Why ADHD is Harder to Detect in High Achievers
Have you ever heard someone say, "he's too smart to have ADHD," or "she did too well in school to have ADHD"? I've heard it too, and it's frustrating. Here's the truth: doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, nurses, psychologists, professors, farmers, and teachers can all have ADHD. It doesn't correlate with intelligence.
I've met business owners, CEOs, personal trainers, and motivational speakers with ADHD. And don't even get me started on high-performance athletes! Just take a look at some of the successful YouTube personalities out there. I'm willing to bet some of them have ADHD too. Let's ditch the belief that only unsuccessful people or those with lower intelligence have ADHD. It's time to recognize that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect anyone, regardless of their accomplishments or education.
It's important to recognize that individuals with ADHD who are high achievers can have a harder time being recognised as having ADHD. They may perform well academically and behaviorally in primary and high school, making it through undergraduate university courses with little difficulty. However, they may struggle in postgraduate studies, where they are expected to impose their own structure and pursue complex and tedious tasks, such as completing a master's or PhD thesis.
I've seen glowing school reports of high achievers who I've later diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood. It's often a parent's account of behavioural problems at home that shows that difficulties were present. Despite their academic success, many high achievers with ADHD are motivated to do well in school and not upset teachers or fellow students (in my experience, this seems to be particularly important for girls). They may use hyperfocus states to complete large volumes of work, but it can be exhausting for them.
It's not uncommon to meet people with higher IQs who can sail through assessments with little attendance at lectures simply by cramming and remembering information before exams or writing essays in a matter of hours the day before it's due. But this doesn't mean they don't have ADHD. In fact, many high achievers with ADHD have developed coping mechanisms that allow them to excel academically despite their challenges.
One shared feature among the high-achieving individuals I have diagnosed with ADHD is the immense effort they have to put in to maintain their professional and personal lives. They may excel at work, but come home to a chaotic household that they wouldn't invite friends over to. Many sacrifice sleep due to the need to catch up on work or because they're too stressed to fall asleep. For some, their partner takes on all tasks related to managing the house or raising children, as their ADHD partner arrives home with no mental energy for any kind of useful activity. Others may lie in a state of near-coma on the couch or turn to alcohol or cannabis to quiet their racing mind and get some relief from the chaos.
Does any of this sound functional? Of course not. And it's not just ADHD at play here. Most adults I see with ADHD have also experienced depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and for some, substance abuse issues. It's amazing what a person can hide from those around them when they're motivated to appear to be coping well.
Individuals with ADHD who are high achievers can often be embraced for their creativity, seemingly endless energy, ability to focus and get work done under time pressure, and their persuasive and dynamic people skills. These qualities can make them valuable assets in many fields. However, this often comes at a cost. Some individuals with ADHD may succumb to burnout when their brain and body can no longer continue to deliver the energy required to maintain their output. They may struggle to balance their high-energy output with the need for rest and self-care. This can lead to a pattern of starting a job with excitement and enthusiasm, only to leave it worn out and dissatisfied a few years later in search of the next exciting opportunity.
High achievers with ADHD can face significant challenges that may not be immediately apparent to others. Despite their impressive achievements, they may struggle with executive functioning, emotional regulation, and other aspects of daily life. This can have a significant impact on their relationships and overall well-being.
That's why it's so important to encourage individuals with likely ADHD to seek diagnosis and treatment. With the right treatments, high achievers with ADHD can learn to manage their symptoms and overcome the unique challenges they face. This can lead to improved quality of life not just for the individual but for their loved ones as well.
Here's a good article about the challenges of being a high achiever or "gifted", with ADHD.