So far, I seem to have concentrated mostly on the various facets of autism, so perhaps it’s time to redress the balance by turning the spotlight on ADHD? As with autism, people experience it differently and so all I can do is explain what it’s like for me.
What does ADHD feel like? It comes and goes, but when it’s in full flow, one aspect which is particularly problematic (there are plenty of others which I will cover in later posts) is an inability to concentrate. As soon as I settle down to do something, straight away I want to do something else. Or if I’m working out what exactly it is that I need to do, then as soon as I’ve cracked it, I want to get up instead of doing it. If I manage to get going on a task, I have had enough of it before I’ve finished, and want to leave it three quarters done and go onto something else…which I will be bored with as soon as I’ve picked it up.
The trouble is that to the uninitiated, it looks like simply not trying hard enough. Surely it’s easy to buckle down and get on with something, if one only applies oneself with sufficient industry? It doesn’t work like that – it really doesn’t! Attention cannot be focussed by sheer willpower! It skitters away, onto anything else but the one thing that it ought to be concentrating on. It is so easy to get distracted and to spend the day flitting about without accomplishing anything at all.
Is there anything that can be done to control it? There are a few things that make a difference. One of them is understanding the mechanics of what’s going on. There are two parts of the brain – the concentrating part and the idle, freewheeling part. When a neurotypical person wants to concentrate, then the freewheeling part automatically dampens down, in the same way that when driving, we might turn down the radio if we are searching for an address. For a person with ADHD, this mechanism doesn’t work, so it’s as if we’re trying to concentrate with the radio on full blast. It helped me enormously to realise that the issue isn’t wholly that I am bad at concentrating – it’s that I’m bad at concentrating with my chattery brain running at speed. Instead of blaming myself, I can now appreciate that the deck is stacked, and the fact that I can concentrate at all with that mental ‘noise’ is commendable. Instead of getting frustrated with myself, which adds to the ‘noise’, I can understand why it’s happening…which actually dials it down a little.
Another trick that I use if I am feeling particularly inattentive is to set the timer on my phone for 20 minutes, and insist that I stick at whatever I’m doing for the whole time. Surely anyone can concentrate for that short duration, even me. Then when that 20 minutes is up, I am allowed to get up and stretch my legs before starting another 20 minute burst. Sometimes after repeating this two or three times, my brain is soothed and will then co-operate without needing the timer.
If I am too scattered even to get started on something, for example, amending a report according to a set of instructions, a technique which often works is to break the task down into very small steps so that it’s not too hard to get going. I write the steps in a ‘mind map’ format as lists don’t agree with me. The first step might be ‘find report’ so all I have to do is search for something and open it. The second step might be ‘find instructions and print’ (I find it impossible to work from instructions on screen as they don’t make sense). The third step could be, ‘look at instructions and work out what to do’. So rather than being a big, intimidating task, it turns into a series of little tasks, and again, sometimes once my brain has got into a rhythm, it may stay there.
The takeaway point is that it’s not laziness and it’s not a lack of discipline – I have all the discipline that comes with autism, but applying it when I’m awash with ADHD is like trying to turn a screwdriver when your hands are covered in oil.
There are so many other ADHD idiosyncrasies, and also some interesting interactions with autism – sometimes usefully cancelling each other out; sometimes clashing unhelpfully – and we will look at some of them in future posts.