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What Is Most Important to Know About ADHD?

It may be something else.

Key points

  • Getting a diagnosis of ADHD can be helpful for many people who struggle with a range of symptoms.
  • But they may still have to cope with others' frustration or impatience, if they struggle in education or at work.
  • Whether ADHD is diagnosed or not, what counts is learning how best to manage symptoms that are troubling.
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

“What I loved about this work placement when I started it a few weeks ago was that I never ended up crying in the restroom,” said Kathy. Then she made a face. “This week I was crying in the restroom.”

Kathy is referring to her symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “You name them. I’ve got the lot,” she said breezily, the first time I met her. “Forgetful, always losing things, being disorganised, difficulty focusing, talking too much and too loud, edgy, impatient, jumping about from one task to another…”

Her bosses knew she had a diagnosis of ADHD when she started and made allowances, she said. People were patient and explained things more slowly, gave her more time, and encouraged her. Then one day she was really struggling to put some equipment together, and was becoming a little hyper—“I was, like, ‘Oh my god, why can’t I just get this; it’s easy, yes? Why can’t just I get it?’ and one of the guys turned round and roared at me to shut the **** up!”

It was a horrible experience and that was when she ended up crying in the restroom.

Getting a diagnosis of ADHD can be a huge relief for many people, explaining certain differences in their thinking and behaviour. Although some psychiatrists and psychologists argue that the cluster of symptoms attributed to ADHD occurs within ordinary behaviours or other psychiatric disorders,1 I am concerned that even if someone gets a diagnosis, and thus can unlock the support that schools, colleges, universities, and workplaces are required to offer, that doesn’t necessarily sort the problems.

We are all human and others, even with the best will in the world, may find themselves becoming impatient or frustrated, as Kathy’s colleague did, especially when teamwork is involved.

A number of students at the college where I offer counseling have diagnoses of ADHD, which entitle them to a personalised ‘care plan,' perhaps allowing them more time to complete assignments or the right to take time away from class, if overwhelmed by a task, or to receive materials ahead of time, as they need more time to read and process. But some students are desperate not to stand out or look needy or privileged, and reject this option.

And sometimes symptoms can be attributed to ADHD when actually they stem from something else. One student sought help from me because, he said, ADHD was preventing him from focusing on his coursework. However, it soon became clear that his stress and tension were not primarily caused by any symptoms of ADHD but because his father had hit a setback in his treatment for advanced cancer.

Managing Troubling Behaviours

As a child, Kathy was given drugs to deal with her symptoms, but the side effects were worse than not taking them at all; they didn’t help much anyway. As she definitely does not want to go down that route again and, despite getting an apology later, doesn’t want to be the person that inadvertently infuriates others, I suggested we look in detail at the task she had been doing.

It turned out that she had become focused on one fiddly thing that wasn’t going right and that made her forget the next item in the sequence, which then threw everything else off. As this was equipment that she would need to use regularly, it made sense to formulate a checklist of the steps involved and tick them off as she proceeded with her task.

Importantly, I also taught her how to keep her breathing calm and under control. When we are highly emotionally aroused, as is likely if we are struggling to keep up or we are hyper-alert to how we are being perceived, we cannot think straight. If we know how to calm ourselves down, that extra element of difficulty can be neutralised.

It seems to me that the bottom line is learning to manage troubling behaviour (that is, behaviours troubling to oneself, not just others) in whatever way one best can, whether through therapy, self-help books, ­or groups or exchanges where one can learn from others with any of the same experiences: to take back power, instead of feeling powerless.

At a recent webinar, I listened to a woman who has a diagnosis of ADHD vividly describing how she feels any rejection so viscerally that it can be entirely and very suddenly overwhelming. “But, in the end, you just have to find ways to get on with it and handle it,” she said.

Sally Nilsson, a practitioner diagnosed with both ADHD and autism, wrote in the Human Givens Journal, “The crux is that we are all human and, with or without neuro-differences, we all suffer when we don’t get our emotional needs met in balance. This is why the human givens model works so well with neurodivergency, with its emphasis on our needs and on using our [innate] guidance system and inner resources to help us.” 2

I really do think there is a message for us all, both in the way we live our own lives and how we relate to others. Many years ago, on a BBC radio programme called One to One, Olivia O’Leary interviewed former neurosurgeon Liz Miller about her experience with psychotic bipolar disorder. Seventeen years medication-free at the time, Miller explained that she now knew how to live healthfully and recognises what might trigger strong emotions in her. She didn’t expect to experience an episode again.

O’Leary said, “But you’ll always have to ‘manage’ yourself?”

There was a beat. And then Miller replied, “I think everybody should be managing themselves.”


1 . See, for instance, Moncrieff, J and Timimi, S (2011). Critical analysis of the concept of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Psychiatrist, 35, 9, 334–8; McLennan, J D (2016); Understanding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a continuum. Canadian Family Physician, 62, 12, 979–82.

2. Nilsson, S (2021). How human givens can help neurodivergent clients. Human Givens Journal, 28, 2, 38–43.

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