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A Short Explanation of ADHD

If you have ADHD, chances are you sometimes find yourself in the position of trying to explain what ADHD is to people who don’t know anything about ADHD. So how do you describe ADHD to someone who just wants to know, in simple terms, what ADHD is? Who doesn’t want to get into DSM criteria, executive functioning impairments and subtypes of ADHD?

ADHDMy go-to explanation is this:

Everyone, to some extent, has an ability to “manage” their brain and tell it what to do. This ability is impaired in ADHD. That means people with ADHD have a harder time forcing their brain to focus on things it’s not naturally interested in, stopping their brain from doing things on impulse, planning out their actions and sticking to that plan, regulating their emotions, and adjusting their brain so that it’s active at the times it needs to be active and still at the times it needs to be still. Basically, any time you need to manage what your brain is doing and tell it to do something that’s not automatic, that’s something that someone with ADHD would struggle with.

This explanation doesn’t capture all of what ADHD is, but I like it for a couple reasons.

First, most people have heard that ADHD involves an “attention deficit” and “hyperactivity,” so framing ADHD in terms of people’s ability to “manage” their brain helps them look at things in a different way. Often, just telling them that ADHD is about being unable to concentrate or being hyperactive simply reaffirms their existing perception of ADHD without giving them any new information.

Second, while saying that ADHD involves problems with being able to “manage” your brain takes one-sentence, this idea is easy to elaborate for people who want more explanation. Pretty much every ADHD symptom can be traced back to impairments in managing and regulating one’s own brain in some way. And for people who are curious about getting into the science of it, you can let them in on the secret that talking about the ability to “manage” one’s brain is basically just an informal way of referring to what scientists call “executive functioning.”

This isn’t the only quick way of summarizing ADHD to other people. But so far, it’s the way I’ve found that seems to work best. If you have some other short explanations of ADHD, I’d be curious to hear them!

Image: Flickr/mararie

A Short Explanation of ADHD

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. (2018). A Short Explanation of ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 3 Aug 2018
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