“But You’re Too Smart to Have ADHD!”

This past week I was tagged three times on social media with people asking about references about twice-exceptionality so I’m planning a post with the resources I’ve gathered on the topic. If you have any fantastic resources on twice-exceptionality, feel free to share and I’ll add them to the list!

In the meantime, I wanted to address a specific question that came up regarding identifying ADHD when there is also giftedness involved. This is important to recognize because while some may compensate  enough to get by, if ADHD or Executive Functioning Challenges go overlooked, individuals can be in for a lifetime of “you’re not living up to your potential,” or “this is easy, you should be able to do it,” or just in general messages of laziness. I personally don’t believe that laziness is a thing that exists, it’s just what we call it when we don’t know why someone isn’t doing what we think they “should” be doing.

"But you're too smart to have ADHD!"

As I’ve followed more people in the #NeurodiverseSquad on Twitter, I’ve come to realize that this issue is more prevalent than I had realized. In fact, this post from René Brooks about the curse of being a gifted child with ADHD went viral because it was so relatable! Click on the thread to read more experiences about the challenges of being gifted with undiagnosed ADHD.

The challenge with talking about this problem as adults is that while people complain that parents use the gifted label for “bragging rights,” as adults we tend to avoid the term entirely, and if we reference it at all we talk about our childhood experience of “giftedness” and put it in quotes as if it’s not a thing we are still dealing with as adults.

When I was asked how do you differentiate between giftedness and ADHD, I came up with a list and asked around for other thoughts on the topic. As a twice-exceptional person myself, a parent of a gifted and ADHD child and a school psychologist who has tested a lot of kids and been involved in the gifted selection committee for years, I thought I’d share a few of my observations about the differences and overlap between the two.

Here are some key themes I see when there is ADHD at play in addition to giftedness:

~ General disorganization, both with thoughts and stuff. Can feel very chaotic.

~ Time blindness.

~ Nothing gets completed without some sort of urgency (deadlines etc.)

~ Tendency for things to be out of sight/ out of mind.

~ Big picture thinking is stronger than details.

~ Constantly being told they are “not living up to their potential.”

~ Trouble with visualizing what “done” looks like.

Some additional themes shared by Brendan Mahan of ADHD Essentials include:

~ Trouble executing on their big ideas.

~ Difficulty with “practicing” unless it feels like play – including things like homework, but also instruments and sports.

~ Seems less “mature”/”responsible” than peers.  (No stigma intended)

Some traits that may be gifted related but are often more extreme when ADHD is added in:

~ Busywork can be literally painful.

~ Things that seem “basic” to others can seem very difficult.

~ Emotional extremes and regulation challenges.

~ Enjoys a “challenge” but hates “work.”

~ All or nothing thinking.

If given IQ and/or achievement assessment, some patterns I’ve observed include:

~ Often weaker in working memory and processing speed skills, or “cognitive proficiency/efficiency” (Not always though because sometimes they see it as a fun challenge and hyper-focus – when they do this often they do better remembering the more complicated stuff than the simple.)

~ Academically they often score lower on the more “basic” things like word reading, spelling and math computation vs. reading comprehension, written expression and math reasoning.

~ Miss details in spelling, conventions, editing and word reading, but get it in the context of the bigger picture.

To paint a personal picture of what it might look like to have unrecognized executive functioning challenges and/or ADHD, I’ll share a bit of my own personal experience. I am actually in the process of pursuing a diagnosis for myself after my son’s diagnosis of ADHD was confirmed (funny how often we see ourselves in our kid’s challenges).

I started school early due to a late cutoff in CA so I was always young and immature for my grade. In Kindergarten they tried to hold me back because I talked too much and my parents fought back. At some point I was evaluated and they were told, “she’s not a smaller apple, she’s an orange.”

Because of the Spanish Immersion program I was in, I did not learn to read and write in English until grade 3, and though they gave a gifted test that year I was unable to pass until grade 5. At that point, I scored so high they sent me to a special program and though they’d kept me in a 2nd grade reading book because I would not do the busywork, I tested at a 6th-7th grade level at my new school. Unlike many, middle school was my best time in school because my grade class was only 3-4 kids and I had a teacher who really “got” me.

Come high school, they combined our class with a lot of high achievers and they tried to kick me out of the program in 10th grade because I was under achieving. They were unsuccessful in kicking me out, but it left me resenting all my peers who were high achievers, when I knew I was theoretically even smarter than them by the numbers. I got by with mostly Bs and minimal effort.

