By Sarah Ludwig Rausch
I was diagnosed with ADHD almost a decade ago, but it was only recently that I first heard of “ADHD simulators.” In essence, they are visual simulations — often on YouTube or Tiktok — that people create to try to approximate what having ADHD is like.
I was immediately intrigued. Could there really be something out there that would give neurotypical people some understanding of what having this condition is like? I checked out a few to see what they’re like and also asked several experts for their input.
A Review of Three Top Simulators
I first looked at three common simulators, cited often online and in social media:
• “ADD/ADHD Simulator”
I watched this commonly cited one first. It’s less than a minute and a half long, and at the end, it asks you eight questions about the details of what you read. Evidently, I was only able to focus for about the first 10 seconds because after answering the first two questions, I was completely baffled by the last six. (Viewers might also be affected by the fairly low quality of the video.)
When did this information come up? I’m guessing the bombardment of various stimuli caused me to retreat into my brain and think about (many) other things without even realizing I was no longer paying attention.
My take: I doubt anyone actually sees or hears all of this in their head, especially all at once. Still, I think this simulator gives a pretty good idea of how distraction can feel for many people with ADHD. And judging by my reaction, it can potentially generate actual distraction in someone with ADHD.
• “ADHD Simulator — What It Feels Like To Have ADHD”
This simulator was so spot on to my experience of ADHD that I teared up watching it. There were multiple voices talking at the same time, with underlying (and, for me, totally accurate) comments that popped up such as “Yay!,” “Gross!” and “Where are my keys? Keys, keys, keys, keys, keys…” But it was these two criticisms — “You’re so forgetful” and “You’re so irresponsible, you never put anything back in its place” — that brought on my tears. I hadn’t realized until I watched this that these disparaging comments are eerily similar to my internal monologue. Ouch.
My take: The simulator completely captured the essence of how my brain works on any given day. My guess is that many people with ADHD will find it at least somewhat relatable.
• “ADHD Simulator”
Like the previous one, this simulator has several voices talking at once. As the creator says in the comments, he’s “not attempting to imply that ADHD people hear overlapping voices in their heads; it’s meant to represent our frequent shifts in attention.” I think he captures this quite well. The best part: He goes into another room and all the voices stop and say together, “Ummmm…” because he doesn’t remember why he went in.
My take: This is a good — and brief — depiction of the many erratic thoughts that randomly pop into the heads of many people with ADHD (and how exhausting it can be).
The Experts Weigh In
“Simulators can provide important insight into aspects of what it’s like to live with ADHD,” says Benjamin Powers, executive director of The Southport School and The Southport CoLAB. Power is also director of the Global Literacy Hub at the Yale Child Study Center and president of The Dyslexia Foundation. He adds: “Anything we can do to develop empathy and understanding around individuals with ADHD is a terrific opportunity to create better understanding and support.”
People with ADHD have brains that are wired differently — “that’s why they’re called neurodivergent,” says Alex Anderson-Kahl, a school psychologist, founder of the blog “Healing Little Hearts” and an ADHD evaluator and educator. By imitating ADHD symptoms such as distractibility, “ADHD simulators have emerged as a tool aiming to provide an immersive experience of the challenges faced by those with ADHD,” he says.
Simulators strive to create empathy and understanding. Anderson-Kahl says he believes that can help clear up misconceptions about ADHD and foster more compassion.
“People without ADHD often find interacting with someone with ADHD frustrating,” says Katie Schubert, Ph.D., a licensed mental health counselor and CEO of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Cypress Wellness Center. As a person with ADHD herself, Schubert says it can be difficult for neurotypical people to understand the whys behind ADHD symptoms — such as difficulty focusing and staying on task. ADHD simulators can help with this.
“The better you understand a loved one with ADHD, the better able you’ll be to know what works and what doesn’t work for them,” she says.
Cautions about ADHD Simulators
Keep in mind that a simulator doesn’t necessarily reflect an individual’s experience. As with other learning and mental health disorders, the types of symptoms and the way they show up can vary widely.
“It’s certainly beneficial for people to be exposed to different types of simulations as long as they understand that the experience may not be representative of what their friend or family member experiences,” Powers says.
“There’s a valid concern that these simulators might oversimplify a deeply complex and multifaceted condition,” Anderson-Kahl says. “A one-size-fits-all simulation might not capture the full spectrum of experiences and challenges. While the simulators can provide a snapshot, they risk painting ADHD with a broad brush, potentially leading to further stereotypes or misconceptions.”
He says it’s crucial to approach tools like simulators with an open mind, understanding that “every individual’s ADHD journey is unique.”
Simulators tend to focus on only certain symptoms. That means some issues, such as impulsivity or procrastination, may not be represented, Powers says. And remember that ADHD symptoms vary not just by the person, but also from day to day for that same person.
Also, a high percentage of people with ADHD have a co-occurring condition such as a reading disability or anxiety. “Those are likely to compound the symptoms someone with ADHD experiences,” says Powers.
“If you love someone with ADHD, please do your research on how their brain works,” Schubert says.
She firmly believes ADHD can be a huge gift. “When the ADHD brain is working well, it’s unstoppable, unique and creative,” she says.
But, she says, your neurodivergent loved ones need empathy.
“Our society is full of stimulators, and people with ADHD can often drown in all the stimulation,” says Schubert.
The Bottom Line
ADHD simulators can be helpful tools to give family and friends insight into what it’s like to have ADHD. But don’t forget that they are limited. They can only show you specific aspects of ADHD, such as distraction or how hard it is to stay on task. And they may not reflect how your loved one experiences ADHD either.
If you’re trying to understand a loved one who has ADHD, watch some simulators with them and get their feedback. They might relate to one or more of them, or they can tell you why they don’t. Either way, you’ll have an open conversation about what their personal ADHD experience is like and hopefully come away with a deeper understanding.