(Authored by an autistic person with ADHD)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition, a particular wiring of the brain that is perceived by many people as a deficit in attention or a surplus of activity. The term ADHD is actually a bit of a misnomer; attention deficit and hyperactivity, as well as the stigmatized label of “disorder,” are descriptions of ADHD behavior from the outside-in. What people with ADHD actually experience is difficulties wrangling and controlling their attention; an ADHD person’s attention almost has a mind and will of its own (one person with ADHD described their attention as a “stick of butter,” to capture how slippery and elusive it is). From the frustrated slogging through bills and homework to the euphoric flurries of excitement and passion upon engaging with content that interests them, ADHD attention is much more animated, beautiful, and difficult to force than average neurotypical attention. Since ADHD attention appears to have a mind of its own, it can be difficult for people with ADHD to make sure everything gets done; if it takes an entire day’s energy to force yourself to look at a report you have to write, other things can slip through the cracks, like nutrition, hygiene, organization, or other difficult tasks that need just as much forced attention. This can cause a lot of stress and damaged self-esteem for people with ADHD who don’t understand why they can’t focus even when they really want to, who end up pushing deadlines or avoiding necessary-but-difficult tasks for months, even when it seems like it “should be simple” to “just do it.” Many people with ADHD end up thinking that they are lazy, unmotivated, selfish, irresponsible, or childish for their inability to force their attention wherever they want, but ADHD is not a disorder or something to be fixed. Learning to live with ADHD is learning to work with, not against, yourself.
Autism, also known as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), is not a disorder either. Similar to ADHD, the label of “autism” describes a particular way that a person’s brain functions. Autistic people are typically stereotyped by others as asocial, quiet, slow, incompetent, oversensitive, insensitive, misunderstanding, and lacking empathy; all of these stereotypes, however, come from a perspective that does not empathize with or understand what autism actually is. Autistic people are simply different; they do not experience things in the same way as society expects them to, and the resulting incongruence between their experience of the world and what they are told they are experiencing can be very frustrating, confusing, and alienating, especially in childhood. The particular experiences of an autistic person vary greatly from person to person, but there are still some common threads.
For many autistic people, social interactions are a conscious craft; even if social responses come automatically, they do not come naturally, and usually require dedicated thought, planning, or prediction. Some autistic people feel the need to account for any social outcome, and may plan their course of action for individual most-likely scenarios for each interaction (for example, when making a phone call, they might prepare very thoroughly for any questions they might be asked). Many autistic people also experience sensory sensitivities, where particular sounds, smells, textures, tastes, or sights will be uncomfortable to the point of extreme distress. This is often interpreted by others as being “picky” or “whiny,” which can make it difficult for them to express or understand what is bothering them. Grease/dirt/wetness on skin, greasy food, dry/grainy textures in food, dogs barking, child-noises, humming, bright lights, strobing lights, dim rooms, or particular ingredients in food (cilantro, avocado, banana, onions) are all examples of sensory experiences that could be very upsetting and overwhelming to someone who is autistic.
It is also common for autistic people to be very precise, literal, and inflexible when it comes to language and negotiation. Autistic people tend to care very much about using precise definitions for words and experiences so that they will not be misunderstood, and usually do not want to assume anything or leave room for error. This can cause others to tell them that they are “overexplaining” or “stating the obvious” if the autistic person is speaking and providing clarification, or accuse them of “asking stupid questions” or being passive-aggressive if the autistic person is listening and seeking clarification. These responses can cause autistic people to compensate by trying to converse with less information, leading to cases where they are told that they are “underexplaining” or “jumping to conclusions.” Their tendency to take things literally and precisely can often cause them to misinterpret jokes or be confused by satire or sarcasm, but many autistic people still understand and engage in jokes and sarcasm, especially once they pick up on the patterns and formulas involved. Many autistic people are drawn to jokes involving puns or simple, repetitive responses (such as memes) because of their predictability. They are also drawn to jokes that are very complicated and multi-layered, and tend to appreciate double-entendres and nuance.
Many people with autism or ADHD are taught to be ashamed of their autistic features early in their development, and end up masking and suppressing important parts of themselves as a result. Treatment for ADHD and Autism is about helping you learn to love and work with the parts of yourself that no one else would.
Links to learn more about ADHD and Autism
ImpactParents: Strength-based approach to ADHD
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Strengths-based Autism Criteria
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