasks to a level that ADHD-Man never thought possible.

ADHD Superpowers: Next Steps

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10 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thank you!! I have NEVER regarded my ADHD as a “superpower.” I’m not sure where the idea to “new-age” and “pollyanna” this disorder came from. But it’s hard to view it as a “superpower” when you’re being raked over the coals (once again) because of your lack of attention to detail or because you’re having (yet another) emotional breakdown in front of your boss. I’ve accepted my ADHD as part of me. I understand that there will be days when I’m better at dealing with it than others. But I’ve never boosted it to the exalted position of superpower. It just isn’t.

  2. I loved this post. I also get the reason for saying it’s a superpower but it can become a sort of toxic positivity. I feel the same for the movement to take disorder out of the name. People already don’t take it seriously enough and it would undercut the urgency for treatment. I don’t foresee many organizations prioritizing accommodations and support for people with superpower traits.

  3. At first this article struck me as shocking since most articles on this website are the “superpower” type to help us not feel like neurotic nut cases. It probably is a valuable counterpoint for those of us who haven’t embraced the superpower concept. Its almost hidden near the end but the author does present the most effective solutions for the downsides of ADHD: therapy, meds and exercise. However I have med-resistant ADD so I don’t get the “hyper” energy bursts. I think that allows me to maintain my “filter” and not blurt out nasty retorts to people but I’m still stuck with the chronic tiredness, constant distractibility, difficulty managing time, hyperfocusing on time wasters, and often needing a nap after running errands or after work. So I think the best approach is appreciating the “superpowers” of ADD/ADHD to maintain a positive mindset while acknowledging and working on the downsides.

  4. I understand where you are coming from AND find describing certain ADHD traits as superpowers can be incredibly helpful for my son who internalizes the negative the world piles on him as great shame. Superheroes are not romantic, they are mostly tragic beings, whose atypicality’s cause them suffering, isolation and deep interpersonal complexities. Calling ADHD a superpower is not toxically positive, but a very real labeling of how differences come with both good and bad. In our home we talk about my sons race car brain and extra-sensory perceptions as realities that have positive and negative impacts. They are just his reality. We can view them as a superpower, which sometimes are amazing, and sometimes cause pain and problems. As Uncle Ben says in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. This maxim both acknowledges the extreme difficulties that come with ADHD, while celebrating the real strengths too. And in a world where my kiddo is being told that he is an anti-hero all the time, a nice balanced reframe can be pretty powerful.

  5. It is interesting how differently we all experience it. I love my ADHD, despite fully accepting that it does make some things more challenging but that I feel is down to a world constructed around neurotypical dominance rather than any ‘deficit’ and the counterpoint is it gives me so much too, I might disappear down various rabbit holes but the fields those where those holes emerge are frequently fascinating and keep me engaged and entertained. I am lucky, I have a job that matches my strengths which has enabled me to rewrite the story told to me about myself from my experience at school.

  6. Thank you, Michael Thomas Kincella for your excellent article. I’m one of those parents that never understood why my brain worked the way it did until researching ADHD for my son. Figuring that I had lived with the condition all my life made me lean towards continuing with the path of no medication and no counseling, but not now. Your article made me realize that I’m holding myself back, so today I scheduled the first ADHD appointment for me. There are big things I want to do and I won’t let ADHD continue to hold me back. Your gifted writing gave me the boot I needed. Hugs.

  7. I hear what you are saying and this idea is going around all the socials again. All ND folk get the make my special person super special or more commonly is great for business.

    The former I have sympathy with, as much as if I had ever heard it from a neurodivergent pal. The world is constructed in such a way that we are set up to fail and if by chance something helped them get an edge in a particular situation and finally feel good about themselves then great. Celebrate the heck out of that superpower.

    The later is where the Superpower slogan really comes from. Organisations, government departments and people out to celebrate the monetary value of neurodiversity. The fact that the majority of the programs are below standard pay level and are run by no ND folk without input into accommodations are a huge problem. Excellent ND lead orgs like Genius Within exist that are the exception but by and large the answer to ND folks low employment rate is met my “How can I profit from this”. Using Elon Musk, or some other (usually white, male, privileged) icon as an example of “success” is more of the problem and more with marketing the inequity.

