Intelligence, creativity and ADHD - Yes, you can have them all

You can be very smart and have ADHD at the same time.

We know that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurobiological disorder that affects the development of the brain's self-management system. This does not have a direct relationship with the intelligence of the people who suffer it. You can be very smart and still underperform academically or at work. Why does this happen? Here's how Dr. Ellen Littman (Ph.D.) took it upon herself to answer this question.

First of all, intelligence is the result of various cognitive processes. These can be evaluated using different standardized tests that determine a person's IQ. But these tests are estimators of general intelligence, and they do not necessarily measure executive functions, which are the key to understanding the difficulties of ADHD.

As we said before, intelligence and ADHD are not self-exclusive. There are many people with high IQ and ADHD at the same time. Even, according to Littman, there is an important overlap of characteristics between people with ADHD, high IQ and creativity:

  • Curiosity
  • Impatience
  • High energy
  • Low tolerance for boredom
  • Charisma
  • Nonconformity
  • risk taking
  • resistance to authority

You can have ADHD with low performance, it does not matter your level of intelligence

As Dr. Littman points out in her article, people with high IQ and attention deficit tend to excel in tasks that require creative or divergent thinking, which is spontaneous and non-linear: thinking "outside the box" . On the contrary, they tend to be less successful in tasks that require rational or convergent thinking, which requires precision, logic and speed: the mathematical thinking typical of standardized tests.

A person with ADHD can be considered very intelligent and be, in appearance, highly functional. So, they most likely associate your poor performance with boredom, carelessness, laziness, or inattention. Instead of acknowledging the complexity that ADHD adds to any task, they attribute their difficulties to personality flaws.

High-intelligence, low-performing adults How is this explained?

Research indicates that all these "failures" that affect the academic and work performance of a person with ADHD are not due to a lack of character or intelligence. They are due, instead, to failures in Executive Functions: the mental faculties of self-control responsible for helping us to maintain an action over time, solve problems and persist until we reach a goal.

Therefore, even though you have the necessary knowledge and know exactly what you should do, you can still face the following obstacles:

  • Failing to plan the steps to follow.
  • Having difficulty concentrating on the instructions to be carried out.
  • Forget how you solved a similar situation in the past and repeat the mistake.
  • Not knowing where to start.
  • Getting frustrated easily and preferring to "leave it for another time."

The reason for these obstacles is as follows: Despite their strengths and talents, adults with ADHD show more cognitive difficulties, functional deficiencies, and comorbidities than high-IQ adults without ADHD. In addition, the severity of deficits in Executive Functions, especially in working memory and processing speed, affects all people with this disorder. It is because of these difficulties that despite working twice as hard, for twice as long, they only achieve half of what their peers achieve.

An important part of treating ADHD is developing new tools that allow you to better manage self-regulation difficulties and minimize the negative impact of ADHD on your life. If you are interested here you can read more about diagnosis and treatment of ADHD .

Adults with high intelligence and ADHD What is your experience like?

Dr. Littman explains very well how the particular set of challenges faced by people with ADHD throughout their academic development is shaped:

“Those who as children grow up being celebrated as" intelligent "internalize their intellect as the basis of their identity and source. of self-esteem. They know that they carry the expectation of success. By thriving in school with seeming little effort, they have been told that success will be theirs.

But this is where the path differs for those with ADHD: Due to the developmental delays that characterize the disorder, children with the disorder are typically three to five years behind their chronological peers in social / emotional functioning. At the same time, very bright children with this disease tend to rank three to five years ahead of their peers on the intellectual level.

Later, high IQ adults with ADHD show more cognitive difficulties, functional deficits, and comorbidities than high-IQ adults without ADHD. Furthermore, the severity of their deficits in executive function, especially in working memory and processing speed, does not differ from that of other adults with ADHD. "

The internal world of adults with high IQ and ADHD

As we mentioned before, adults with ADHD who manage to maintain a high level of functioning and an external appearance of success, have to deal daily with the profound consequences that this entails on an emotional and mental health. 

“They invest a lot of time and energy in presenting an impeccable public image, and they rely on obsessive behaviors to ensure organization and structure. They are determined to keep their anxiety, frustration, shame, and disappointment internalized; they tirelessly control themselves. They are hypervigilant when it comes to hiding anything that may expose their inner chaos. These people face an identity crisis based on shame, in addition to the impact of a neurobiological disorder. " 

The silver lining

The reality is that none of us can maintain that sense of control all the time. You may feel like your capabilities don't exist because you can't access them when you need to. We don't expect artists to create masterpieces every day; try to be more compassionate to yourself and adjust your expectations to more realistic levels.

Many people with ADHD find comfort in highly stimulating, busy, and friendly work environments with divergent ways of thinking. Rather than trying to stifle their constant flow of ideas, those who risk sharing them find that they can be well received, even if they occasionally interrupt others. Their overflowing creativity allows them to make their work more fun, exciting and colorful. Another positive characteristic of people with ADHD is that inexhaustible enthusiasm that spontaneously erupts before a new project or activity that they are passionate about. 

This is important to remember: neither your symptoms, your diagnosis, nor your IQ define who you are. Don't let these labels condition your life. Many people achieve success with ADHD. What makes the difference is the lens through which you see yourself in relation to the rest of the world. 

To know the source article of Dr. Littman in English you can follow this link.

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