Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist and the founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass., New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, and was a member of the faculty of the Harvard Medical School from 1983 to 2004 until he began working full-time on his clinical practice, lectures and writing. He is the author of a number of books, including, with co-author John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction,” “Answers to Distraction,”and “Delivered from Distraction.” He also co-authored, with Peter S. Jensen, “Superparenting for ADD.”
Here are Hallowell’s 10 ADHD misconceptions:
1. Misconception: Having ADHD means you are stupid.
Fact: People with ADHD vary in their intelligence (whatever that elusive word means!) as much as the general population does. Many people with ADHD are extremely intelligent, especially in the areas of creativity, originality, intuition, resourcefulness, and emotional savvy. Indeed, when I meet someone who has ADHD, one of my top priorities is to locate as quickly as possible their special talent, which I often call their special sauce, because, in my experience, almost everyone with ADHD has one!
2. Misconception: ADHD seriously disables the person who has it.
Fact: While ADHD can disable the person who has it, even ruin that person’s life, it can also confer great benefits and lead to enormous success, if managed properly. The key is to identify the condition, and then get the right help in managing it.
3. Misconception: The “right help” for ADHD begins and ends with medication.
Fact: While medication can often be useful in dealing with ADHD, it is neither necessary nor always effective. The starting point in managing ADHD is education. One needs to learn about what ADHD is–and what it isn’t–in order to change it from a serious liability into a bonafide asset. Books are a cost-efficient way to start the process. I can recommend my comprehensive book, Delivered from Distraction, written with Dr. John Ratey, but there are many other good books out there as well. There are also excellent websites, chock full of free, valuable information. The best one for parents looking for help for children is Understood.org, which is a phenomenal resource.
4. Misconception: You must see a child psychiatrist for diagnosis and treatment for ADHD.
Fact: While child psychiatrists (which is what I am) get the most training in ADHD, there is a shortage of child psychiatrists in the United States, and their waiting lists can be very long. In fact, a wide range of professionals can diagnose and treat ADHD. The key question to ask is, “How much experience do you have in treating ADHD?” Also keep in mind that some professionals have a lot of experience in treating ADHD in children, but little or none with adults. So always ask. Whether a pediatrician, family physician, psychologist, neurologist, social worker, or any other professional, the most important qualification is lots of experience in diagnosing and treating ADHD. Another qualifier: If medication is to be used, an M.D. must be part of the treatment team.
5. Misconception: ADHD is a condition that is found only in boys.
Fact: People of all ages can have ADHD, and females can have it as well as males. The largest undiagnosed group is composed of adult women, followed by adult men. The general public, including many doctors, does not realize that this condition affects both sexes and all ages.
6. Misconception: In order to have ADHD, you must be disruptive and hyperactive.
Fact: Many people who have ADHD are not in the least hyperactive or disruptive. Indeed, they are quiet and daydreamy, lost in their thoughts, following the charms of their inner, imaginative life. Oftentimes female, these people are commonly not diagnosed with ADHD simply because they are not restless or disruptive. In fact, they have the subtype of ADHD called “primarily inattentive,” rather than the type that includes disruptive behavior, which is called “ADHD: Combined type.”
7. Misconception: People with ADHD cannot do well in school or in life.
Fact: While people with ADHD may struggle in school or flounder as adults, they can also excel. With the right help, or with luck or the grace of God, the can rise to the very top of whatever field they enter. There are Nobel Prize winners who have ADHD, as well as Pulitzer Prize winners, Academy Award winners, self-made millionaires and billionaires, CEO’s, professional athletes, leading jurists and attorneys, brain surgeons, best-selling authors, scions of Wall Street, professors, airline pilots, Navy SEALS and war heroes, mega-successful entrepreneurs, inventors (Edison was a classic!), poets, playwrights, chefs, award-winning teachers, champion race-car drivers, and, in short, anyone who has made their way to the top of anything.
8. Misconception: If you can pay attention, you do not have ADHD.
Fact: People with ADHD can super-focus at times and pay better attention than anyone. When what they are doing interests them they often go into a state of hyper-focus, such that they lose track of the passage of time or their biological needs and drives. It is when they are not interested that their minds wander. But their minds do not go empty, which is why attention deficit is such a misnomer. In ADHD attention wanders, but it never disappears.
9. Misconception: The medications used to treat ADHD are dangerous and addicting.
Fact: While the medications used to treat ADHD can be dangerous and addicting, if they are used properly they can be totally safe and hugely helpful. When they are used properly, and when they work, which is in 80 percent of people who have ADHD who try them, they are like eyeglasses for the mind: they produce mental focus. And, when monitored properly, they cause no side effects, other than appetite suppression without unwanted weight loss. Used properly, these medications are very safe and highly effective. First used to treat what we now call ADHD in 1937 (most people have no idea these medications have been around that long), stimulant medication can turn a child’s or adult’s life completely around. While medication should never be the only treatment (education, lifestyle modification, exercise, and coaching or tutoring should also be included), it can be an extremely helpful component of the treatment regimen.
10. Misconception: ADHD is caused by bad parenting, too much electronics, pollution, or environmental stress.
Fact: While the factors listed above can make ADHD (or life in general) worse,-they do not cause the condition. In most cases, one inherits a genetic predisposition to ADHD which the environment then draws out, or does not, depending, of course, on the environment. As the growing field of epigenetics is proving, there is a life-determining interaction between a person’s genetic endowment and the environment in which he or she lives.