Does your Gifted Child have ADD (ADHD)?
Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.
A parent who searches the internet for information on gifted
children with ADD (ADHD) will find an array of confusing and
contradictory information. The public's stereotyped image
of a child with ADD (ADHD) is typically a young boy who does
poorly in school, who is impulsive, highly distractible, and
often has behavior problems at home and at school. Given this
negative image of ADD (ADHD), it's no wonder that many articles
argue against using this label for gifted students. One such
article characterizes the child with ADD (ADHD) as having
poor attention "in almost all situations," with
little ability to persist at tasks, a child who is impulsive,
restless, and has difficulty obeying rules and regulations
- in other words, a "bad" kid.
What many parents, and even many professionals, may not
know is that our understanding of ADD (ADHD) has evolved significantly
over the past ten to fifteen years. While there is certainly
a subgroup of challenging children who function poorly at
school and at home, there are many children with ADD (ADHD)
whose behavior and performance bears very little resemblance
to the difficult, disruptive child described above.
Children of above average intelligence, with few hyperactive/impulsive
symptoms, typically pose no behavior problems in the classroom
and often work hard to hide their ADD (ADHD) struggles - especially
if they are female. These children often do well in elementary
school, where their intelligence more than compensates for
the challenges posed by ADD (ADHD).
For some of these bright students, their unraveling begins
in middle school when the demands for productivity, independence,
and organization increase dramatically. This is a time when
there is a sharply increased demand on the "executive
functions" of the brain. Because most research on ADD
(ADHD) has been conducted on elementary school aged children,
we have not paid adequate attention to executive function
problems associated with ADD (ADHD). In elementary school,
we do not expect children to monitor themselves, to keep track
of time accurately, to keep their own schedule, or to plan,
organize and prioritize. A child's mother, father, and teacher
take responsibility for most of these functions. Then suddenly,
as a child enters middle school, he or she is faced with a
complex schedule, multiple teachers, and greatly increased
I will always remember a highly gifted student with ADD
(ADHD) whom I evaluated a number of years ago. He had just
gained admission to a highly competitive public science and
technology magnet high school. A ninth grader very small for
his age, he told me of his efforts to keep up with the demands.
Unable to organize his books and papers well, he found that
he often arrived in class without all of the necessary items.
Often, they had been left in his locker. His solution to this
problem was to carry ALL books and papers with him at all
times in a huge backpack that he could barely carry. To add
insult to injury, he tearfully reported that efforts to be
sure he had what he needed in all of his classes were criticized
by a teacher who told him that he was not allowed to carry
such a large backpack through the crowded school hallways.
"That's what your locker is for!" she exclaimed.
In this instance, the burden of struggling with ADD (ADHD)
was quite literal - a backpack that this student could barely
carry combined with criticism rather than understanding of
his intense efforts to keep up.
Other gifted students with ADD (ADHD) continue to function
well academically, at least on paper, through high school.
Their behind-the-scenes behaviors tell a different story,
however - chronic anxiety, all-night study sessions prior
to exams, homework that takes hours longer than their gifted
non-ADD(ADHD) counterparts, struggles with procrastination,
and last-minuite completion of papers and projects. While
their grades may look good, their ADD (ADHD) symptoms are
increasing as demands increase.
A number of students with ADD (ADHD) may not encounter significant
struggles until they are away at college - where the structures,
routines, and supports of home are suddenly missing. Some
parents, desperate to help their son or daughter succeed in
college, resort to becoming their child's long-distance coach,
calling to wake them in the morning, keeping detailed track
of assignments and exam dates and constantly reminding and
advising their child regarding daily to-do's and routines.
The more academically inclined and more intelligent the
student with ADD (ADHD), the later he or she begins to encounter
serious challenges related to ADD (ADHD). Some with ADD (ADHD),
for example, graduate from medical school, but are unable
to pass their medical boards, or complete all course requirements
for a Ph.D., but never complete the dissertation.
The possibility of ADD (ADHD) should not be rejected because
your child is currently doing well academically. Even when
academic performance is high, the hidden cost of ADD (ADHD)
may be taking a toll. Gifted students with ADD (ADHD) often
struggle with anxiety, even when grades are high. They may
also suffer when required to do unnecessary, repetitive work
that less gifted students may need, but which only serves
as a frustration for a gifted student.
1. Do others in the family show signs of ADD (ADHD)?
2. Then consider the following questions about your
Does your child have a poor sense of time?
