ADHD and Intelligence

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ADHD and Intelligence By Robert Wilford, PhD sleepy stressed young woman sitting at her desk in front of computer

For people who don’t have a condition like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it can sometimes be difficult for them to separate the condition itself from the ADHD individual’s intelligence. It is often true — though certainly not a hard and fast rule — that people with a high IQ have longer attention spans and learn more easily. Therefore, it might seem to follow that people with ADHD must have a lower IQ, or that those with a high IQ can’t have ADHD. As it turns out, this is simply not the case.

Under the wrong circumstances, gifted (high-IQ) children without ADHD can have difficulty concentrating, poor performance, and apathy. This is a matter of boredom and lack of interest in the subject. For someone with ADHD, this problem is exacerbated. An ADHD individual with average intelligence may require a higher threshold for stimulation than the non-ADHD kids in order to stay engaged with a school lesson, but an ADHD individual with a high IQ will require an even higher threshold for stimulation. The measure of intelligence is something that should be considered completely separately from the capacity for high executive function.

About three out of four ADHD individuals with an IQ higher than 120 —which places them in the top nine percent of individuals in the United States — showed significant impairments in memory and cognitive function when compared to people with similar IQ's who do not suffer from the disorder, according to researchers of a Yale study. Again, this does not imply that they are stupid, because intelligence is only partially related to the areas of memory and cognition. Rather, it demonstrates that they have greater difficulty staying on task and focusing on one subject for an extended period of time.

The prefrontal cortex is the area in the brain which orchestrates planning, organizing, sequencing, and judgment of consequences. ADHD impairs this, thereby making it more difficult to concentrate, to pay attention, to listen, to remember, and to learn. One term to describe these important functions is “self-management.” For those without ADHD, managing thoughts and thinking about the things they have to do is relatively routine. They can manage their own actions and make plans on the fly without too much difficulty. It is with this that an ADHD individual often suffers. Think of the problem from this perspective: a non-ADHD individual is like an automobile navigation system with a destination in mind. Even with several possible routes to consider, executive function takes over and helps make a quick decision about the best route to take. For an ADHD mind, this problem can be much more challenging to resolve, particularly for the ones who have a high IQ. They very well might have an excessive number of ideas in their head, but at the same time have difficulty taking these ideas and translating them into a plan of action. In other words, if a navigation system had ADHD, instead of rapidly analyzing, planning, prioritizing, and then choosing one of the routes, it would merely shut down because of a sense of perceived boredom with the task at hand.

You could also think of the problem as a physical to-do list. The more intelligent an ADHD individual is, the longer that to-do list is, because their mind is sharper and better able to think of items to put down — but that still doesn’t enable someone with impaired executive function to organize and prioritize the items on that list. The standard for what a highly intelligent ADHD individual finds interesting actually increases, while their ability to focus on things that lack their interest decreases. It is comparable to those ADHD individuals possessing a lower IQ.

It is for this reason that many ADHD individuals find it necessary to seek treatment. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by a barrage of thoughts and ideas that they cannot arrange into a logical sequence, they can finally learn how to focus on one idea at a time. Without this assistance, a highly intelligent ADHD individual could actually feel lower self-esteem and confidence than an ADHD individual of average intelligence, because they have even more ideas that they don’t know what to with.

Ultimately, the revelation is that ADHD and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. Some ADHD individuals are geniuses, some are of average intelligence, and others are mentally disabled — just like non-ADHD individuals. As long as they are able to take control of their many ideas and organize them into a practical manner they may be able to overcome the impairment of their executive function and be successful in their daily lives.

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