ADHD Myths & Facts

“Is ADHD Even Real?” How to Respond to Haters and Naysayers

What is ADHD? Is it a real diagnosis? What does medication do? Can adults have ADD? Learn to clear up common misperceptions about ADHD with authority and silence ADHD naysayers.

Woman with question mark on her head wonders about her ADHD and its connections to learning disabilities
Woman with question mark on her head wonders about her ADHD and its connections to learning disabilities

Is ADHD Real?

Just about every mainstream medical, psychological, and educational organization in the U.S. long ago concluded that ADHD is real, and that children and adults with attention deficit disorder benefit from appropriate ADHD treatment.

Yet, somehow, the world still seems to be filled with self-appointed ADHD “experts” — some well-meaning, some sanctimonious — who insist on burdening us with their ill-informed opinions and asking repeatedly, What is ADHD?

We’ve all heard the ADHD skeptics’ comments: “ADHD is bunk!” “Can’t people take responsibility for their own actions anymore?” “All that so-called ADHD kids really need is discipline!” “Drug companies invented ADHD so they could sell stimulants.” Blah, blah, blah.

We expect to hear such nonsense about ADHD and LD from misinformed movie stars ranting on talk shows. But what about the know-it-all who happens to be a friend? Your child’s teacher? A co-worker — or your boss? What about a member of your own family?

Let’s be honest: Words hurt. Holier-than-thou barbs, fault-finding, and finger-pointing can make you resentful and just plain furious. “Discussing ADHD can be as touchy as talking about politics or religion,” says Susan Ashley, Ph.D., author of The ADD and ADHD Answer Book. “Feelings get hurt, defenses go up, and relationships suffer when there are disagreements about it.” In extreme situations, families disintegrate, and kids and grownups who need help don’t get it.

[Free Download: 7 Myths About ADHD… Debunked!]

Should you bite your tongue and walk away? Make a sharp retort? Make an effort to educate the ignoramus? A jab to the nose might make you feel better, but it probably isn’t the best solution.

The debate about attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is over. O-V-E-R. And the truth about ADHD and LD is clear. Here are the five varieties of ADHD naysayers out there, and the right ways to respond to each.

The Skeptic: Can Adults Have ADHD?

The Skeptic denies the very existence of ADHD, calling it a phantom that was cooked up as an excuse for bad parenting. He maintains that ADHD would go away if parents simply reined in their brats and stopped letting them run amok. What about the adults who say they have ADHD? “Why?” says The Skeptic, “They just need to grow up and take responsibility for their shortcomings, rather than blaming an illness.”

No one questions the existence of diabetes or migraine headaches, says Philip Levin, Ph.D., director of The Help Group/UCLA Neuropsychology Program. Yet, he says, people who don’t know better question the existence of ADHD — despite a body of research indicating that it is a neurobiological disorder that affects 11 percent of children and 4 percent of all adults.

[21 Ignorant Comments About ADHD (and the Facts to Refute Them)]

Given a wealth of evidence, the National Institute of Mental Health has concluded that ADHD is a real medical condition. So has the American Psychological Association, which includes ADHD in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental-health professionals. And the U.S. Department of Education requires educational institutions to provide special accommodations to kids with ADHD — it’s the law.

When Suzanne Herman, of Tyler, Texas, encounters Skeptics, she tells them the reason they don’t “believe in” ADHD is that they’ve probably been lucky enough never to have experienced it, either in themselves or in a loved one. “If my son could exert the control necessary to conform, he would,” Herman says. “No child would choose to be isolated and punished constantly.”

Indeed. “Unless ADHD hits close to home, one may never totally understand it,” says Luanne Southern, the senior director of prevention and children’s mental health at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

Shantella Benson, whose 10-year-old daughter has ADHD, takes another approach with The Skeptic: She simply steers the conversation to a more benign topic. “Changing the subject saves me from having to get into a heated conversation in front of my daughter,” the Torrance, California, resident says. “I’ve been trying to help her learn to control her emotions. It wouldn’t help to see me blow my stack.”

Hard facts are often the best ammunition to use against The Skeptic. “Direct the skeptic to CHADD, order him a subscription to ADDitude or give him copies of relevant articles, and take him to a support group meeting,” Southern says. If that doesn’t convince him that ADHD is real, it’s likely that nothing will.

