I went to a talk yesterday by W. Kamau Bell on, among other things, race relations in the U.S. He brought up the topic of seeking a color-blind society – one in which color doesn’t matter – suggesting that ‘color-blind’ should not be a goal any more than ‘height-blind’ should be a goal. (“I know that height matters, and if someone says ‘I can’t reach that bowl, would you get it for me?’ I like being able to say ‘sure!’) Instead of seeking to make color (or height) inconsequential, he suggested we should seek to acknowledge color…just refrain from pre-judging a person based upon color.
This started me thinking about ‘ADHD-blind’ relationships. This term is not used, but I sometimes run into the concept in my counseling – a couple or partner who believes that ADHD should be invisible in the relationship.
On the one hand, as with the ‘color-blind’ concept, there is logic. If ADHD gets in the way, would it not be better to create a situation in which ADHD becomes inconsequential? Research done by Russell Barkley suggests that about 50% of adults with ADHD can ‘normalize’ (hate that word!) their behaviors with treatment, and another 20-30% can significantly decrease their symptoms. So it’s tempting to think that ADHD adults can, in essence, become ADHD-free or ADHD-blind.
But this misses some important things – the ADHD partner’s a.) effort and b.) experiences. On the effort side, managing ADHD always takes work – not just medications (for many) but also the creation and consistent use of specific organizational systems, interactive cues, overt sleep management or memory ‘systems,’ and more. Medications often help ADHD partners stay on track with their goals, but ‘pills do not teach skills’ – ongoing management is critical. Like race, adult ADHD doesn’t ‘go away.’* It is one part of the individual, and having ADHD creates part of his or her daily experience. To be blind to ADHD is to ignore the very real effort that the ADHD partner makes – every day – to keep a relationship, or his/her life, ‘on track.’
Couples do best when they fully acknowledge the presence of ADHD, celebrating both the best elements it may bring, as well as the effort made to manage the worst of ADHD. Again, like race, it is not the only thing that creates the person – just one of many characteristics that make the man or woman who s/he is.
The experience of having ADHD can be, like race, a unifying force. This is, in part, because society at large accepts or rejects the characteristics that comprise ADHD in different situations. For example, many with ADHD struggle in school due to attention issues, an inability to sit still, or frequent interruptions that are not appreciated by many teachers. Yet later in life those same individuals may thrive as an emergency room doctor, explorer, artist, financial trader, IT guru or other profession in which ADHD might be an advantage. In another experiential unifier, growing up with undiagnosed ADHD was, for many adults, an ongoing lesson in shame. “You could be so successful if you would only try harder!” is a commonly heard (and misguided) refrain. I’ve rarely encountered a person with ADHD who wasn’t trying really hard, even if their symptoms got in the way of their success.
There is another parallel with Bell’s words in the ADHD world – that of prejudgment. Unlike color, which is (biologically, at least) a simple matter of pigmentation, ADHD is defined by a specific set of behaviors caused by low levels of specific neurotransmitters (among other things). These behaviors include chronic distractibility, impulsivity, time management issues, and more. So if you have ADHD, it is safe to say that you most likely are easily distracted because the symptoms define the diagnosis. The problem with prejudgment, though, is that how these symptoms manifest varies widely, based upon the totality of the person. Intelligence, childhood experiences, age of diagnosis, environment, and the presence or absence of other mental health issues are just a few factors that impact the expression and impact of ADHD symptoms.
To prejudge is to handicap the ADHD person before s/he has a chance to strut his stuff. To be ADHD-blind is to ignore a critical part of the a person with specific physiological and experiential differences.
It’s time to stop thinking about eradicating ADHD and the ADHD experience, and instead acknowledge (even celebrate) ADHD in all its many ‘colors.’
*About 30-50% of childhood ADHD does, actually, ‘go away’ as children age. There is no good explanation for this. It seems to be a combination of: maturing (particularly with the hyperactivity symptom); misdiagnosis; finding a life path that engages ADHD behaviors in a way that turns them into assets; and getting systems in place that aide some with less severe ADHD.