Why We Should Stop Looking for ADHD Genes

Jesse Meadows
10 min readNov 29, 2021

Genetic determinism will never liberate us.

triple exposure of a woman’s face with plastic wrap over it, colorful genes, and the DSM5 criteria for ADHD
Art by the author

“ADHD runs in families,” this WebMD article confidently states. “There are genetic characteristics that seem to be passed down.”

“Some research suggests genes are the largest factors in determining who develops ADHD. After all, genes are the building blocks for our bodies,” says this one from Healthline.

These are your first-page Google results for “ADHD genetic” — but these sites are also massive companies that get most of their funding from pharmaceutical industry dollars, and both have been criticized for shady editorial practices in the past.

What’s so bad about genetics? Isn’t it just a fact that genes determine who we are? The medical system would like for you to think so; the entire biomedical model of mental illness rests on genetic determinism, and while doctors love to present themselves as unbiased, there’s a political reason for this focus on genes.

The US government spends millions of dollars every year on genetics research. The National Human Genome Research Institute has requested $633 million dollars from Congress for 2022, an increase of $17 million from their 2021 budget.

The 2022 budget request cites the need “for genomics to inform the development of solutions for some of the greatest public health needs that the nation faces related to common diseases”, citing heart disease and autism as examples.

Autistic advocates loudly oppose genomic research. This September, the $4 million dollar Spectrum 10K project led by Simon Baron-Cohen was put on hold after fierce backlash from the autistic community, who are skeptical of its intentions and rightfully pissed that research like this continues without autistic input.

Beneath the emphasis on genetic research lies the ideology of biological essentialism, which has been used throughout history to support all kinds of racist, genocidal, and eugenic policies. The goal of finding “solutions for some of the greatest public health needs” implies that public health has nothing to do with social context and is entirely determined by biology.

But genes do not determine anything — they “define possibilities” as neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier said, and they…

Jesse Meadows

writer + digital artist doing critical adhd studies + re-politicizing mental health | they/them