What Does It Feel Like to Have ADHD?

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects both children and adults, and it's marked by difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity/impulsiveness, disorganization, low frustration tolerance, and other symptoms that often impair normal functioning.

Signs of ADHD may begin developing as early as three years old. While most children with ADHD are diagnosed by the time they reach elementary school, symptoms are sometimes mistaken as disciplinary issues or missed when a child is introverted and withdrawn, which causes a delay in diagnosing the disorder.

What It Feels

A person with ADHD often lacks persistence or focus, wanders off task, excessively talks or fidgets, and may take action without thinking about consequences. In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, these symptoms must be chronic and interfere with the person's daily life.

Difficulty focusing may result in the following behaviors and challenges for someone with ADHD:

  • Overlooking important details at school or work
  • Trouble following through on tasks from start to finish, such as chores or other duties at home or in the workplace
  • Struggling to complete tasks that require sustained concentration, such as homework, long reading, or completing forms or paperwork
  • Being easily distracted by thoughts
  • Forgetting to return calls and keep appointments

The hyperactivity and impulsivity part of ADHD may cause symptoms such as:

  • Fidgeting or talking excessively
  • Interrupting others or finishing others' sentences
  • Inability to sit still for children; for teens and adults, the feeling of restlessness
  • For children, disrupting the teacher and distracting other students

Young children often present with hyperactivity most often, and as they age, they may struggle more with attention, leading to academic difficulties.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about ADHD, and people who don't have the disorder often lack the empathy required to understand it. As a result, children with ADHD are often labeled as unmotivated, lazy, or problem children—and adults with ADHD may be seen as irresponsible or incompetent when they struggle to remember important details or obligations, or when they display more emotion than others. Quite the contrary—having ADHD does not mean you are less intelligent, and in fact, many people with ADHD are very bright. They just have to contend with many more distractions than the average person, so life can feel like an uphill battle at all times.

And even when people are aware of the symptoms of ADHD, they may still feel frustrated when dealing with someone who has the disorder. Jill Stowell, M.S., director of the Stowell Learning Center for children with learning disabilities and attention challenges, explains: "since we react emotionally before we react intellectually, children with attention challenges are constantly frustrating and disappointing their teachers and parents.”

A Way to Experience the ADHD Mind Firsthand

In order to help teachers, parents, and peers better understand the challenges that someone with ADHD faces every day, the Attention Challenges Simulation was developed by Drs. Joe and Carol Utay of Pittsburgh. The simulation actually enables participants to understand emotionally what it feels like for a student with attention challenges to get through school. As the creators of the simulation say: “Until we ‘spend time in their shoes,’ it is hard to understand the amount of effort and energy students with attention challenges have to expend in order to sustain and shift their attention.”

Stowell offers these simulations at his learning center so that anyone working with children with ADHD can understand their frustrations. He explains it in more detail: 

“People who attend the Attention Challenges Simulation participate in six typical school activities set-up in such a way that they actually experience them as a student with attention challenges. They get to experience firsthand the kinds of things experienced day in and day out by students with attention problems: things such as missing important details in written instructions, feeling confused and ‘lost’ when listening, struggling to complete a timed quiz because of distractions, and the frustration of not knowing what is expected socially.”

“Parents are amazed at the energy that it takes for their children to focus and perform in school. These are parents who are highly involved and highly supportive of their children, but who express that they understand for the very first time what their kids are going through and why they behave the way they do.”

Parents aren’t the only ones to have found the experience enlightening. “Teachers ‘recognize’ students in every activity and come away with a completely different take on the problem,” says Stowell.

Not only do these parents and professionals develop an enhanced understanding of the children’s frustrations and challenges, all who participate in this hands-on experience walk away with a greater sense of empathy, as well. Video of the simulation is available on Youtube.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute of Mental Health. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. 
  • Jill Stowell. “Interview Request.” Emails to Keath Low. 20, Jan. 2008 and 22, Jan. 2008.