Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects focus, concentration, and impulsivity. Some traits of ADHD can make everyday life challenging for young people: they may find it difficult to complete tasks or be prone to risky behaviours. However, ADHD can also come with positive traits, giving young people with ADHD certain skills and ‘superpowers’ that can help them to form and follow their dreams.
This blog explores three ADHD superpowers: hyperfocus, creativity, and intuition. It also discusses the importance of challenging the stigma that often surrounds ADHD – and how appreciating ADHD’s positive traits can help get us there.
ADHD Superpower #1: Hyperfocus
The term ‘attention-deficit hyperactive disorder’ suggests that young people with ADHD have difficulties maintaining focus or concentrating on a particular task. However, while symptoms of attention deficit are key traits of the disorder, it’s not the whole story. Young people with ADHD may also experience periods of hyperfocus: when they become absorbed in a certain task and find it hard to switch to another one. Some experts propose that ADHD is better characterised by the phrase ‘attention disorder’ than ‘attention deficit’.
What Is Hyperfocus?
There’s no one exact definition for hyperfocus. People with ADHD describe experiences of a “hypnotic spell” where they can concentrate on a particular task for hours, without being distracted or interested by other things. They may lose their sense of time passing, becoming fully immersed in what they’re doing.
Hyperfocus usually happens when a young person is interested in an activity, particularly if it is interactive or operative. Young people may be able to hyperfocus on their interests, skills, or passions: whether that’s writing, drawing, solving problems, studying for school work, or something else. Hyperfocus can enhance ingenuity, creating a zone where young people can freely form ideas and follow a creative journey.
Why Does Hyperfocus Happen?
Young people and adults with and without ADHD can experience hyperfocus, but studies suggest that it’s more common in people with ADHD. Moreover, research has found that hyperfocus is a natural gift rather than something that results from ADHD medication.
Scientists think hyperfocus could happen for the same reason that people with ADHD can find it difficult to concentrate: because of a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) involved with motivation and reward. When we do an activity we find fulfilling or exciting, our brain releases a small amount of dopamine, encouraging us to do the activity again.
Low levels of dopamine can cause young people with ADHD to constantly seek new stimulation (and therefore release of dopamine), leading to inattention and switching between tasks. At other times, however, low dopamine levels may make changing activities more difficult. When individuals with ADHD are interested in the task they are completing, they may lack the motivation to switch to other, less stimulating tasks, leading to experiences of hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus and Flow
Some experts have explored the connection between hyperfocus and experiences of flow. In positive psychology, flow is an enjoyable state of full immersion in a task. It may also be accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness and the passing of time. Young people may experience flow states in different activities depending on their unique personalities: it could be when playing an instrument, building something, running, cooking, or something else.
Some experts suggest that hyperfocus and flow are the same state of mind but defined from different perspectives. Other research proposes that while hyperfocus and flow states share some similar characteristics, they are in fact two distinct states. One study found that most aspects of hyperfocus were not related, or negatively related, to aspects of flow. Moreover, people with ADHD were more likely than others to experience hyperfocus but less likely to find themselves in flow states.
Whether or not hyperfocus and flow represent the same mental state, hyperfocus can be an incredible asset for people with ADHD. Authors may use states of hyperfocus to write books, while artists might find themselves in a focused creative experience. Young people may even hyperfocus when they’re studying for exams or immersed in a school project. For many young people, hyperfocus can help them to pursue their passions and reach their goals.
ADHD Superpower # 2:Creativity
Creativity can be an invaluable trait – both for the individual and for society. For many people, creating – whether it be art, music, writing, or something else – can bring fulfilment, a sense of meaning, and a way to relax and cope with some of the challenges of life. At the same time, our society relies on creativity to find new solutions and to share connections through artistic experiences.
Research suggests that people with ADHD perform better on some measures of creativity than others. Experts have found that adults with ADHD show higher levels of creative thinking and more creative achievement than those without ADHD. They also found that people with ADHD were less influenced by contextual constraints during creative activities, allowing them to ‘think outside the box’.
Why Are People with ADHD So Creative?
One of the common challenges of ADHD is low inhibitory control. Young people with ADHD may find it hard to control thoughts, behaviour, emotions, attention, and other urges. This can make it more difficult to focus on specific parts of a task without turning their attention to something else.
However, scientists think that low inhibitory control may also underlie creative skills, making it easier to engage in divergent thinking – to think outside the box. People with ADHD may find that their ideas are less inhibited by their memory, allowing them to continue to think in original ways without being brought back to things they have already experienced.
Creative skills can help people with ADHD to navigate difficult decisions and tasks, pursue innovative ideas, and create artistic experiences. These skills are valuable in many different occupations and roles – from entrepreneurship to scientific innovation. Young people with ADHD can look forward to exciting and successful futures where they harness their ADHD skills to build life advantage.
ADHD Superpower #3: Intuition
Different people think in different ways. In cognitive psychology, our cognitive style reflects the way we perceive, remember, process, and organise information. Some theories propose that there are two main cognitive styles: intuitive and analytic.
People with intuitive cognitive styles tend to look at the broader picture surrounding a problem, get an overall feel for it, and quickly come to a conclusion. On the other hand, analytical people prefer to reflect on a problem first and find a logical, step-by-step solution. Both cognitive styles are valuable for different kinds of tasks. For example, entrepreneurship may benefit from intuitive thinking, while engineering may require analytic processes.
Some people think that people with ADHD may be especially intuitive, looking at the big picture and quickly coming to conclusions. ADHD can make it harder to inhibit impulses, use working memory, and actively select certain pathways – making step-by-step, deliberate, and conscious analytical cognition difficult. On the other hand, their impulsivity and automatic or subconscious choices support intuitive thinking, taking in a broad range of data and arriving at ingenious insights.
ADHD: Challenging Stigma and Celebrating Strengths
ADHD is often surrounded by stigma and misconceptions. These false ideas can affect the way others treat young people with ADHD and the way that teenagers and adolescents with ADHD view themselves. It can also make it more difficult for parents to find proper support for young people, or navigate things like school and further education.
Some misconceptions about ADHD involve the personality of individuals with the disorder. People may think that ADHD makes someone impolite, unreliable, immature, or emotionally dysfunctional. Of course, none of these things are true. Symptoms of ADHD like impulsivity can lead to certain behaviours that may go against social norms, but they do not reflect a young person’s intentions or personality. Instead of judging young people with ADHD, it’s we need to understand and accept their experience and help them to access support.
Sadly, stigma around ADHD can have a big impact on a young person’s self-confidence. Studies have found that untreated ADHD is associated with long-term poorer self-esteem, compared to young people without ADHD. Misunderstandings may also mean that schools, workplaces, and other parts of society don’t see past the challenges that come with ADHD and fail to recognise their strengths. Moreover, ADHD stigma can prevent young people and their families from seeking the support that can help them navigate the challenges they face.
That’s not to say that living with ADHD is easy. When untreated, ADHD can make lots of aspects of daily life and everyday society difficult to manage, and it’s crucial that people with ADHD can access the support they deserve. But aside from these challenges, young people with ADHD have many incredible, valuable skills to offer the world – and it’s fundamental that both young people with ADHD and the rest of society can recognise and appreciate their strengths.
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