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An Analysis of Adults’ Positive Experiences of Living with ADHD

Published: 22/12/2023

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood; however, the number of individuals being diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood has increased significantly in recent years. Diagnosis of ADHD is characterised by three primary symptoms: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. People with ADHD may also experience emotion dysregulation, poor working memory, and trouble with concentration and organisation. These can have a significant effect on individuals’ daily quality of life.

Pharmacological interventions are the primary approach for the treatment of ADHD symptoms in adults, while psychological therapies may also be recommended. Both stimulant and non-stimulant medications have been found to be effective in managing some symptoms of ADHD; however, both are associated with several undesirable side effects.

Living with ADHD

Traditionally, most research on ADHD has focused on the impairments and negative outcomes associated with the diagnosis. When portraying a primarily deficit-oriented view of the diagnosis, it may add to the burden of living with ADHD. Individuals with ADHD face stigma, prejudice, and criticism based on their diagnosis, which can negatively impact their self-esteem and well-being. The authors of a recent study note that a deficit-oriented view of ADHD may also overlook the strengths of persons with the diagnosis.

This sentiment is shared by the growing neurodiversity movement which advocates that ADHD and similar conditions should be denoted as neurological differences as opposed to deficits. Yet, most existing studies on psychological treatment interventions for adults with ADHD tend to have a deficit-oriented approach. This was highlighted in a recent systematic review, in which only one of the 23 included studies examined an intervention with an explicit focus on strengths associated with having ADHD. However, qualitative research indicates that public mental healthcare is perceived as too deficit- and symptom-centred by adults with ADHD, leading some to seek alternative treatments.

Are There Positives to Living with ADHD?

A recent study employed a qualitative design to identify and explore the positive aspects of having ADHD. Participants were adults with ADHD living in Norway who were seeking psychological help. The researchers aimed to further understand how these “positive aspects of the diagnoses can be used as part of psychological interventions for this group of adults.” Participants were recruited through the Norwegian ADHD Patient Association.

The data originated from a larger clinical trial of a self-guided internet-delivered intervention for adults with ADHD. A total of 50 participants provided written responses to an open-ended question about self-perceived positive aspects of having ADHD. The empirical material was analysed using thematic analysis with a hermeneutic phenomenological framework via the association’s Facebook page and email listings.

The data were collected between June and October 2020. The material consisted of the participants’ written responses to the question: ‘What do you experience as positive aspects of having ADHD?’. Along with the question, the participants were given some additional guiding questions that could help them write their response: (a) ‘Is there any positive aspects related to having ADHD?’ (b) ‘Has ADHD given you any useful knowledge or experiences?’ (c) ‘Has ADHD helped you get in contact with someone you appreciate?’.

What are the Benefits of Living with ADHD?

All but two of the 50 participants reported that they had experienced ADHD to have positive aspects. Two of these participants specifically reported that medications contributed to their positive experiences with ADHD, with one participant reporting that the positive aspects of ADHD were only experienced when taking medication. The participants’ positive experienced associated with their ADHD diagnosis were arranged into four core themes: (1) the dual impact of ADHD characteristics, (2) the unconventional mind, (3) the pursuit of new experiences and (4) resilience and growth.

The Dual Impact of ADHD Characteristics

Responses by participants indicated that many perceived characteristics of ADHD are a “double-edged sword”, where the traits could be seen as both challenging and beneficial. For example, participants reported that high levels of energy and drive were useful in many contexts, such as during physical labour, sports, social events, or home renovation. However, some respondents also reported downsides to having high energy levels. Other traits that were reported to be both negative and positive included spontaneity and risk taking, and hyper-focusing.

The Unconventional Mind

Many participants reported that they experienced unconventional thinking and behaviour as a positive aspect of having ADHD. This included characteristics such as being creative, having novel ideas, seeing things from a different perspective, and being good at finding solutions. However, it was emphasised that the social context and expectations present in one’s sociocultural environment could sometimes be an obstacle for utilising these strengths. For example, one participant noted, “From my experience in a work-related context, thinking outside the box is not as accepted in all contexts, despite good results.”

The Pursuit of New Experiences

Several participants reported experiencing adventurousness and novelty-seeking as positive aspects of ADHD. This characteristic also appeared to be connected to being both curious and courageous. These participants noted that these traits allowed them to acquire knowledge about various topics, and that they wouldn’t give up easily when learning something new. This may be related to being impulsive, as one respondent explained, “I have experienced things that only would have happened by taking a risk.”

Resilience and Growth

Finally, participants reported that, while having ADHD could be challenging, especially the process of being diagnosed, coping with these challenges could also foster resilience and growth. Some participants also reported having a better understanding and acceptance of themselves because of their ADHD diagnosis. Receiving a diagnosis of ADHD appeared to be particularly important to many participants as it allowed them to be more kind to themselves.

Some participants felt that having ADHD made them more empathetic and understanding of others’ points of view. Furthermore, several participants who worked with people with disabilities felt that having ADHD could help them to connect with their students and patients.

Conclusions

From the perspective of participants in this study, having ADHD can be seen as both beneficial and challenging. The researchers note that this duality seemed to be further dependent on context and the norms in one’s sociocultural environment. However, it is likely that the perception of a trait or characteristic as positive or negative is dependent on individual factors, environmental factors, and the interaction of the two.

These findings could be useful in the assessment and treatment of ADHD in adulthood. The authors conclude that it may be important for clinicians to examine the individual’s positive experiences of ADHD, as this should be capitalised on within treatment. Finally, they suggest that “a stronger focus on positive aspects of ADHD in treatment interventions, alongside the challenges, may also help to contribute to support a more ability-oriented view of ADHD.”

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