The ADHD Internet is full of bad science and self-deprecation. It’s so prevalent I had to stop going on TikTok, my frustration growing as every swipe offered more scientific explanations for why my brain “sucks”.
The broken brain narrative is everywhere on social media, but it’s not entirely the fault of ADHD creators when all the research and rhetoric we are fed about ADHD remains overwhelmingly rooted in a deficit model.
Funding goes toward researching neurobiology, medication, and genetics. What trickles down from the neighboring systems of medicine and education is a message of disorder — there is something wrong with your brain, but don’t worry, we are experts, and we are going to fix you.
Ever since I experienced the diagnosis and medication process, the never-ending trials of drugs that just don’t seem to work, the condescending psychiatrists who got angry when I asked too many questions, the resulting hopelessness — I have rejected this message of brokenness.
I don’t consider myself a thing to be fixed, but rather, a person who is devalued, disenfranchised, and pushed to assimilate. I don’t want to change the socially deviant parts of myself — the parts that make me who I am — I want to change society to accept and accommodate me, along with other disabled and stigmatized people who have it even worse.
This is not to say I don’t struggle, or that I am not disabled, but that I want solutions for my struggles that work with my brain, not against it, and that take into account the social forces of power and normality which dictate how I am perceived and treated.
Much of my critical ideas about ADHD have come from reading work in Critical Autism Studies — the parallels are glaringly obvious, the need for such ideas in the ADHD space more urgent to me everyday, the overlap between our communities only getting bigger all the time.
Papers like Alicia Broderick and Robin Roscigno’s Autism Inc, on how multiple industrial complexes have turned autism itself into a product to generate profit, feel especially relevant to the ADHD world.
Pharmaceutical companies have been quietly funding research into ADHD since the 1950’s, a history which journalist Alan Schwarz detailed in his book ADHD Nation, and the medical and education systems both have a vested interest in selling the broken brain story to us.
There’s no pill for autism, and I think the marketing of stimulants as a treatment for ADHD is a difference that may have deterred the development of more critical thought. We Americans love a quick fix, a disease with a cure, however much of an illusion it may be, and I think stimulants give a lot of ADHDers the option to assimilate where many autistics cannot.
Take this pill, be quieter and more productive in mere hours, and you, too, can get your piece of the capitalist pie! Ed Hallowell’s new book, ADHD 2.0, reminds readers over and over that ADHD is a “good news” diagnosis, not like those other, serious mental disorders, and don’t worry, he’s working on de-medicalizing it with the new term VAST, so you no longer have to be associated with the mentally ill!
Hallowell’s narrative goes in the opposite direction from brokenness, swinging firmly into superpower territory. It says: you’re special, creative, among the ranks of geniuses and CEOs! You have a “race car brain” and you just need to learn how to harness it so you can be a successful entrepreneur, too.
He proposes that all we really need is love, connection, and better career choices, as if everyone has the option to choose where they work, to shape their own life. As if the American Dream is real, and all that holds us back is our personal choices.
I look around ADHD spaces and rarely see talk of how the structures of society disable us, how race and gender intersect with ADHD, how being othered for falling short of the inhumane demands of modern life take an immense toll on our mental health, how we so often label symptoms of trauma as ADHD.
Trauma responses like emotional hyperarousal and freeze states are seen as part of our disorder, not the result of things that have been done to us. The problem is in our brains, not our world.
The story we are sold about ADHD is not apolitical — it’s based on a particular set of values, yet it’s hard to find anyone who examines this. Most people on social media seem to think the set of skills around planning, organizing, focusing, and time management which we call “executive function” is a structure in the brain, not a concept made up by a bunch of white male doctors who idolize businessmen so much they modeled an entire neurological value system off of them.
I first encountered this idea last year on Instagram in the work of my colleague, Marta Rose, who had posted about how successful men have historically outsourced their executive functioning to women — their wives and secretaries (something I find particularly interesting considering adult women are now the fastest growing demographic for ADHD diagnoses.)
“Someone to keep the house, raise the kids, keep track of the calendar, plan, shop and execute the relentlessly daily tasks that we have somehow reified into this supposedly make-or-break set of skills we have decided to call ‘executive function’.”
Marta called executive function “a set of late capitalist values masquerading as skills”, and went on to make a series of posts analyzing how the concept of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is really just a pathologization of trauma based on the anecdotal evidence of one famous doctor, popularized by the ADHD trade journal where he serves as a board member, ADDitude Mag.
Up until that point, I’d never seen a counter to the medical model of ADHD, and my first reaction was anger. It felt like a threat to everything I believed about myself, the story that I lacked this crucial set of brain skills, the explanation for all my suffering upon which I had hung my very identity.
