What do Simone Biles, Bill Gates, and Leonardo da Vinci have in common?
Beyond being famous (or having been famous), there’s something else that further connects them. All three are examples of people who have or had high-functioning ADHD — gifted individuals who display symptoms of either inattentiveness, hyperactivity-impulsivity or both.
It’s a myth that ADHD is only prevalent in young boys who misbehave or do badly in school. Girls who are gifted and receive good grades are equally likely to experience challenges and setbacks from ADHD.
Shauna Pollard, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist providing online therapy to clients in various parts of the United States, explains that for high achievers, ADHD can look like: losing things, having trouble socially or having a lack of focus. Because of this, recognizing ADHD in high-achieving and high-functioning individuals can actually prove harder than it seems.
What People Get Wrong About ADHD and the Gifted
Good grades, perfect attendance and stellar track records don’t sound like the key ingredients of ADHD. Still, it is a common misconception that smart and gifted individuals are incapable of having special needs or learning differences.
“My family at the time didn’t recognize it because I was doing well. I always had A’s,” says Maryann Sandy, a family medicine doctor in Texas, about her own experience with ADHD.
For Sandy, it wasn’t until medical school when the workload caused increased stress levels that her symptoms started to become noticeable. Others, like Sandy, might find that teachers, parents and physicians consider them to be “too smart” to have ADHD.
Yet, the important thing to note is that ADHD is a mental health condition that affects brain functioning and not one’s IQ or intelligence. The Chesapeake Center, a Bethesda-based center in Maryland offering clinical services for ADHD and learning differences, highlights behaviors such as late-night study sessions, procrastination and late assignments that can signal ADHD yet seem normal for high achievers who are used to overcompensating for symptoms. The increased stress levels for people with high-functioning ADHD, like Sandy, can result in sleep issues, relationship problems, low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety.
“ADHD also tends to be underdiagnosed in women,” Pollard adds. “The girls might be more likely to be inattentive or their hyperactivity might be talking. They talk a lot so they might get in trouble for that but no one will think about it as ADHD.”
While boys may display symptoms of hyperactivity — symptoms of one of the three types of ADHD — girls might display symptoms of inattentiveness, another type of ADHD. Inattentive ADHD can include daydreaming, spacing out, gazing out of windows and being scatterbrained.
Why ADHD in High Achievers Goes Unnoticed
Often for high achievers, symptoms of ADHD go unnoticed. Symptoms in gifted children, for example, can look different — and provoke very different responses — than symptoms in gifted adults. What can be disruptive in the classroom in a school environment can be what helps a young professional to thrive and excel in a fast-paced and creative environment.
For Sharon Alexander, the founder and CEO of Unicorn Children’s Foundation and mother of a highly gifted child, the symptoms her son with ADHD exhibited were often swept under the rug as behavioral issues. As early as when he was in kindergarten, Alexander noticed that her son wasn’t getting along with his peers and was acting out.
Yet she attributed it to his being gifted. A trip to a psychologist revealed that her son’s fidgeting, inability to maintain eye contact and tendency to quickly change topics were a result of ADHD.
The praise and admiration gifted children get for their academic performance, achievements and good grades can further lead to people not recognizing ADHD in high-functioning people.
“If people only see the high achievement, they may not pick up on the ADHD,” says Pollard. “Because people are high achievers, they’ve found ways to just thrive and so that can look like coming up with strategies or workarounds for the things that the ADHD causes.”
These strategies or workarounds can look like hiding or masking challenges. For example, Pollard highlights how high-achieving adults may stay late at night working or put in maximum effort to focus and stay on top of things.
How To Recognize and Assess High-Functioning ADHD
“Socially, we had challenges where his teachers had brought up to me he was having difficulty making friends,” says Alexander about early signs of her son’s ADHD.
It wasn’t until high school that academic challenges started to become noticeable for Alexander and her son — which is typical for high achievers. As early as middle school, executive functioning skills — organizing, managing time, goal setting and self-control— start to develop. This can be around the time when gifted individuals begin to see indications of their ADHD crop up.
Others may not recognize their ADHD until even later in life. Pollard gives the example of someone in the military who, after switching careers, finds it difficult to thrive outside of a structured environment. Without the support they’re used to, high-achieving individuals may find themselves working harder to succeed and accomplish their goals.
A professional assessment from a licensed psychologist or family doctor can help an individual with high-functioning ADHD begin to better manage and treat their symptoms. Understanding how a learning difference affects the brain and the treatment options available are two major areas where a specialist can help individuals unpack their challenges.
“I think a big part of (recognizing high-functioning ADHD) has been more information and more access to information,” says Sandy, who encourages seeking out resources such as therapy, Russell Barkley’s Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, and ADHD podcasts.
Alexander advises parents of gifted children, and high-achieving adults with ADHD, to find a specialist who can build trust. She also advises taking note of the positives that come with a diagnosis. Successful individuals like Virgin Airline’s Richard Branson and the founder of JetBlue, David Neeleman, have both attributed their success to their dyslexia and ADHD, respectively.
A high achiever’s ADHD can look like being plagued with feelings of boredom, requiring work that feels stimulating and starting projects with intense excitement to then lose focus or motivation soon after. The challenges high-functioning individuals face can cause their ADHD to go undetected or unnoticed.
Yet, understanding the misconceptions that come with high-functioning ADHD, how it manifests differently in those who are gifted, and getting a professional diagnosis can bring greater awareness to all of the complexities that come with having a learning difference.