When Elisabeth Carnell of Kalamazoo, Michigan, comes across people who pooh-pooh her nine-year-old daughter’s ADHD, she gives them information about the condition and shares her experiences with it. If these strategies fail, she calls the errant comments what they are: “bull#!^@.”

If you prefer sarcasm to scatology, try, “Gosh, it must be nice to be smarter than thousands of doctors, scientists, and psychologists.”

The Crusader

The Crusader takes a holier-than-thou approach, second-guessing adults who take ADHD medications and parents who give them to their kids. “I would never take a stimulant medication or give one to my child,” he proclaims. “Ritalin is ‘kiddie cocaine.'”

Actually, study after study has shown ADHD medications to be highly effective at curbing impulsivity and distractibility. Like all drugs, ADHD meds have side effects — but dependency is not a major one. In most cases, the benefits of taking ADHD medication far outweigh the risks. “Ritalin has been used to treat ADHD for over 30 years,” Dr. Levin says. “We have countless scientific studies on the safety of Ritalin. In fact, some of the drugs that children routinely take for asthma and cancer haven’t been studied nearly as much as Ritalin.”

Caryn Stevens, of Midlothian, Texas, wishes people weren’t quick to assume that her decision to medicate her 11-year-old twins was a hasty one. In fact, quite a while passed before she agreed to medicate her boys, even after doctors urged her to do so. The same was true for Jennifer Andrews of Virginia Beach, Virginia. “My husband and I were against drugs for children — until we had a child with ADHD,” Andrews says. “Our daughter literally cannot sit still to eat her breakfast without medication. I learned the hard way that you must get the facts and have some experience before spouting off about something.”

Make it clear to The Crusader that you feel drug therapy for ADHD is not a cause for shame. Medicating your child doesn’t make you a lazy or incompetent parent. It shows that you are an effective parent. “You don’t need to explain to anyone why you are medicating your child,” Dr. Ashley says. “Forget what others think. Instead, ask yourself how you feel about your choice to medicate. If you’re at peace with it, the opinions of others should not matter to you.”

Next time someone says, “I would never… ,” look him in the eye and ask, “If you had diabetes, would you not take insulin? Would you deny insulin to a child who had diabetes? Then why should I withhold appropriate medication from my child?”

“Ultimately,” Caryn Stevens says, “I think it would be a crime not to give my boys every resource available to enable their success.”

The Joker

The Joker takes potshots at ADHD, using sarcasm and pretending that his barbs are innocuous, says Lillian Glass, Ph.D., the Beverly Hills, California-based author of Attracting Terrific People. A Joker might say, “I wish I had ADHD! At least then I’d have an excuse for my bad behavior.” Or, “Pass the Ritalin — I could use a (wink, wink) ‘boost.'” Other Jokers make “clever” twists on the ADHD acronym, claiming that it really stands for “Adequate Discipline Deficiency.”

The intent of such comments, of course, is to have fun at your expense. But if you show anger or indignation, The Joker protests, “I was just kidding.” Marilyn Cullinane, a 63-year-old with ADHD from Lowell, Massachusetts, once had a boss who joked endlessly about her ADHD. Whenever she made a mistake, he would say — loud enough for all to hear — “ADHD got the best of you again, huh, Marilyn?”

Mick Quinn, the author of Power and Grace: The Four Steps to Authentic Joy, suggests that “selective silence” can be a good way to counter The Joker. “As soon as you realize that someone is being nasty, choose not to respond,” he says. “This was how Gandhi did it — and note the results.”

Cullinane put up with her boss’s teasing until she found a new job. Then she wrote a letter to her former corporate headquarters, detailing her abuse at the hands of her boss — and he was fired.

Of course, Cullinane had another option, as does anyone with ADHD who is harassed on the job: legal action. But before resorting to this, Philadelphia-based employment lawyer Robin Bond suggests being direct: “When you say X, I feel Y,” or “Mocking my medical condition is hurtful, and I’d like you to stop.” If the direct approach fails, Bond says, consider moving up the chain of command or consulting a lawyer.

