You’ve cleared the afternoon to write the speech for your best friend’s wedding.
As soon as you sit down, your mind wanders to the street outside your window; the sound of the faucet dripping in the sink; the empty refrigerator. You were supposed to buy groceries. You get up and check the fridge. A glistening bottle of seltzer water in the back makes you realise you’re thirsty. You pour yourself a glass. While sipping, your mind wanders back to the speech.
You sit back down, determined to focus this time.
If you have ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, this might seem like a familiar scenario: You’re used to having relatively simple tasks feel excruciatingly difficult.
But while most of us tend to focus on the negatives of ADHD, some of the characteristics we associate with the disorder, from impulsivity to an inability to follow directions, can have some surprising benefits too.
1. Being Perceptive
OK, so your short attention span could mean that wedding speech will never get written. But being incapable of zeroing in on a single thing might also help you pick up on changes in your surroundings that others might not notice. This could come in especially handy when your job — or even your life — depends on noticing such a change.
Say you and some friends are camping, for example. While most of the gang is busy roasting marshmallows, you notice a bear heading straight toward your campground. Your inability to focus on making s’mores just saved your life.
Recent research suggests that this kind of behaviour may have played a role in how we evolved: Some of our nomadic ancestors had ADHD-like characteristics, too. These people would have been quick to notice changes to their natural environment — such as a stream drying up or an approaching predator — and alerted their family members in time for them to find new sources of water or plan an escape.
Thank you, easily-distracted nomads.
2. Thinking Creatively
Most bosses, teachers, and parents agree: Having an employee, student, or child who can’t follow directions can be infuriating. But an inability to do what one is told might also enable someone with ADHD to come up with creative solutions to problems that others would never dream of.
In one test of children who were tasked with coming up with new toy designs, those with ADHD came up with a far more diverse array of different types of toys than those without ADHD. Similarly, in another test of adults who were asked to think of as many uses as possible for a common object, such as a cup or a brick, those with ADHD outperformed those without it.
However, when the adults were given other tasks to test creativity, such as one in which they had to find something in common amongst three seemingly unrelated items (such as the words mines, lick, and sprinkle) those with ADHD performed worse than those without it.
3. Expressing Emotion
Many people with ADHD also have a hard time controlling their emotions. Researchers aren’t sure yet whether this experience is part of ADHD or a separate condition. If you have what’s known as emotional dysregulation, you rarely feel apathetic. Whether you’re sad, upset, or elated, your emotions tend to be strong and straightforward.
While some people might label you emotional, others — especially close friends — might appreciate your tendency to share how you’re feeling. And recent research suggests that allowing ourselves to feel emotions as they happen helps us process them and prepare for the future.
People with emotional dysregulation also tend to have a hard time recognising others’ emotions and sometimes misinterpret them as a result. While this could certainly be a challenge to forming healthy relationships, research suggests that people can compensate for it with clear communication.
4. Tackling Specialised Jobs
Overall, these characteristics might make people with ADHD better suited than the rest of us for jobs that take advantage of their flexibility and impatience.
“In the right environment, these traits are not a disability, and can be a real asset,” Weill Cornell Medical College clinical psychiatry professor Richard A. Friedman suggested in a recent op-ed for The New York Times.
Jobs that require frequent travel, such as journalism and photography, or positions that require frequently switching from one type of task to another, could be well suited to people who have many of the characteristics associated with ADHD. One of Friedman’s patients, he writes, saw a decline in his ADHD symptoms after he switched from a desk job to a position in a start-up where his work environment was constantly changing.
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