Russell Barkley: AD/HD is No Gift

Russell Barkley, PhD  is professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, and author of more than 200 scientific articles and book chapters on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Here, he has a few words for the overzealous:

… Many people may be gifted and talented in various aspects of these other human abilities, but never attribute that giftedness or that success to the AD/HD itself … I want people to understand that while people might be gifted and talented and successful in spite of their AD/HD, it is not because of their AD/HD. The AD/HD itself may, in fact, make you less effective than other people who have equally talented areas in those human abilities.

He’s addressing the Center for AD/HD Awareness, Canada, but he aims fire at all who suggest the disorder brings talents and blessings.

Some writers propose innate distractibility is just the thing for a multi-tasking world.  Sadly, it’s not enough to shift attention rapidly among tasks. You also have to return to those tasks to finish them; difficulty doing so is criterion 1D for the disorder. Lara Honos-Webb, PhD has written several books suggesting AD/HD may bring such vague, unverified capacities as, “attunement to nature,”  and “emotional sensitivity.”  In The Gift of Adult AD/HD, she asks, “Are mistakes and sloppiness anything less than perceiving the world in a way that opens up possibilities?” The answer is yes – much less.  Creativity can involve serendipity. Mistakes and sloppiness are failures to perceive you’ve forgotten to unplug the iron or to add the most important ingredient to a dish. Her books provide helpful coping techniques, but they fall flat when they claim AD/HD is a boon. Consider its’ co-morbidity with  depressive and anxiety disorders and it  appears much more of a curse.

Funny t-shirt. See if you can find the gift in this flow of thought.

Funny t-shirt. See if you can find the gift in this flow of thought.

Barkley’s criticism isn’t aimed at optimists, but those who leave the facts behind. This blogger writes of how he loves (!) his AD/HD. Not because there is anything to love about it, but because nothing is worse than negative thinking.  Barbara Ehrenreich would disagree. In her 2009 book Bright-Sided, she uses America’s vulnerability to the Sept. 11th attacks to show how positive thinking can have drastically negative consequences:

There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to “fly a plane but didn’t care about landing and takeoff.” The fact that no one — the FBI, the INS, (President George W.) Bush, or (national security advisor Condoleeza) Rice — heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a “failure of imagination.” But actually there was plenty of imagination at work — imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy — there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst.

Positive thinking encourages people to feel good about themselves, but as Ehrenreich points out, it inevitably carries  harsh, invalidating personal judgments. Are you feeling depressed, angry or uncertain because neurology makes you look like a screw-up? Drop the ‘victim mentality’, ya whiner!

‘Positive’ is nice. ‘Realistic’ is far more important. As Dr. Barkley said to patient advocates at the conference:

It’s going to be very hard for society to take you all seriously if you continue to trumpet this disorder as a gift. There is no way that we can go to Ottawa and walk the halls of Parliament arguing for accommodations, entitlements, funding of AD/HD medications on the one hand, while rah-rah cheering AD/HD as this wonderful giftedness that we have and you don’t.

What’s worse than negative thinking? Falsely boosting people’s self-esteem with unsubstantiated claims that skew public understanding of the disorder. There’s a real danger that attitudes on AD/HD could go from, “There’s no such thing,” directly to, “Why should we make accommodations for your son? Doesn’t he has the gift of AD/HD?”

@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under AD/HD

8 responses to “Russell Barkley: AD/HD is No Gift

  1. The dichotomy of self-acceptance and self-improvement is thought provoking!

    • Rob Eldridge, LISW-S

      Russel Barkley is not wrong about the lack of substantiating research, yet makes a critical error in his thinking. When AD/HD remains either untreated or the affected individual lacks any socially appropriate means to channel his or her energy and/or creative drive, AD/HD can, and does become a nightmare. But as his own examples clearly indicate, when either or both of the above situations are met, AD/HD does indeed become a wonderful gift or blessing. Such a realization does not run contrary to advocacy, but supports its potential benefit.

      • Thanks for writing, Rob. I re-viewed the video after reading your comment. I saw where Barkley gave examples of people who have been able to work with their AD/HD and succeed, but none where they benefited from having the disorder. What sorts of advantages do you see AD/HD creating?

      • Rob Eldridge, LISW-S

        It is my belief that in the best of situations, or when not feeling attacked, people born with AD/HD are more prone than the general population:
        1. To be inventive (thinking creatively, or “outside the box;”
        2. To be risk-takers;
        3. To defy convention;
        4. To be goal vs. process oriented, or “driven;”
        5. To “see the big picture,” recognize different perspectives on problems, or make discoveries that others might miss;
        6. To have a youthful, optimistic, “devil may care” attitude toward life;
        7. To handle crisis situations;
        8. To be energetic;
        9. To be manipulative, and;
        10. To be hypersensitive, gentle, or “sweet-natured.”

  2. Pamela G. Sperling, LPC

    I feel that when one aspect of any disorder is spotlighted and expounded upon, for better or worse, a distortion occurs. On the one hand, I have to agree with Rob (above) – I know quite a few VERY talented people who have severe AD/HD, but I also know just as many who have suffered immeasurably from the ramifications of the disorder as well. In this regard, after reading the blog post cited by Bryan Hutchinson and the description of his childhood growing up with AD/HD, of particular note was his comment about being deemed too intelligent to remain in a smaller special ed class. This fact correlates with the some of the comments made by Russell Barkley, in that there are other factors (e.g. intelligence) to consider when reviewing the experience of those who have been successful with AD/HD, and those who have not. In a similar way, Rob qualified his comments to include “in the best of situations”, or “when not feeling attacked” – I have noticed the same thing with clients, and non-clients with AD/HD. Those who were naturally talented, and had more supports, flourished despite the other cognitive and behavioral challenges they faced. I also have to agree with Rob’s observation of character traits commonly seen with AD/HD, and how these traits become a vehicle for success, WHEN EFFECTIVELY MANAGED AND SUPPORTED BY THE ENVIRONMENT. In essence, those who feel they have “benefitted” from the extremes of a disorder such as AD/HD have possibly had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

    • I think you’ve nailed it, Pamela. AD/HD is not a benefit in and of itself,but it doesn’t have to hold anyone back, if they get the right treatment, encouragement and support. When I worked with kids, I’d tell their parents, “Great things are possible; consistency isn’t.”

      • Rob Eldridge, LISW-S

        Close, but I still cannot fully agree. While I concur with the premise that ADHD does not have to hold anyone back, it would be far more helpful if “the right treatment, encouragement, and support” focused on teaching our clients how to use their differences to their advantage, vs. labeling these same differences as obstacles or disabilities that need to be overcome. It is simply a matter of re-framing our perspective so that our clients are empowered to turn what were once lemons (their untreated, disabling symptomology) into lemonade. For example, even if you see someone’s lack of consistency as a problem that can never be overcome, what possible difference would that make to people like ken Hallowell or Charles Schwab?

  3. cynthia curran

    Well, Dr Barkley talking about things that negativity impact you, I was spared the drug abuse or having a child as a teenager because of an overbearing mother and lived at home pretty late in life. Also, I don’t have a lack of savings but a lot of savings because of my mother. However, many people with ADHD have the problems Dr Barkley is describing.

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