ADHD: We're Not All the Same

Photo: ©Zoë Kessler, 2012

Recently, I received a comment that raised some good points but also the need for clarification, especially for those who are new to my blog, who are newly diagnosed, or who are considering an ADHD diagnosis.

We’ll call the commenter “Kim,” as she wrote her comment anonymously.

Sharing my story, and possibly yours

Kim took issue with the fact that my description of ADHD does not reflect hers. While my blog covers interviews with ADHD experts, reviews books and ADHD documentaries, and shares news about developments in the field, I also write many pieces that are deeply personal.

As stated in the introduction to my blog, when I write a personal story, it’s from my own perspective as a woman who was diagnosed late in life, living with ADHD.

ADHD or me?

Kim accurately pointed out that,

“ADHD is probably not responsible for every single minute eccentricity you experience…”

One oft-heard debate is the portrayal of a person with ADHD as being ADHD as opposed to being a person with ADHD. While I’m not always careful with the distinction, let me say for the record, I’m firmly in the latter camp. I’m much more than the sum of my ADHD traits, and when I write a personal story I’ll sometimes blur the lines between what is clearly an ADHD-related symptom and what isn’t.

ADHD shapes the way I move in the world. How I hear, interpret, experience, and respond to life comes from a brain with ADHD-specific differences.


Kim said,

“I feel like sometimes you make incorrect generalizations about people with ADHD based on your own experiences but those are your experiences, not mine.”

By definition, all generalizations are technically inaccurate. A generalization is used to portray the flavor of something, not the individual ingredients. When I generalize from my own experiences, those with similar symptoms and life experiences tell me they feel validated, relieved, and supported.

If, like Kim, your particular experience of ADHD feels radically different to mine, one way of looking at it is that you’re learning more about the diversity of experiences of people with ADHD. Another option is to find a blog written by someone whose experience of ADHD is similar to yours.

What is ADHD?

I’d like to thank Kim for sharing personal details from her life. It’s a great illustration of just how different we can be, even though we share the same diagnosis of ADD/ADHD.

For those who are just learning about this neurobiological condition, let me clarify the current understanding of what ADD/ADHD is. Let me also state that this viewpoint is in flux. Current research, including the work of Dr. Russell Barkley and others regarding the brain’s executive functioning, as well as other areas of research, are poised to change or at least alter our definition of ADHD sooner rather than later.

That said, I look at ADHD as a bag of traits such as disorganization, impulsivity, distractibility, and many more. Everyone who’s been diagnosed with ADHD has put her hand into the bag, and pulled out a bunch of traits. Your handful of traits will be different from mine. Also, each ADHD trait will fall somewhere on a spectrum from very minor to severe.

An emerging definition of ADHD

As we prepare for the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), there’s been lots of debate and controversy over how to define ADHD. An emerging school of thought suggests that it is far more helpful from a clinical perspective to take a more holistic view of the person with ADHD (coincidentally, as I try to do here in my blog by giving my story in context, not just as a grocery list of symptoms).

One approach has been developed by Dr. Timothy Bilkey, of the Ontario Bilkey ADHD Clinics, an adult psychiatrist specializing in ADHD. Dr. Bilkey uses ten profiles to describe the lives of those living with ADHD.

While Kim might recognize herself in one of these descriptions and I might recognize myself in another (or several of them), using this diagnostic tool would end the “your versus my ADHD” debate.

This approach, unlike the current list of symptoms approach, takes into account that ADHD is context-driven. It’s clear from Kim’s comments that her experience of ADHD differs wildly from mine. Part of this could be that, as reflected in Bilkey’s ten profiles, certain situations will trigger my symptoms but other contexts might trigger or exacerbate yours. From this one can see how my personal experiences as expressed in my blog might not look anything like yours.

Next week, I’ll address Kim’s comment that my post presented an egregious “Us vs Them” argument. Stay tuned!


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