The Ostrich

The Ostrich can’t accept that any person (including himself or his own child) has ADHD — even in the face of evidence to the contrary. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” he says. “I just take things as they come and try not to tie myself down with plans.” Or, in response to news that his child has been diagnosed with ADHD, he might inform the doctor, “There’s nothing wrong with my kid that an old-fashioned spanking won’t cure.” No matter how fervently the pediatrician, psychologist, teacher, or family member waves the red flag, The Ostrich cannot (or won’t) accept the ADHD diagnosis.

“Acceptance can be hard, since ADHD is considered a mental disorder,” Southern says. Some people resist testing altogether because they can’t acknowledge even the possibility that such a disorder runs in the family.

If you’re married to an Ostrich, say, “This is not about you or how you feel about ADHD. It’s about our child and what we need to do for her.” It might take awhile, but most Ostriches eventually pull their heads out of the sand. Don’t give up!

The Voice of Doom

The Voice of Doom sees a bleak future for kids with ADHD, warning that “People who have ADHD never amount to anything. They all lead lives of failure and disappointment.” The Voice of Doom ignores the evidence suggesting that people with ADHD are often energetic, intelligent, and creative.

Maybe your child won’t grow up to be Steven Spielberg or Michael Jordan. Or maybe he will. After all, both Spielberg and Jordan have ADHD. Apparently, so did Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie, Ludwig van Beethoven, Henry Ford, and Vincent van Gogh.

The honor roll goes on and on, reminding us that those with ADHD can live rich, productive lives. “We may be inconsistent, and less productive, in the short run,” says Scott Nipper, a teacher with ADHD from Houston. “But we’re more likely to accomplish big things through our passionate, hyperfocused pursuit of projects. What seem like off-task distractions can sometimes lead to great innovations.”

What’s the best defense against a Voice of Doom? A strong offense. Marcia Conner, of Staunton, Virginia, is a former corporate executive who now runs a small company. She tells each Voice of Doom she encounters, “I have fresh ideas, endless energy, and an Olympic-level multitasking ability. I can’t imagine how people without ADHD excel in business. It’s my competitive advantage!”

Next time you’re face-to-face with Eeyore, turn the tables. Say, “If Richard Branson can found Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways, despite having ADHD, I’m not worried about my son,” or “If my daughter turns out as well as Suzanne Somers or Whoopi Goldberg, who both have ADHD, that’s fine with me!”

No doubt about it, ADHD makes it hard to navigate the “normal world.” But with appropriate support, Luanne Southern says, “Individuals with ADHD can lead happy, healthy lives.”

And maybe, just maybe, extraordinary lives.

[Quiz: ADHD Myth or ADHD Reality? Check the Facts About ADHD.]

3 Comments & Reviews

  1. Weak points in this article. Unless a child was a crack baby or some other thing on-par with this- the evidence is specious. After hearing a doctor going on endlessly about image studies that prove structural differences between norm and ADD/ADHD… well there are imaging studies that show a difference between those who watch too much porn. There’s solid research establishing we have plastic brains, that our behaviors can effect brain shape and chemistry. Comparing diabetes to a perceived brain disorder is not apples apples. Behavior can shape the brain, just as leading an unhealthy life can bring about diabetes. Argue that diabetes can have a genetic component? This is the crack baby metaphor I’ve mentioned earlier. If sets of parents abused their bodies, or other factors outside of their control- then yes. However, way too many folks are crying ADD/ADHD these days. Case in point, there was this group of about 6 people I once worked with who would horse-play all day, very poor work-ethic and the like. I purposely distanced myself from this group, knowing that one day- many of them would be various meds . They never matured, growing with the times- because they deliberately chose to misbehave (no not because of ADD/ADHD). Forfeit your growth years- yeah, you’re going to have issues arise out of poor habits. Of course you will test positive with imaging, brain chemistry measurements and the like. Ideas and behaviors have specific consequences that are obvious. I know ‘many’ people who abuses drugs (cocaine, weed etc) They go to the Dr- and were diagnosed with ADD!!! Of course they did not share with this with their doctors. A doctor would be a fool not to pick up on this. Drugs can damage your brain- “this is your brain, this is your brain on drugs!”

