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You Can’t Generalize ADHDers

Generalizations are a tricky thing. When you generalize something, you oversimplify it – generally speaking, of course.

When I say that you can’t generalize ADHDers, I don’t just mean that every ADHDer is different. I mean that even for one individual ADHDer, it’s hard to make generalizations about them.

These days, I try to avoid making almost any kind of generalization about myself as a person, either in my own thinking or in how I’d describe myself to others.

You Can't Generalize ADHDersOne reason I’m wary of generalizations about individuals is that many ADHDers come from a place of having made very negative generalizations about themselves when they were undiagnosed. If you don’t understand how your struggles are connected to specific ADHD symptoms, it’s easy to fall into a trap of making generalizations like I’m lazy or I’m incompetent or I need to try harder – generalizations that are both incorrect and totally unhelpful for actually managing symptoms.

The other problem is that, even once you’re diagnosed, ADHD symptoms are themselves difficult to generalize.

For example, one generalization I could try to make about myself is that I have a bad memory. And if you notice that I have to ask for your name four times, or that I’ve forgotten what you told me five minutes ago because I was only half paying attention, or that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, you might agree with that generalization.

But I’m not sure it’s true. I also have a good memory for certain topics that interest me or tasks I’m able to fully engage in. It’s probably more accurate to say that, depending on how my symptoms interact with the task at hand, some information sticks well in my memory and some really does not.

Or I could say that I have trouble concentrating. Seems like an uncontroversial generalization to make about an ADHDer, right? Still, it’s not uniformly true because I can sometimes concentrate just fine on tasks that provide an ongoing sense of reward. And don’t take my word for it – just ask any ADHDer who has ever experienced hyperfocus!

The, um, more general point here is that people with ADHD tend to be inconsistent in how our symptoms express themselves and how we perform in different situations. Part of ADHD is a difficulty with controlling our own brains and summoning the cognitive resources for the specific task at hand, which means that there can be a lot of variability in our behavior based on whether our brains are in sync with the current task.

To put it more simply: just because someone with ADHD sometimes struggles with something doesn’t mean they always do, and just because they’re sometimes good at something doesn’t mean they always are.

Hence why I’ve given up trying to make generalizations about my own behavior. Instead, I try to look at how my brain behaves in different contexts, and how my symptoms show up in specific areas of my life. Not only does that help me look at my own life in a less sweeping, judgmental way, but it’s also more conducive to figuring out how to intentionally put myself into contexts that fit well with how my brain works.

Image: Flickr/Boris Thaser

You Can’t Generalize ADHDers

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2020). You Can’t Generalize ADHDers. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Feb 2020
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