I can’t count how many times I was told “you’re not living up to your potential.”

I got into a fairly prestigious college and realized I had absolutely no idea how to study. I had pretty terrible working memory and organizational skills as well. I had never heard of ADHD at this point, but I suspected I might have a learning disability and got tested by their disability services. I scored so high they told me, “why did you even take this test? You got into this school you’re obviously doing OK.” I dropped out the following year.

I was not doing OK.

About that time, my father learned about ADHD and it resonated with him so much he shared the information with me and it all clicked together. I scheduled an appointment with a specialist, gathered all my school documents for my first meeting… and never followed through. I lost all my school documents along the way.

I developed a love hate relationship with school, it has been both the source of my greatest anxiety and at the same time is the only system I knew how to successfully navigate.

I managed adulthood without a diagnosis mostly because I found a school job with clear structure and deadlines, and a spouse who took care of most of the household stuff. I actually let my car tags expire for 2.5 years without noticing after my divorce because it was not on my radar as something my ex had done for me.

When my kid was born, he was super aware and distractible from birth. I could not even read a book while he nursed without him popping off to look at what was going on whenever I turned the page, and nursing with people around was near impossible. He was also extremely colicky and sensitive to stimuli.

Through his early school years he had some behavior issues I suspected were at least related to giftedness, which is how I discovered the term “overexcitability” which has shaped my work for the last 6 years. Once he got to 2nd grade though he had teachers who seemed to “get” him and kept him engaged. I honestly have no idea how we got so lucky, outside the fact that the principal was awesome and knew him since birth.

At the end of 3rd his coparents sat him down to talk about his report card and sat him down to start the “you’re not living up to your potential” talk. I literally cried and started to leave saying that if we were going to have this talk, we had better get him tested for ADHD. In 4th grade, the executive functioning challenges hit the proverbial fan and his hyperactivity kicked into high gear. Attending his parent teacher conference that year was like having all of my own faults in elementary school paraded in front of me.

Diagnosis, medication and therapy has helped tremendously with his emotional regulation and relationships, and he’s now mostly successfully navigating his first year in middle school. He still has organizational and other executive functioning challenges, but with supportive teachers and other relationships he manages pretty well so far outside of some blips with PE.

As I’ve slowly tried to work my way out of the structure of the school system, my lack of executive skills has been holding me back. I can regularly do things that I’ve created urgency around like publicly committing to getting out a weekly podcast, but the important stuff, like you know finding ways to financially sustain my work, I have a really hard time getting done. I’ll get spurts of inspiration and hyper focus, but once the glossiness wears off or I get to the boring editing parts etc. I peeter off and don’t get it done.

A couple of years ago I decided to try out a free service for school employees to have a counselor do a preliminary evaluation to start the process of getting diagnosed with ADHD, but at the time I had so many balls in the air, I could see that there was no way I was likely to convince her that I wasn’t just trying to do too many things at one time. Between that and crappy insurance, I let it go again.

Last year I went back to work more, leaving me just enough time to do the Embracing Intensity podcast and start trying to build the Embracing Intensity Community to financially sustain it. Still these continue to take more time and money than they bring in and I still had a few pieces of my educational assessment practice that I needed to get in order before I really felt comfortable promoting that.

This summer and fall, things have really started to click together and I have been integrating my school psychology background into my coaching, consulting and educational assessment practice to help twice-exceptional people figure out how they learn best so they can use their strengths instead of pushing up against their weaknesses. I’m excited about the adult educational assessment protocol I’m putting together so if you are interested in learning more about that, feel free to message me to learn more.

Still it’s a challenge for me to do the important work that needs to get done before the fun or urgent stuff comes up. I’ve decided to formally pursue a diagnosis as soon as I get decent insurance again.

If you think you or your kid may have ADHD that’s been overlooked because of giftedness, I highly encourage finding a professional who understands both. I can’t diagnose ADHD, but if you are looking to understand how your brain works and processes information in order to come up with strategies to support challenges and use strengths. I’m starting to do modified assessments for adults that can be completed remotely and do comprehensive educational evaluations for students in person. I am also shaping my coaching around helping twice-exceptional minds use their brain strengths successfully.

I’m sharing my videos related to twice-exceptionality and understanding how we think and learn on my Youtube channel Befriending Your Brain playlist!