    What I do take exception to though is punching down on anyone that has a moment of success to want to feel good about themselves wrt their ADHD. For the sake of everything that’s good, please knock it off. The fact is we have spikey profiles. We find some things easier and some things harder than the baseline. If you want to call the first bunch superpowers and the last kryptonite go for it. But the fact is the things that the norm is worse than us at, means that they have constructed the rules or society and work to accommodate THEMSELVES for. Things like sitting still, social unstructured offices, working to a timetable rather than to interest… things that set us back. Every time we can’t equally compete in a world built for others or struggle due to difference socially we are then called disordered and diseased.

    If treatment is a working with an ADHD coach to use motivation mapping to keep that guitar strung, or inventing BuJo to keep your life in a forward flow without (or even despite) executive function collapse, then by that logic every organisation psychologist should be called a medical specialist treating the disease of neurotypicality. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I’d like some equality there. There are stacks of stuff in every Adam Grant book that don’t apply to me – but they are great skills and tips that I have to motivate and accommodate my NT colleagues.

    And none of the crochet sets I did with my grandmother are about crochet; the squash racket from my brief university days getting thrashed by my 70yo Professor is about squash; the guitar that I spent 72hours learning Bohemian Rhapsody on when I found out that my dearest friend loved that song just before their birthday, was about guitar; the card game I played with my mum after her stoke in her last days were about cards. They are about the attention and motivation and interest that was all consuming – in that relationship.

    Man I get it. Sometimes I hate being different. I’m Autistic with my ADHD. I’m a reasonably good looking, intelligent and nice guy. Not being able to connect in a relationship till I was 27, losing jobs and burning out of university … that almost killed me. I’m a 28 year sober alcoholic. I blamed myself for being lazy and weird because everyone else seemed to say it first. What was odd though was that I also did exceptional things when everyone was in a crisis and saw the world in ways that were clear when others were baffled. Because of that I had friends when I was (ie: my “superpowers” were) exceptionally useful and no support when I needed it. That changed though. I’m making support. I’m making support structures for others and fighting for inclusion. I’m old enough and accomplished enough (in the good times) that NTs have to put me in their hierarchy. So now I can make space and change and help others up. I’m strong enough now to meltdown and break in ways that we’d normally do in private and shame, and follow that up with education and transparency to try to get accommodation and acceptance for others. Some days I’m really kicking off the bottom and it’s a struggle to go on. I still hear the R word, and get questioned on my worth and ability. But I show up every day.

    So no. I will never subscribe to a disease model of ADHD. I won’t talk about ADHD as a thing I can be separated from like it’s a parasite hiding the real perfect me underneath. Because that’s not true and that helps nobody. What does help people, the neurominority, is lobbying and pushing for equitable rights. Equitable workplaces and social settings. Acceptance and awareness and appreciation.

  8. ADD a marketable superpower? This is delusional nonsense. I have ADD (no hyperactivity, dammit! and it’s nothing to be proud of. It has always been a handicap and an embarrassment in both my social and professional lives. I cannot cite a single incident when it was any sort of advantage.

    I was denied employment from at least two jobs because I flunked a qualifying psych exam. Their vetting process tries to smoke out ADD/ADHD sufferers. Imagine that: psychology being used as a weapon to discriminate against ADD/ADHD people! Why? To hire and promote them for a fast track up the corporate ladder? Don’t be so naive! The HR department has looked on the internet and found that ADD/ADHD patients have a disturbing penchant for blurting out stupid things during customer-facing meetings. Also, they are suspected of being unstable closet alcoholics and drug users and they don’t want you.

    Thankfully, this article has enough common sense than to advocate going public with sensitive details of one’s mental health. Your boss is not your friend. I had a reasonably successful 40+ year career as an engineer but I did not get there by being stupid. Even gang members in handcuffs don’t confess to anything unless they are imbeciles, so don’t let your own mouth be your own worst enemy.

    If you need help, get help and follow your treatment plan. And read ADDitude, who IS your friend.

  9. One of the problems with this article is that it confabulates ADHD with depression. While a number of people with ADHD have co-morbidities, including some mental illnesses, most of us are psychologically healthy, if a bit stressed. The people who are trying hardest to make money out of ADHD are those in the mental health industry who want to colonise ADHD and present it as a mental health issue, like schizophrenia, rather than a neurological condition like Autism, which it much more closely resembles. Of course it is a pain in the arse that other people steal your really good ideas because you are not good with detail, or when you have to set up seven systems to replace the working memory you don’t have, but at least you have good ideas and can see beyond the routine. If you haven’t found a place where your big picture thinking, creativity and ability to see beyond the emperors’ new clothes are valued, you just haven’t found your place.

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