Unlocking the Potential in ADHD Adults

October 27, 2013 Updated: December 13, 2013    

NEW YORK—Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell has built his career around helping people recognize and embrace their unique mental strengths and to work in ways that suit their cognitive style.

Whether he’s appearing on national television or jetting around the three treatment centers he founded, Hallowell is trying to spread one message: That ADD and ADHD are not disabilities, just traits with up- and down-sides.

The ADD/ADHD traits can be hurtful or helpful depending on how they are managed.

Hallowell has ADHD and dyslexia himself, yet he graduated from Harvard with a degree in English before entering medical school and starting his own practice. He tells his young patients they are lucky to have “Ferrari engines” for brains, but are unfortunate to only have “bicycle brakes.” He teaches both adults and children ways to strengthen their brakes and focus their attention.

All Grown Up and Fidgety

In the two decades since ADD first hit public awareness, and especially in the wake of the federal program, No Child Left Behind, there has been a lot of concern about children who struggle with attention problems. But what the public is less aware of is that many adults suffer with ADD/ADHD too, in ways that are easy to miss.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that just over 4 percent of American adults have ADHD, and have exhibited it since an average age of 7.

About 60 percent of children with ADHD in the United States continue to struggle with it in their adulthood, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

The school environment makes childhood ADD/ADHD easy to spot. It’s structured and students are expected to sit still, pay attention, and complete assignments according to teacher specification. The ones who resist this structure stick out, either for their unusual and creative ways of looking at issues, or for their slow academic progress.

But for adults, the signs can be a bit more subtle.

“For adults with ADD the leading symptom is chronic, unexplained underachievement,” Hallowell said.

That underachievement could manifest itself as tuning out in business meetings, lack of drive, or having trouble finishing projects, all of which add up to passed-over promotions and generally feeling unfulfilled.

A Hopeful Message

Hallowell’s seemingly boundless drive spurred him to open three treatment centers—in New York, San Francisco, and Sudbury, Mass. He has also published over 10 popular books on adult and childhood psychology. His latest book, “Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People,” (2011) is a business book for managers who want to help employees—with or without ADD/ADHD—manifest their full potential.

Hallowell himself, and many other entrepreneurs in various fields, are living proof that “learning disabilities” don’t have to kill ambition.

“You name the profession and I can find someone at the top of it who has this trait,” he said. “Calling it a disability weighs it entirely on the downside and ignores the upside.”

What’s the upside of having ADD? Creativity, a unique way of solving problems, and an entrepreneurial spirit, Hallowell said, the same spirit that founded this country.

Help for the Stagnating Professional

The key to success as an adult with ADD or ADHD is two-fold: find the right profession, and develop the right habits.

“The [attention] ‘deficit’ is misleading—ADHD people can focus. They can super-focus when the subject happens to interest them,” Hallowell said. “It’s when it doesn’t that they can’t control their wandering minds that [it] is problematic.”

That’s why it’s crucial to get a job that fits the individual.

“Your career ought to be the overlap of three circles: What you’re really good at doing, what you like to do, and what someone will pay you to do. That’s the sweet spot,” he said.

“A lot of times people with ADD spend their lives trying to get good at what they’re bad at because they got the message in school that’s what they should do.”

The second part of the equation is to manage yourself.

This includes taking control of your time. Don’t let people pull your attention away. Manage “screensucking,” or letting the Internet drain away productive hours.

“The ADD mind is like a toddler at a picnic. It goes wherever it wants to go with no regard for danger or authority,” Hallowell said. “It’s forever going off following curiosity.”

To make this thirst for novelty a force for good, one must learn to direct one’s energy.

“It begins with education, making them aware of what they’re doing, how much time is being wasted, and that their mental energy is finite,” Hallowell said. “There are ways to conserve your energy, to deploy your time and attention so you don’t lose your edge, feel frazzled, and underachieve because of it.”

Education First, Medication Last

In Hallowell Center’s five-step process, education follows diagnosis, and medication is the last resort.

The center adopts a team approach to treating patients, employing MDs, psychologists, psychiatrists, coaches, and tutors, who work together to monitor patients’ progress and make sure that lifestyle and counseling recommendations are met with follow-through.

The first step in treatment is to understand how a patient’s thought process works. Staff at the center start with a series of neuropsychological tests that measure problem solving, planning and organizing styles, attention, memory and learning, language and perceptual processes. These take the form of puzzles, games, and mazes. The tests generate the patient’s cognitive profile and serve as a starting point for improvement.

Once the strengths and weak spots are determined, a course of treatment is found which can include tutors who meet with children multiple times per week to work on time management, planning, organizing, prioritizing, and decision-making systems for effective daily living. In cases where medication is needed, psychiatrists work with the patient and the team to manage medication and side effects.