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Yes, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be compared to a superpower. According to ADHD Statistics and Facts in 2024, approximately 6-7% of adults are estimated to have ADHD. In Children aged 6-11 years old this percentage is 9-10%.

There are various debates about what causes ADHD. It has been linked to difficult childhood experiences, genetic and neurodevelopmental factors, and its physiological presentation in the brain has been observed in various brain scans. Likelihood is that ADHD is caused by numerous factors at the same time, including a current environment where more and more people and companies compete for our attention.

Sometimes it can be helpful to look at ADHD as a set of difficulties that often occur together and qualify people for a diagnosis of ADHD. Nevertheless, people who present with ADHD can be very good at tasks that demand quick attentional shifts and decision making in chaotic situations, such as sports. With this in mind, this guide discusses how ADHD can be seen as a superpower.




Can ADHD Be Seen As A Superpower?


Yes, let’s take Spiderman as an example. Imagine that Peter Parker (Spiderman) is trying to hold a conversation with Mary Jane Watson about going to the shop to get something for dinner. She is asking him for a list of ingredients, quantities and whether it would be best to take the car or walk to the shop. 

Meanwhile, Peter’s spider senses direct his attention to news on the police radio, informing him that an armed bank robbery is taking place two blocks away. When asking him if he has checked the weather forecast, thinking that it might start raining while they are out, his spider sense turns his head to a helicopter chasing Doctor Octavius in the distance. He politely tells Mary Jane that whatever she wants is alright with him and that they should get going, which slightly annoys her given that she would like him to show that he cares. 

As they leave, Peter’s spider sense draws his attention to the sound of Doctor Octavius grabbing the helicopter with his octopus’ arms and sending it crashing into the ground about a mile away. That’s the threshold of self-restraint for Peter, he feels compelled to go and fight Octavius. His spider sense takes over and he says to Mary Jane that she should drive while he walks to the shop. Before she can utter a word of protest, Peter is out the door. 

Peter feels certain that he has plenty of time and energy to fight Octavius and then get to the shop in time to meet Mary Jane there. However, the fight takes him longer than expected and he is running late.

On his way to the shop to meet Mary Jane, his spider sense reminds him that he had also heard the police radio talk about a bank robbery nearby. He figures he’ll sort that out quickly on the way. 

By the time Peter gets to the shop, Mary Jane is furious. She tells him she has waited for ages, and she is soaking wet because it had indeed started to rain. Peter apologises and genuinely feels terrible that he has left her waiting.

He tells her that he’ll pay for all the shopping to make it up to her. However, when they get to the counter, he pauses and looks at Mary Jane. He left his wallet at home. 


What Are Key Components of ADHD?


1) Inattention

    • This is a misleading word as it suggests that people with ADHD don’t pay attention. The difficulty is rather that ADHD causes a kind of hyper attention to the things which may not be helpful to the task at hand. As you may have recognised, Spiderman’s spider sense represents his hyper attention which is sensitive to vivid things going on in the environment. However, the spider sense gets in the way of Peter’s task at hand, which is to organise a shopping trip with Mary Jane. 
    • That is not to say that he is not interested in organising the shopping with Mary Jane. In fact, he is trying very hard to focus on it. But his attention is drawn to other things so strongly that he struggles to do this sufficiently. 


2) Difficulties With Planning And Organising Tasks And Activities 

    • While Peter may be great at dealing with the chaos of a man with robotic octopus arms smashing helicopters, he finds it hard to plan and organise even a seemingly simple task into steps (actions such as driving or walking), amount (quantities for each ingredient), and time (how long the task will take). 
    • Because of the way his attention keeps jumping away from the task at hand, it becomes challenging for him to complete it. The strain he feels while trying to do it makes his attention jump away even more. Thus, people with ADHD can experience a vicious cycle of giving up or even trying to plan and organise. 


3) Forgetfulness And Losing Things 

    • People with ADHD can struggle with their memory. While Peter’s attention was battling with trying to focus on planning the shopping with Mary Jane and the vivid things that were going on in the environment around him, he forgot to bring his wallet. 


4) Hyperactivity-Impulsivity

    • For children, it is safe to say that most children are by nature hyperactive according to today’s standards. We expect children to sit still way longer than they are suited for. In adults, hyperactivity is not as common. In adults diagnosed with ADHD hyperactivity is less common than in children who are diagnosed. 
    • People with ADHD tend to need higher intensity stimuli to feel good. If such stimuli are not around, they are likely to seek it. So, if we go back to Spiderman, a task such as planning the shopping is an example of low intensity situation. His attention then starts looking for something with higher intensity to focus on and finds a chaotic situation.
    • Because people with ADHD often thrive in chaotic situations, such as fighting a man with four robotic arms and sunglasses, they can be drawn to risk taking, disruption in various ways, and novelty seeking. These behaviours can sometimes present as hyperactivity and impulsivity. 




How Can ADHD Be A Superpower?


Because of the attention ‘deficit’ caused by ADHD, people who present with ADHD can be good at tasks that demand quick attentional shifts and decision making in chaotic situations, such as sports. They can also be willing to engage in risk taking which is a common necessity when leading a fulfilling life. If a person with ADHD finds an activity that captures their attention, they can become ‘super’ effective at that task and experience a quick learning curve. 

In the non-medical approach to treating the condition there is therefore often a focus with ADHD support on using tools and techniques to help with low stimuli tasks such as organising and planning and encouraging the use of ADHD strengths to gain a sense of mastery and fulfilment in life despite the diagnosis. The latter is analogous to making room to put the Spiderman suit on and fighting crime. 

If you want to learn more about ADHD, you can find useful information on the NHS website. I also recommend reading Gabor Mate’s ‘Scattered Minds.’

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Dr Erlend Slettevold

Dr Erlend Slettevold is a Clinical Psychologist at The Oak Tree Practice. His qualifications include Psychology BSc, Psychology MSd and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.