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No, ADHD Is Not Like [Insert Medical Condition Here]

You’ll often hear people explain that ADHD is a brain-based disorder by comparing ADHD to [insert medical condition here]. ADHD is like diabetes and ADHD meds are like insulin. Or ADHD is like myopia and meds are like glasses.

I get that these analogies can be useful for making the important point that ADHD is a biological condition that can be treated.

The problem is that it’s easy to take this kind of thinking to its logical extreme by insisting that having ADHD is exactly like having [insert medical condition]. If you run with this analogy, the conclusion you end up with is that because ADHD is just another medical condition, the only treatment worth talking about is medication.

ADHD Analogies
Apple, meet orange.

In fact, ADHD isn’t just any medical condition. It’s a brain-based medical condition, which means it’s a very extremely incredibly complex medical condition.

As life-changing as medication can be, medication alone isn’t enough. Brain-based conditions like ADHD have more far-reaching effects than purely physical conditions, and you need more than medication to deal with these effects.

When you get an ADHD diagnosis, one of the most empowering things you can do is use your new knowledge to adapt your environment to be a better fit to the unique way you operate. Optimize your life to fit with how your brain works. Develop coping strategies.

If you take the comparison with [pick a condition] too literally, you end up seeing ADHD as just something you fix with medicine, and you miss out on one of the most liberating parts of treatment.

The other thing that makes ADHD different from a physical ailment is that if you get diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, you need to address the psychological consequences of living a portion of your life with undiagnosed ADHD.

If you’ve gone years having a brain that works differently but not knowing you have a brain that works differently, chances are you’re going to have some bad habits, counterproductive coping mechanisms, accumulated regret and various other types of psychological baggage that it’s important to work through. The same isn’t true of living for a few years with bad eyesight, then getting glasses, for example.

Basically, the brain is an organ, but it’s not just another organ. A brain-based condition like ADHD casts an extremely wide net over your life and therefore requires a broad, multilayered approach to treatment.

Moving towards a more scientific, less moralistic understanding of ADHD is an important goal, but framing ADHD as totally indistinguishable from physical health issues by saying “ADHD = [insert physical health condition here]” simplifies away some of the most important elements of ADHD treatment.

Image credit: SS

No, ADHD Is Not Like [Insert Medical Condition Here]

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). No, ADHD Is Not Like [Insert Medical Condition Here]. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2018, from


Last updated: 8 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Feb 2016
Published on All rights reserved.