  2. Take six adults diagnosed with ADHD and ask them ‘what is it like to have ADHD’? You will get nine different answers. The diagnosis alone can be enough to expel you from polite academic society (it’s the reason I couldn’t get into the nice Catholic Preschool a block from my house growing up). The symptoms are vague, the experience is fractured, and the results of diagnosis are devastating.

    I was diagnosed with ADHD at 3. I was put on Ritalin at that age, and didn’t get off until I was 19 years old. In that time, I spent every single day of school at a program specifically for kids with ADHD. Each of these programs had completely different kinds of kids with no symptoms in common. At worst, I shared a classroom with kids who had Down Syndrome and severe Cerebral Palsy (again: kids who do not belong together!). At even worse than *that*, I was sent to board with kids who had violent behavioral disabilities: the kind who would fly off the handle and throw chairs, or who would ‘take advantage’ of younger students who were forced to room with them. Every single program billed itself as being specialized in ADHD, and each school had a totally different set of kids with no symptoms in common. My high school was all about Learning Disabilities: I never had an academic problem in my entire life.

    None of us shared the same symptoms: sure, there were people who were more *like* others. There were, however, two things we all *did* share. We all shared a story of what got us diagnosed in the first place. My best friend’s story involved him getting beaten up at summer camp (the kind of beaten up that required surgery and rehab), my wife bit a lawyer’s kid. I had trouble with potty training. We all have that *first* misbehavior that got us a diagnosis, then ritalin, and from there it just got worse, and worse, and worse. As Nellie Bly discovered in 1874 and the Rosenhan experiment repeated in 1973: whatever behaviors you display are always symptoms of your diagnosis. My wife was a moody teenager: must be ADHD. I liked a girl in high school who didn’t feel the same way: ADHD made you do it.

    The other thing we all had in common was rich parents. As I’ve aged: I’ve met plenty of people with poorer parents who fit the general ‘type’. They were just as inattentive and hyperactive as I ever was, but since their parents couldn’t afford to shop around until they found a doctor who agreed with them, they lived their entire lives without any ‘help’. Most of them grew out of their hyperactivity. All of them wound up better off than I did.

    Now I’m older. I’ve been diagnosed with OCD, Bipolar II (I swing towards depression), and PTSD (there was a *lot* of abuse). Would I have all of these diagnoses had I not spent my entire life under the microscope of an overeager psychological profession? Maybe not. Do all of the symptoms that were previously diagnosed as “ADHD” fit neatly into these diagnoses without any other arbitrary diagnosis? Definitely. The depressive segment of bipolar accounts for 90% of them.

    When my daughter was 2 years old, someone at her daycare demanded that we get her tested for ADHD. I asked her pediatrician and learned: 80% of kids under the age of 5 will test positive for ADHD. You can’t really diagnose a child that young. Of course, in *my* case, by the time I was 5 I had been on Ritalin for two years and was already sharing my classroom with children with Down Syndrome. Perhaps had I been a little tiny bit faster with my potty training, or my wife hadn’t bit the lawyer’s kid at age 4, our entire lives would have been different.

  3. This is one man’s opinion so take it FWIW. This whole essay starts off with blowing your foot off with a shotgun, outing yourself with your ADD/ADHD condition. Why would you want to do this? Why do you care what other people think?

    Confessing this is a DISASTER in the workplace! Your boss is NOT your friend. If you reveal this explosive secret o him what do you really think os going to happen? Right! He is going to search the internet and assume that you check all the 15 or so symptom boxes, that you are a drug user and alcoholic and have a scary tendency to blurt out something stupid in a critical customer-facing meeting. You will end up on a secret list of layoff candidates and never find out why.

    In my opinion, the people who advocate publicly revealing any kind of mental illness are possessed of a pollyanna-like naivete. They typically come from the ivory tower world of academia. I spent my entire career working at for-profit corporations. These businesses are run by hard-ass dudes to whom the only thing is the bottom line. They have no tolerance for mistakes or missed deadlines.

    Gang members under arrest have more common sense than to shoot their mouths off. No law requires that you reveal your health status. You also have your Miranda rights plus HIPAA. I have had a successful 42 year career as an engineer in part because I was not reckless or stupid.

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