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Busting Three Common ADHD Myths to Put The Facts in Your Fiction

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

With 6 million children diagnosed with ADHD in the last two decades, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition that’s rarely out of the public eye. And since so many families are affected, misinformation is rampant. Do phones cause it? What about social media? Or maybe vaccines!

Just like quacks in the pseudoscience field have spread misinformation about ADHD to those trying to treat it, misinformation and myths about ADHD are also common in fiction. In this article, I will go over some of the most common misconceptions about ADHD that I’ve seen on the page as an experienced sensitivity reader.

Myth 1: People with ADHD are doomed to fail.

One of the main ADHD stereotypes I’ve seen is that people with this condition are lazy failures requiring a love interest to save them from themselves. The character with ADHD exists to cause problems for the protagonist. They “blow up” at every obstacle and they’re certainly not successful or self-sufficient.

The reality is quite different. Studies have shown that perfectionism is extremely common in people with ADHD. People with ADHD are often people pleasers who feel uncomfortable in situations where they are shamed or criticized. These traits can lead to an unhealthy search for perfection. As ADHD specialist Dr. Stefan Ivantu has written, speaking to people with the condition, “perfectionism can be a coping mechanism to validate yourself and demonstrate you aren’t unreliable, unmotivated, or lack discipline.” Furthermore, in a Portuguese study on people with ADHD in the workplace, researcher Andre Palmini determined that “Adults with ADHD may succeed professionally despite significant symptoms […] by using effortful strategies of compensation.” A lot of these strategies boil down to hypervigilance similar to that seen in trauma patients, as well as obsessive behavior like constantly setting alarms and taking notes nonstop. I’ve personally cried over mistakes as small as sending an email to the wrong person.

Sure, your character with ADHD could be a Devil-may-care type who lives for today but that would have little to do with their ADHD. Research shows that they could be a workaholic pulling weekly all-nighters, consumed by the terror of making even the smallest mistake.

Myth 2: ADHD isn't serious.

Some authors think that since people with ADHD can be personally and professionally successful, their character with ADHD doesn’t need to struggle with the condition, and it can just be more of an informed attribute. This is also incorrect. ADHD can be very difficult to live with. Children with ADHD are often singled out and treated as inherently inferior. I have experienced people overlooking my strengths due to my condition. This is backed up by research. For instance, Harvard professor Michael S. Jellinek estimates that by the age of 10, children with ADHD have heard over 20,000 more negative comments than their peers.

On a personal level, I’ve made some pretty embarrassing mistakes because of my ADHD- and I’m not just talking about low-impact screwups like asking somebody “So how’s your week going” three times in a row because I keep forgetting I’ve asked it, or blanking on the name of a colleague of several years. In undergrad, after going off my medication due to other health issues, I was kicked out of a choir elective because I once forgot we had rehearsal. For context, rehearsal was at the same time every week. I was devastated. It’s common for people with ADHD to have experiences like this

Due to shame and criticism from both self and others, ADHD often leads to poor mental health and higher suicide risk. A study of 22,000 Canadian adults by the University of Toronto found that people with ADHD were over five times more likely to attempt suicide than those without ADHD, with suicide attempts being even more common in women with ADHD specifically.

It’s important to think about and integrate how these patterns might show up in the life of your character with ADHD.

Myth 3: It’s easy to tell if a child has ADHD.

Sometimes writers of children’s books think that they have it easier. Everyone knows what ADHD in kids looks like, right? It’s the boy staring out the window, jiggling his leg and doodling dinosaurs on his test paper. Hell, maybe he’s just being discriminated against for having lots of energy and overmedicated to fit in!

However, this is incorrect. ADHD isn’t rare in girls, it’s just rarely diagnosed. According to studies, girls are just as likely to have ADHD symptoms as boys. Furthermore, research shows that if a girl and a boy have the same symptoms, the girl is 50% less likely to be recommended for an ADHD evaluation.

Additionally, people with ADHD aren’t always outwardly hyperactive. ADHD can look like being spacey, daydreaming, or being thought of as a “dumb blonde.” Speaking from my own experience, if I hadn’t grown up in a family of psychologists, I would never have received an ADHD diagnosis. I wasn’t the typical picture of ADHD: good grades, teachers loved me, always with my nose in a book. Then someone would ask me to do something that didn’t involve my beloved book collection, and I’d wander off, forget the instructions, break down in tears, procrastinate, or find a way to do all the above simultaneously. When I was taken to be tested for ADHD, I found the test boring from an intellectual standpoint. I escaped the psychiatrist when his back was turned and was found on another floor of the building- and diagnosed on the spot. Ultimately, you can’t tell how much somebody is struggling just from looking at them.

What I want people to take away from this article is that ADHD is an often debilitating condition that can affect a large range of people. Even if somebody seems outwardly successful, they can still be struggling with ADHD and its mental health consequences. Don’t assume you know what it’s like to live with ADHD, you may be unintentionally relying on a stereotype. Instead, do your research, consult reputable sources, and hire a sensitivity reader.

Ennis Rook Bashe, is a Lesfic Bard Award-winning romance novelist and Elgin Award-nominated disabled poet whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cricket, and Liminality Magazine. You can find more of their writing here. You can request Ennis as a sensitivity reader for your project on the Writing Diversely Directory.

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