If there’s one generalization you can make about ADHD, it’s that you can’t make generalizations about ADHD.

Sometimes we can’t concentrate, but sometimes we concentrate too much. Some of us need absolute silence to stay on task, but others of us need stimulating background noise to keep from getting distracted.

Speed is another area where you can’t make generalizations about ADHD. Oh, and just to be clear, I’m talking about speed as in “fast and slow” – this isn’t a continuation of my last post, where I talked about speed as in the drug.

FerrariNed Hallowell, who wrote the popular book on ADHD Driven to Distraction, compares ADHD to having a race-car brain. He says living with ADHD is like having a Ferrari of a brain but only having bicycle breaks.

I get his point. The problem with having ADHD isn’t that your brain isn’t theoretically capable of doing all the things you want it to do – it’s that you have a hard time controlling and productively using all that horsepower.

Still, that analogy always struck me as a little self-serving. I mean, who goes around telling people “I have a Ferrari for a brain”? That’s like something Donald Trump would say.

More importantly, the reason I think that analogy seems a little off is that a lot of time, having ADHD actually feels like having a Honda Civic stuck in first gear for a brain.

And so that’s the basic paradox I want to bring up today: having ADHD can be both about having the out-of-control Ferrari and the stuck-in-first Honda in your head.

There are absolutely times when people with ADHD, especially those partial to the “H” in ADHD, are stuck at full speed ahead. This tendency can show up in a lot of different ways: wanting to move on to the next thing as fast as possible, rushing through things without thinking, acting impulsively, being impatient.

It’s an aversion to sitting still, both literally and figuratively. Or, if you want to use Hallowell’s analogy, it’s about not having functional “brakes” – it’s about moving forward, seeking stimulation, without stopping to plan or contemplate.

But that’s only one side of ADHD. Just like there’s the “too fast” side of ADHD, there’s also the “too slow” side.

The “too slow” side of ADHD is about tasks taking longer for you than for other people because you can’t summon the cognitive resources to stay on track. It’s about trying to read a book and having to go back and start the same paragraph over again because your attention wandered. It’s about never getting around to starting things in the first place. All these are the times when ADHD feels like the Honda Civic that won’t get out of first gear more than the Ferrari.

Even though the “too fast” and the “too slow” parts of ADHD seem opposed to each other, they’re actually part of the same broader problem: not being able to regulate how you use your brain.

People with ADHD have problems efficiently deploying their cognitive resources – deciding “this is what I’m going to do with my brain” and then doing it. That’s what executive functioning impairments are all about. In different situations, this can mean either rushing forward in an uncontrolled way or struggling to get any velocity at all. And the result is that the ADHD brain is both the runaway Ferrari and the Honda Civic on its final legs simultaneously.

Do you think of ADHD as being more a “too fast” or a “two slow” disorder? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Image: Flickr/PSParrot