Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders in children, but it also affects adults. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating and staying on task, hyperactivity and problems with impulse control. ADHD is a chronic and debilitating condition. It affects many aspects of a person’s life, including academic and career success, relationships and daily life.
Research into strengths in people with ADHD is a very new area of research and there are few papers on it, but those that are available are very interesting. It’s important to note that having strengths does not diminish or erase the problems and difficulties people with ADHD face. Just because people with ADHD are particularly good in some areas of life does not mean that they do not have difficulties and do not need treatment.
Is it really necessary to talk about strengths?
There are several reasons why talking about the positive aspects is just as important as talking about the negative ones:
- Not everyone is aware of their strengths. And this is crucial knowledge, both for self-esteem and for finding the right fit in life.
- Understanding the strengths of people with ADHD is necessary for those around them: the more educators and HR professionals know about them, the more likely they are to treat them appropriately.
- It also helps to de-stigmatise the condition.
Creativity, vibrancy and open-mindedness
Dutch scientist Martine Hoogman and her team are actively researching strengths in ADHD. Most of the research has been done on adults, and the participants have mostly been employed people in treatment. However, the number of strengths listed by each individual participant was independent of employment status and the presence of treatment.
All the strengths mentioned in the study fell into five main clusters:
1. Creativity (most commonly mentioned): this includes imagination, resourcefulness, associative thinking and the ability to see non-obvious patterns. There are types of creative tasks that people with ADHD do particularly well. These include creative writing, visual arts and humour.
2. Being dynamic (second most popular): this included traits such as being energetic, active, enthusiastic, having an ‘inner motor’, a positive attitude and a tendency to seek novelty.
3. Flexibility: the cluster about spontaneity, openness, impulsiveness, a wide range of interests, ease in switching between tasks.
4. Social-affective skills – empathy, communication skills, humour, supportiveness, intuitiveness, sensitivity, commitment, fairness.
5. High level cognitive skills – attention span, multitasking, quick thinking, good memory, hyperfocus (ability to concentrate deeply on one thing), analytical thinking. If you suspected there was something odd about this cluster, you wouldn’t be wrong: many of the items mentioned (memory and attention, for example) are things that people with ADHD tend to struggle with. There is no clear answer as to why the same items fell into the strengths cluster. We could speculate that memory and attention problems only occur in some contexts and not in others, or only in some people, or – this could also be the case – the participants in the study were talking about wishful thinking rather than reality.
The participants also noted that some of the strengths were not related to the specificity of ADHD, but rather to the difficulties of living with it (having to persevere and learning to be more open-minded about different people).
An important factor related to the expression of positive traits is the severity of a person’s ADHD symptoms. Research has shown that the more severe the symptoms, the less people mention enthusiasm, perseverance, willingness to get involved and social skills. This is not surprising: when life is hard, there is less desire to socialise and be active. Hyperfocus, on the other hand, becomes even more hyperfocused as symptoms worsen.
It’s important to note that these studies are still quite small, and there aren’t many of them yet. In the past, thinking about strengths in people with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions was not common.
It’s also worth adding again that having strengths does not mean that symptoms are absent or ‘unimportant’, nor does it negate the difficulties and suffering that people with ADHD face.
Here are some studies to read if you want to explore this further (including one on strengths in autism!):
- Editorial: Looking at it from a different angle: Positive aspects and strengths associated with neurodevelopmental disorders
- A qualitative and quantitative study of self-reported positive characteristics of individuals with ADHD
- Characterizing Creative Thinking and Creative Achievements in Relation to Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder