How to explain ADHD to someone without ADHD
I still struggle to understand what is going on in my husband’s brain, who has ADHD.
But I think that’s normal in a relationship lasting over 20 years 😉
Mike himself has a great explanation: “Imagine your head is a TV – but someone else is holding the remote control.”
But at that time, I didn’t understand what he meant.
Back then, six years ago, when he found out about his ADHD – for me, it only meant struggle.
With problems everywhere.
With fights for seemingly nothing.
With “strange behavior”.
All because we both didn’t know what was going on.
Think of someone having diabetes
If you have it and eat like someone not having diabetes, things can get serious.
But there is no ONE size fits all explanation of ADHD.
Because not every ADHD is the same. Just like not every empathetic person or neurotypical person is the same.
But there are some unique characteristics in ADHD.
So, let me tell you how I experienced it, hoping to make things easier for you.
And I don’t aim to give a perfect explanation.
This view is personal and reflects my experience.
How to explain ADHD to someone who does not have it
Here are the five most significant differences that come up for Mike and me in our relationship.
And in the collaboration.
#1 – Time blindness
Time blindness is probably the most challenging difference to wrap your head around if you do not have ADHD.
Think of someone being born without the ability to see. This person can’t see, and that will probably never change.
The same goes for someone with ADHD over time.
It simply does not exist, in a way.
Sure, Mike can read the clock. And he knows when the clock rings, it is time to get up.
When the sun sets, the day is coming to an end. But everything in between, considering time, has to be taken care of.
Here is an example:
Saturday morning, we played badminton in the garden (yes, I know, this is a significant advantage in Cyprus ;)).
We decide to take a shower, then have breakfast, and then go shopping. Mike makes himself a coffee, saying: I drink my coffee, read a bit, and then take a shower.
YOU probably expect him to shower within 5 or 10 minutes.
But that will not happen by itself.
It only happens if you make your communication very precise.
Which is – agree to an exact time or an exact timeframe.
And it still can happen that you need to say, hey, shall we take a shower? This question can lead to taking a shower together, but that is a different topic.
I did not understand what time blindness is. Sure, I read about it.
And I understood that the executive functions, being the brain’s management system, are “impaired” with ADHD.
And skills like self-control, organization, and flexible thinking are affected.
The three executive functions impaired are Working memory, flexible (or cognitive) thinking, and inhibitory control.
You may have heard about five, seven, or even eight executive functions – EF, but let’s keep it simple for now.
(Please find a more detailed explanation here. On this website, you find additional resources.)
A – Working memory.
As you probably guessed, this has to do with keeping things in mind. Think of going into the kitchen to pour yourself a coffee.
On the way, you see the mess in the living room. You put some of the stuff where it belongs and suddenly wonder: Why am I here?
This situation can happen to all of us.
With ADHD, it is probably 18988 times more often.
B – Flexible thinking.
Also called cognitive thinking is the ability to think about something in more than one way.
To be flexible about it.
You can find more on this topic in my example number five.
C – Inhibitory control (including self-control).
This ability can ignore things that distract you from what you want to accomplish and resist temptations.
Think of my example with the shower.
When Mike sits down to read while having his coffee, all three of these “dark EF riders” come into play:
- He forgets his plan – taking a shower – while reading.
- It is hard/impossible for him to have more than one thing in mind at each moment. I am reading – showering. Two things.
- It is hard/impossible to resist temptations. Stop reading.
What I say here is not a perfect explanation.
But it helped me not be mad or sad when things did not go the way we agreed.
#2 – Dopamine
The second “thing” I needed to understand was the way dopamine works in the ADHD brain.
It is not true that there is no dopamine.
But first: What is dopamine?
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that keeps us going. For example, when the sun shines on your face, you wake up and feel energized and alive.
It is the feeling you get when you are about to have sex or eat chocolate and the drive you develop to get even more sex or more chocolate.
It is dopamine that drives the drive.
And that is different with ADHD.
There is dopamine in ADHD. But it moves more sssssllllllllllooooooowwwwlly
Which is crucial in some situations. Think of driving. Research shows, people with ADHD have a much higher risk of having car accidents.
This fact is something to watch.
The same can happen in a discussion. You wait and wait and wait, not knowing if your partner is fallen asleep or still thinking about the problem.
(That highly depends on the subject of your discussion. Do you talk about chores? He is sleeping ;))
Once you know that this dopamine thing exists, it gets easier.
It also affects enthusiasm.
I come up with an idea, thinking it is the most gorgeous I ever said, and he looks at me like my cat does, when not wanting to be disturbed.
So, if you realize that, give him or her some time to process.
Processing is a big thing with ADHD.
(But please don’t clap on the back of his or her head. That doesn’t help ;))
For us, it was one of the reasons we moved to Cyprus: Sun exposure is excellent.
#3 – Forgetfulness
When you mention forgetfulness to people who don’t have ADHD, you often hear, I am forgetful too.
But usually, only if you happen to have a condition like Alzheimer’s can you compare the amount of forgetfulness to ADHD.
You find dozens of stories on the internet about lost keys, cars, kids. And sometimes it is not funny, even if the person herself laughs about it.
Not funny for someone having ADHD.
Not funny for family or partner.
But you have to deal with it. You have to come to an understanding that this is one of the characteristics.
Remember one of the three dark EF riders – working memory? This guy is responsible.
Mike & I have a running gag about that:
Long before we knew about his ADHD, I was mad that he again forgot to bring out the trash.
I left it standing in front of the door – inside.
And there it was.
I swear, it already developed new life in it …
Then I asked: “Did you see the trash at the door?”
He answered, completely astonished: “Trash? We have trash?”
And it has nothing to do with how important something is for you or the other person, like your birthday or the day you married.
It can be forgotten.
If that happens, it is not easy for both sides. And I am convinced it does more harm than good to say that this is not important.
Or there are more important things than that.
Because dealing with that takes a good portion of understanding. And an even more significant amount of humor not to feel neglected.
But you can do something.
Once I read about a man who said: If I don’t write sex in my calendar, we don’t have sex. It’s better to have scheduled sex than none at all, right?
The same can go for days you want to celebrate.
Or for presents you want to have.
Write it in his or her calendar.
And think of it – you can have as much sex / presents as you like. Your significant other won’t remember the last time. (Just kidding.)
#4 – Distractibility
When you talk to each other and see that look as if he is somewhere else in the galaxy – he probably is.
Because focusing on one thing for a more extended period is challenging with ADHD. Especially listening is hard.
At work, we have our frameworks helping with that. In our private life, I try to use my mantra: Be brief.
But brief does not always work as I like to talk because it helps me sort out my thoughts.
So, I got used to the fact that sometimes I talk to myself.
And Mike is so kind to nod from time to time.
#5 – Flexibility
If you go back to dark rider EF #2 – flexible thinking, you can probably see why flexibility can be challenging if you have ADHD.
Here is an example:
I want to do something spontaneous, like having a walk at the beach, then go grocery shopping.
Mike already has his plans for the day.
No big deal for me not having ADHD. If it works out for me, I say: Great, let’s do that.
If not, I say: Sorry, I’m busy.
But that can be hard for someone having ADHD.
You need to evaluate if this is better than that.
Or if you want that altogether.
And if that fits into your day.
Or if you are rude, saying, I don’t want that.
A lot of thinking can go into that seemingly simple decision to make.
Think of it:
You already made plans. Now you are flooded with decision making questions in your head:
First: Is the new plan better?
Second: Do I want this?
Third: What if I don’t want this? (Is the other person mad at me?)
Fourth: Am I willing to take the risk?
Before I make your head explode, you already got my point. There are numerous micro-decisions involved in one question.
And as working memory is a problem – remember? Dark EF rider #1 – this is a recipe for getting stuck.
How to explain ADHD to someone without ADHD?
- Think of an ADHD brain being the TV – and someone else holds the remote control.
- The management system of the brain works differently.
- That causes problems with skills like self-control, organization, and flexible thinking.
- The five areas I have/had problems with my husband having ADHD are Time blindness, dopamine, and its consequences, forgetfulness, distractibility, and flexibility.
Let me know in the comments if this helps you to explain ADHD to someone who does not have ADHD.
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Thanks for your article, Andrea. I was just diagnosed (at 40-years-old), and I can see that I share a lot in common with Mike. It is helpful to know.