Different. A word that can be used in all sorts of ways.

Different can be a breath of fresh air: finally, something different.

It can be a disapproving euphemism: well, that’s … different.

Or it can be a marketing buzzword: think different, to quote Apple’s old ads.

People with ADHD do think different. I mean that in a literal, concrete way. Look through a list of ADHD symptoms, and what you have is a list of how the ADHD brain tends to work differently in certain situations than the non-ADHD brain.

Black SheepPeople with ADHD are different in how they balance short-term rewards and long-term planning. They’re different in how they allocate their attention and regulate their impulses. They’re different in their ability to sit still and tolerate boredom.

ADHD symptoms are impairing in two ways. One is that the symptoms themselves cause problems. Inattention leads to underperformance in work or at school, poor impulse control leads to procrastination, and so on.

But ADHD symptoms are also impairing because they’re differences, and any kind of difference can complicate things.

Being different means the world isn’t designed to work for people like you. Workplaces and schools have evolved to function most smoothly for people with an ideally, perfectly average brain. To the extent that your brain is different, there’s a clash between how your brain works and how your environment expects your brain to work.

Being different also means having people make faulty assumptions about you. If people assume your brain is the same as theirs, they’ll misunderstand your behavior and thought processes. They’ll misattribute your motivations: if I were that inattentive and disorganized, it would be because I didn’t care, so that person must just not care.

Coping with ADHD is partly about managing symptoms and partly about navigating these differences. It’s about finding environments that are more accommodating of the ways in which your brain is different. And it’s about trying make sure your motivations are understood, or accepting it when they aren’t.

This is the part of ADHD that’s about how we integrate into the world around us. Being different can mean having a unique perspective, but it can also mean being frustrated, having low self-esteem, and struggling to find environments where your differences don’t dominate your life. It’s worth taking the time to explore what being different has meant for you, because learning to live with ADHD requires learning to live with being different.

Image: Flickr/Leon Riskin