ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That said, experts agree that virtually every part of this name is misleading. Why? Because it’s not necessarily attention that is deficient. Rather, it’s a symptom that can stem from any number of root sources, all of which stem from executive dysfunction. ADHDers actually have plenty of attention – just look at them when they get their hands on something interesting and engaging and personally relevant. Rather, it is a lack of executive function that is at the heart of the disorder. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Imagine you are working from home. It’s early morning and outside you can hear some birdsong in the distance. It doesn’t hold your attention however, and you’re able to focus on your work. Suddenly, a sound like a crashing shelf of plates comes from your kitchen. Are you able to tune out the distraction and continue your work? Or do you feel the need to investigate before you’ll be able to focus again?
Let’s zoom in on that situation.
Every minute you’re alive, your brain is sensing data and determining whether or not it requires your conscious attention. The sound of different leaves rustling in the wind outside, the hums and whines of electronics, the feeling of your socks against your feet or your shirt against your shoulders, the sight of your nose in front of your face… all of this is data that the brain is constantly receiving and evaluating. Most of it is marked as not requiring your conscious attention. It gets filtered out, and, as a result, you don’t notice it. Your conscious attention is directed elsewhere, where it actually is needed, such as your work.
Essentially, your brain is asking two questions all the time.
1) “Should this be noticed?”
2) “Should action be taken?”
The default answer is “yes,” until your brain takes executive action to say otherwise. This is why, in the hypothetical situation above, you weren’t pulled to the birdsong in the same way as the crashing sound. You might have noticed the birdsong, likely because it’s pleasant and you enjoy it when you hear it, but you didn’t feel the urge to respond to it like you did with the crashing dishes.
Now let’s look at this same scenario with ADHD.
The brain registers the birdsong and does not tune it out, nor does it shut down the urge to respond. They experience the birdsong with the same intensity as a non-ADHDer would experience a sudden crashing sound from within their home. There is the urge to respond, and until that urge is sated it will be monumentally difficult for them to ignore it and remain focused. It’s just like how a non-ADHDer working from home would struggle to maintain focus on their work without first investigating the disruption: the same thing is happening in both brains.
This distractability looks like a lack of attention, but as stated earlier it’s not attention that is lacking. It’s the brain registering non-urgent stimuli as though it were urgent, and then failing to shut down the urge to respond appropriately. The person responding to the stimuli is responding appropriately to the situation as presented by their brain – it only looks inappropriate to outside eyes who don’t see what the brain does.
This is another cause of apparent inattention. Working memory is your ability to remember what it was that you were just doing, saying, or thinking. Using the example with the birdsong, a non-ADHDer might go to the window to look out at the birds for a moment, and then be able to return to their work and pick up exactly where they left off. In a second example with a similar scenario, an ADHDer who struggles with working memory is more likely to enjoy looking at the birds… and then struggle to remember what precisely it was they were just doing or had meant to do before they got distracted. As they rifle through their memories of all the things they’d ever intended to do in relatively recent memory, they might recall that they’ve been meaning to clean the bathroom and so they elect to go get a start on that. Meanwhile, their work from before the birdsong is likely to sit forgotten on the couch until such a time as they remember it again.
Again, this looks like a lack of attention, but in truth it’s an error with the brain’s ability to access working memory. Both of these examples look like inattention, but at neither point was it actually attention that was lacking. In the first case, it was the brain’s ability to reliably filter out and shut down the urge to respond to miscellaneous, non-urgent stimuli. In the second, it was the brain’s inability to access its working memory.
Why does it matter?
A solution that addresses and works for the former situation will not work for the latter. Lumping both scenarios under “inattention” suggests that the problem in both instances is the ADHDer’s lack of attention. This holds everyone involved back from finding true, helpful solutions to the challenges presented by each of those sources of conflict. If we are to set ADHDers up for success, we need to know what specifically it is that they as individuals tend to struggle with. No two ADHDers will experience ADHD the same way – because it is an executive function disorder – and the actual ways in which it presents are virtually limitless, even if its outward appearance seems similar. There are many ADHDers for whom working memory is no problem at all. They have it in droves, and it’s never occurred to them what life without it might be like. Likewise, there are ADHDers who have some semblance of it sometimes, but not necessarily reliably, and there are those for whom working memory hardly exists at all. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, which makes it all the more crucial to pay explicit attention to the inner workings behind each ADHD-related challenge.
The sources of the challenges will often tell you their solutions as soon as you find them, but you need to be able to see them first.
Want to learn more about ADHD and how to listen for its solutions? Head over to OpenPathEducation.com and check out the ADHD: Setting Up for Success class, offered as part of the Parent Empowerment Project.