It’s easy to underestimate people in general, because most people’s first impression isn’t necessarily their best. What I mean is that it often takes time to get to know someone’s unique strengths, capabilities, and personal traits.
I’d guess that it’s even easier to underestimate people with ADHD.
There are a few reasons. One is that people with ADHD tend to be less consistent in “applying themselves” to situations than people without ADHD.
To put it another way, whether someone with ADHD is able to apply the strengths and skills they have depends on a variety of situation-specific variables. If you look at an ADHDer in a work environment for example, it’s going to make a big difference whether the task at hand is structured in a way that fits with the ADHDer’s preferred way of working.
Let’s say you encounter someone with ADHD while they are trying to sustain attention on a tedious, non-rewarding task in a setting that requires limiting their physical movements and having little control over how they structure their work. You might walk away with the impression that the ADHDer in question is incompetent in general. You wouldn’t know from this one experience that ADHD can widen the gap between what someone’s “best” and their “worst” performance looks like.
ADHDers get underestimated when they are judged based only on their symptoms. Think of it this way: if you read a bunch of online resources about ADHD, you could easily end up with the impression that ADHDers can’t thrive in work, school or personal relationships. That’s because online resources about ADHD mostly talk about the ADHD-related things that ADHDers struggle with, so naturally you’ll end up with a picture of ADHDers that emphasizes these challenges.
But every individual with ADHD is much more than a collection of ADHD symptoms – as you know perfectly well if you have ADHDers in your life or are one yourself! You simply can’t make an estimation of someone’s abilities, skills and personal strengths based on their ADHD symptoms because you don’t have enough information.
The truth is that people with ADHD are capable of bringing all sorts of strengths to the table, some of which might intersect with ADHD-related traits, and some of which probably don’t!
An ADHD diagnosis is not a diagnosis of terminal incompetence: having ADHD doesn’t mean someone can’t pay attention in any situation, can’t ever meet a deadline, or can’t ever plan further than five minutes into the future. In some cases, especially when engaged in rewarding tasks that bring out hyperfocus, an ADHDer can become exactly the opposite of what you thought they were if you first encountered them in a setting where they struggled.
So if you don’t want to risk underestimating the people around you, don’t extrapolate from someone’s ADHD symptoms to their capabilities in general. Better yet, regardless of whether someone has ADHD, don’t judge them based solely on the tasks where they struggle, or you might be surprised when you encounter them doing the tasks where they don’t!
Image: Flickr/Stafano Brivio