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Our distracted age

ADHD: a Blessing, or a Curse, or Both, or Neither?

Distraction has its Upsides, but Not if You Don't Manage It

The question pops up at every ADHD conference I go to, and frequently in conversations that I have with parents of seriously distracted kids. Is ADHD a blessing or curse? And isn't it wrong to focus so much attention on the pitfalls, when there are so many potential upsides?

I would argue that the only clear curse here is rigidly black-and-white thinking. Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity disorder is a spectrum of behaviors that afflict most mortals to some degree at some point in our lives, and yes, there are also probably evolutionary explanations for why some of us today are so much more vigilant and restless than others. At the same time, there's a reason it's called a "disorder." One of the explicit grounds for diagnosis is whether ADHD has "impaired" you for a significant time.

Consider this in response to a vehement comment left on my recent post about the ADHD Tax. In it, I  called attention to the fortunes that individuals and society annually spend due to clinical-grade distraction -- even when limiting the estimate to the tens of billions of dollars spent on extra health care alone, never mind all the bills from body shops after car accidents, and lawsuits after actionable errors, and the list could go on and on.

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"BAD, BAD, BAD IDEA!" wrote the reader, who described him/herself as a "successful and very productive" person who grew up with ADHD. He/she went on to urge that I "please don't attract the attention of the beast of society's fear and ignorance" by suggesting that society is paying a cost for untreated distraction. (My main point in the post was that we spend many times more on government research into cancer and heart disease in proportion to what they actually cost.)

I really do share some of the reader's concern.  We clinically distracted people have enough stigma to contend with, without being labeled as a drain on the national coffers. On the other hand, I'd suggest that the writer open his/her mind a bit to the notion that not everyone with ADHD has managed to beat the odds -- the very long odds -- and emerge as a productive success. Alas, longitudinal studies suggest that serious distraction can lead to serious failures in schools, careers, and relationships.

Don't get me wrong. I strongly believe -- in part due to my own mostly fortunate life -- that ADHD can be a blessing, for both people who have it and society at large. Many of us -- especially those of us who grew up in privilege, have high IQs, and have support from our families (and none of these factors naturally correlate in any way with ADHD) bring great creativity and energy into the world. On the other hand, every Monday night, I teach a writing workshop in juvenile hall, where conservatively I'd guess about 60 percent of the kids have already been diagnosed with ADHD or should be. These are just some of the people I have in mind when I suggest that we should be devoting more resources to understanding the disorder. 

Of all the ways of looking at this issue, my all-time favorite is Dr. Edward Hallowell's image of a car with a Ferrari engine and bicycle brakes. If you have some good mechanics on your side, you're in luck. I've certainly had that fortune. My hope is simply that many others could share it.

 

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

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