Does your child struggle with procrastination, typically
beginning homework when it's nearly time for bed?
Is your child a night owl who seems to get a "second
wind" later in the evening?
Is your child an "absent-minded professor"?
Does your child hyper-focus to the extent that he or
she doesn't hear you when you call?
Is your child a dawdler who has great difficulty getting
up on time in the morning, and getting ready for school
once he or she is out of bed?
Is he or she very likely to misplace personal items
- jackets, keys, wallets, etc.?
Do you find that you need to repeat multi-step directions
because your child hasn't registered all of the steps?
Do you send your child upstairs for something only to
find that they have completely forgotten their mission
and are sidetracked by something else?
The child described above presents a very different picture
from the stereotyped child with ADD (ADHD) who is impulsive,
over-active, with a short attention span and little inclination
to follow the rules.
Sometimes, ADD (ADHD)-like traits are intensified! For example,
read Web's (1993) description of gifted children. According
- gifted children often daydream and pay little attention
with not interested (ditto for ADD (ADHD)!);
- they have low tolerance for tasks that seem irrelevant
(ditto for ADD (ADHD)!);
- they may have a high activity level with little need
for sleep (ditto for ADD (ADHD)!);
- they may be emotionally intense and engage in power struggles
(ditto for ADD (ADHD)!);
- and they may often question rules and traditions (ditto
for ADD (ADHD)!).
Sadly, sometimes "giftedness" and "ADD (ADHD)"
seem to cancel each other out - in the eyes of the school
and in the eyes of the student him or herself. For example,
a college freshman was referred to me by her very concerned
mother when "Rose" found herself feeling overwhelmed
by the demands of managing her life as a college student away
from home for the first time. Rose's mother believed, accurately,
that Rose was a gifted student with ADD (ADHD).
Rose, however, believed that she was neither gifted nor
ADD (ADHD). As Rose put it, "I know what gifted is. Lots
of my friends in high school were gifted. They didn't need
to study nearly as long as I did. They made better grades,
and they got higher scores on their SATs. If I were gifted,
I wouldn't be having the problems I'm having now!" Rose
denied her ADD (ADHD) as well. "I don't know why my mother
thinks I have ADD (ADHD). I'm not at all like the kids I knew
in school with ADD (ADHD) - the ones who took Ritalin. They
never read or studied. They were hyper and hated school. I'm
not like that. I read all the time and I'm certainly not hyper!"
For Rose, and for many gifted students like her, her giftedness
was masked by untreated ADD (ADHD), and her ADD (ADHD) went
unrecognized because Rose didn't fit the ADD (ADHD) stereotype.
The cost for this hidden disorder - demoralization and chronic
First, they should seek an evaluation by the best-qualified
professional that they can find. Parents should make sure
that the professional they select has experience evaluating
gifted students with ADD (ADHD).
Parents need to learn more about what ADD (ADHD) looks like
in bright, inattentive ADD (ADHD) students, and help their
son or daughter to learn about this too. Parents who suspect
that they too have ADHD should talk openly to their son or
daughter about their own struggles.
They should help their gifted son or daughter understand
that struggles with postponed assignments, sleep difficulties,
incomplete homework, careless errors on tests, and unpredictable
memory lapses may all be part of a very treatable condition.
It's important that parents also teach their gifted son
or daughter about the very positive traits often shared by
gifted individuals with ADD (ADHD):
- patterns of "divergent" thinking that can lead
to rare insight,
- a wealth of creative ideas,
- an ability to hyper-focus,
- and tremendous drive and energy that can be brought to
bear on an activity when a gifted person with ADD (ADHD)
directs his attention toward activities that are in his
areas of strength and interest.
Parents should seek comprehensive treatment. Studies suggest
that the most effective treatment for ADD (ADHD) combines
stimulant medication with solution-focused, cognitive/behavioral
Parents shouldn't delay if they suspect ADD (ADHD) in their
gifted child. Even if their child is doing well in school,
the cost of doing well only increases as demands and expectations
increase. But more importantly, ADD (ADHD) is a quality-of-life
disorder that can affect all aspects of life. Untreated ADD
(ADHD) can have a negative impact on self-esteem, on peer
relations, and can lead to chronic sleep difficulties, and
to chronic stress that may develop into anxiety and/or depression
as life becomes increasingly challenging.
The great advantage of an early diagnosis is that a gifted
child will have a better opportunity to make critical life
decisions that are more ADD (ADHD)-friendly, and will have
a greater chance of reaching his or her true potential.