ADHD and Giftedness: It’s Complicated

I have been trying for a long time to figure out a quick and easy way of explaining the complex interaction of ADHD and Giftedness.

It’s actually caused a lot of sleepless nights, courtesy of my own ADHD, hyperfocus, and the inability to actually finish anything!

Hopefully this actually makes some sense.

Picture: Old Book with Red Cover on Side. Text: ADHD and Giftedness: It's Complicated.

We Don’t Really Know How Many Gifted Kids Have ADHD

The first thing that is important is that we don’t know how many gifted kids have ADHD. At present, it looks like the amount of gifted kids with ADHD is lower than or the same as the average population.

But . . .

. . . there’s a problem.

In a similar way to Autism,  the diagnostic criteria for ADHD was figured out using boys of average IQ.

Why is this important? Because ADHD girls act in different ways to ADHD boys. They have less hyperactivity. They talk more, and are more likely to be inattentive rather than hyperactive.

Guess what? Gifted boys with ADHD also have the same differences.

Right there: that flags a problem with the rate of ADHD diagnoses in gifted kids. They don’t look like stereotypical ADHD boys. For gifted ADHD kids, their hyperactivity is in their brain – not their body. So they may never get referred for testing.

This goes doubly for ADHD girls. I was in my late 30s before I was diagnosed. And that only happened after both of my kids were diagnosed first!

I sat through dozens of sessions with specialists explaining how my kids behaviours were ADHD related… At first I thought: ‘Well, isn’t that normal?

After a while I realised: It was normal for me, because I had ADHD too. And, after a lot of dithering, (Hello ADHD!) when I finally got to a specialist for my own diagnosis: I found out I wasn’t just ADHD, I was stereotypical ADHD.

Image: Green spiky fidget ball

I never climbed the walls as a kid. Well, not after I fell and sprained my knee badly enough for crutches.

I was a quiet kid. It took 5+ seconds to get my attention. It’s my auditory buffer. It lags. My little brother loved it. Guess why?

I passed my tests. I handed in assignments. Granted, I usually did them in the lesson they were due. And on one memorable occasion, I handed in an assignment with the wonderful aroma of rotting banana. I had forgotten the banana was in my bag – and had to scrape it off the paper. I got an A+ on that one. Go figure.

Gifted ADHD kids won’t necessarily be failing. If they are highly gifted, they might even look mostly functional . . . until they don’t.

Working Memory Differences

But it gets more complicated. Because, even if we know what we are looking for, there is another problem. The red flags aren’t the same.

ADHD gifted boys, (and most probably girls, but getting enough ADHD gifted girls together for a study is hard), don’t have bad working memory scores.

I’ll repeat that: Gifted ADHD kids have average working memory scores. This is important. Because a deficit of working memory (how much information you can hold in your head at one time), is a hallmark of ADHD.

If it’s impaired, but not well below average, the chances of it being caught with a quick screening test are . . . low.

But hey, average is OK? Right?

Not really. Because these kids are using their unusual brains to compensate for bigger deficits. When properly tested, gifted ADHD kids had really bad working memory, processing speed, and auditory verbal memory relative to their other abilities. It’s extreme asynchrony on steroids.

Kids like this? They want to do and understand complicated things – but they can’t hold onto it, they can’t follow conversation, and it takes them way longer to figure out what someone is saying.

I know what that is like. I have spent my entire life reconstructing conversations that I haven’t actually heard. My brain skips. I have to guess what people are talking about. And more often than not, I figure out what an ‘appropriate’ response looked like and fake it. Sometimes I can logic my way back to what was said. Sometimes I can’t.

It sucks.

Image: Pink Origami ButterfliesEven if gifted ADHD kids score well, we have to remember that the score is not the diagnosis. It is a way find kids who have ADHD. The mental health implications are the same for all ADHD kids. Living with a brain that most people consider ‘wrong’ or ‘lazy’ is not fun.

After a while, you start to internalise the constant criticism, “If you’re so smart, why can’t you do this?”

When looked at from a neurotypical point of view, a lot of the things ADHD peeps can’t do look easy. Surely anyone can do them, right? I wish . . .

ADHD and Giftedness Destructively Interact

It can be easy to think of giftedness and ADHD ‘cancelling’ out each other. And for some things – like verbal working memory, that can happen – the gifted brain compensates and brings the deficits up to average.

But for other symptoms, it is not. For gifted ADHD kids, the social difficulties are actually worse than for average IQ ADHD kids. Instead of acting as a buffer, the emotional and social differences for gifted ADHD kids destructively interact.

This actually makes a lot of sense. ADHD comes with executive functioning (EF) deficits. Executive functioning is one of the ways the brain helps us control our impulses – and emotions.

Gifted kids brains have a greater emotional reaction to situations – it’s visible in their brains under fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). It’s also why gifted kids often remember things better. Emotions trigger memory formation.

But that also means that they react to situations in bigger ways. ADHD gifted kids have less brain ‘brakes’ than average – and a faster car. So the posibility of crashes goes way up!

ADHD also often means they don’t ‘get’ non-ADHD kids. Social stuff can be way harder. Add in an extra layer of neuro-difference – giftedness – and the social disconnect gets even bigger.

Add in a dose of ‘well, I know how that works!’ gifted brain-ness, and a lack of impulse control ADHD-ness, and it’s a perfect storm.

Complicated, But Worth Exploring

There is actually a lot of similarities between giftedness and ADHD. (Something I hope to go into on a later post). But is is not as simple as saying that it’s an either / or situation.

For children, and their parents, a proper full diagnosis can make a world of difference.

It worked for us.

References and Further Reading

To read more about the science research on ADHD and giftedness, here are a few good places to start (then follow the rabbit trails . . . ):

9 Replies to “ADHD and Giftedness: It’s Complicated”

  1. Thank you for putting our experience and life into words for others and even ourselves to understand better! This was helpful beyond my imgination.

  2. It’s frustrating that the school just decides he’s so smart it’s okay if ADHD lowers his ability to show what he knows. It’s fine for him to have a C in math from “careless” mistakes, even though his math abilities test over two grades ahead. They don’t see how not pointing out errors in calculation, despite actually setting up and solving the problem properly, matters if he looses enough points from them to get a C. I was told that if he gets a C it’s okay, because they know it’s just from silly mistakes and not because there are holes in learning. Should a grade reflect mastery or disability? It’s discouraging to him and they want me to tell him Cs are fine and graded don’t matter. Why do they have honor roll then? Or National Junior Hinor Society? Opportunities he will miss despite being brilliant.

  3. Thank you! I wasn’t diagnosed until 33. It helped me advocate for a diagnosis for my boys at a younger age, so I could they could have a better experience in school.

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