But as I sat with it, and explored more of Marta’s work, I started to see her point. The medical model felt good at first, a doctor’s note for all my perceived failures, an answer for a lifetime of pain. But beneath that model is the premise that there is something broken about me, and I started to see how this self-concept was quietly adding to my shame over time.
Many people argue that the biomedical model of psychiatric disorder lessens public stigma, but research has called that idea into question. Anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker argues that the medical model gives the public something to fear about our very brains. Autism rights advocates have been fighting against this parent and government-led medicalization of their bodies since the 90’s.
Rejecting the medical model does not mean invalidating the ways we struggle, or the fact that our traits don’t always help us. There is a land between disorder and superpower, and this is the space I want to inhabit.
Marta has since proposed an alternative model to the executive function value system: design thinking. It’s the iterative, spiral process designers use to solve problems, and it’s also a framework I can see myself in, something that celebrates the way my brain works instead of pitying or pathologizing it, a reframe for all the unfinished projects that pile up the debilitating shame in my body:
“To actually get things done, we must respect that the elliptical orbit of Neuroemergent spiral time includes both periods of high-energy, fast-paced productivity, as well as times that are dreamy, restful, and obsessively inefficient.”
Through Marta, I met Sandra Coral, a teacher and neurodivergent coach who creates the podcast, The ADHD Good Life. Last year, Sandra made a series of episodes about how the deficits of ADHD align with many of the values of white supremacy culture — perfectionism, the worship of the written word, the insistence on One Right Way. These are values our society often accepts without question, and it’s easy to see how they inform the entire construct of ADHD.
In a recent blog post as part of an upcoming webinar on ADHD & Race, Dr. Dyi Dieuwertje Huijg called for “a field of Critical ADHD Studies, which is ADHD-affirmative, intersectional, and produced by ADHDers themselves.” In the post, she pointed out the almost-complete whiteness of ADHD research, citing popular studies where 83–100% of participants were white (as were the researchers).
This means the very concept of ADHD itself is rooted in a white, colonialist value system — something Hallowell praised when he claimed the early settlers in America were probably driven by all the ADHD he thinks was in their genes:
“Well, who colonized this country? People who have those traits! Back in the 1600s and 1700s, you had to have special qualities — some would say special craziness — to get on one of those boats and come over to this uncharted, dangerous land.”
He goes on to claim we diagnose so much ADHD in America because most ADHD researchers are American, an argument with zero consideration for how our cultural values influence the construction of our disorders.
Considering this perspective casts a darker tone on popular ideas like “timeblindness”, which completely ignores the fact that not all cultures are monochronic like the US and the UK. Linear time is a cultural concept, not an inherent part of the human brain.
In his book Sand Talk, Aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta writes: “We don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight line in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.”
Might Russell Barkley, who has said ADHD is “at its heart, a blindness to time” that is “destroying the timing and timeliness of human behavior”, then diagnose all Aboriginal peoples with timeblindness? Can you hear my eyes rolling?
In critiquing the role that power plays in our construction of normality, I am inspired, too, by the work of autistic scholar Damian Milton, known for his concept of the double empathy problem, which states the social communication “deficit” of autism is actually a communication breakdown between autistic and non-autistic people due to differences of disposition.
Recent research has supported this theory, but the myth that autistic people lack empathy prevails because of the power dynamics at work in our world, one in which a circle has been drawn around neurotypical ways of being, with everything outside of it deemed abnormal.
“…where disorder begins is entirely down to social convention, and where one decides to draw the line across the spectrum [of dispositional diversity],” writes Milton.
Is this not applicable to ADHDers, too? It’s not that we’re incapable or deficient, but that your linear ways, your love of stillness and restraint, just don’t work for us. It’s not that our brains are wrong, but that you are in a position to call yourself right.
I am tired of reductive, biological explanations for our ways of being like “dopamine deficiency” and “small brains”, the former a product of the popular chemical imbalance myths pushed by the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical industry over the last few decades, the latter a result of cherry-picked data and flawed neuroimaging studies.
I am tired of being told my brain is deficient, or worse, I have a “demon” inside it, a disturbing metaphor which Hallowell’s ADHD 2.0 presents for our supposedly overactive Default Mode Network, the newest in this line of overly simplistic biomedical explanations for our struggles.
We desperately need more analysis of the power dynamics at work in the ADHD world, more criticism of the research that is presented to us as fact in the media, more answers that affirm and empower us without politically pacifying us. Because the more you think the problem is in your brain, the less you’ll want to change the structures that hold you in place.
Further Reading (Or: all the critical ADHD works I've been able to find so far!)- Rethinking ADHD, Edited by Sami Timimi
- The Discourse of ADHD by Mary Horton-Salway and Alison Davies
- Critical New Perspectives on ADHD Edited By Gwynedd Lloyd, Joan Stead, and David Cohen