The Gift/Curse Debate: A Nuanced Perspective

NOTE TO THE READER: Andrew, a recent visitor to this blog, has written a number of well thought out (and lengthy) comments that, I felt, deserve to stand alone as their own post. In discussion with Andrew, who has agreed to allow me to do this, the hope is to spur additional debate on these topics.

NOTE TO NEW VISITORS: If you are a new visitor to this blog, you may want to read these posts that ask if A.D.D. is a gift or a curse.

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I’m a little confused over this new move into ADD “politically correctness”. This debate over good/bad ADD seems to parallel many other minority debates.

ADD has caused me huge problems with work and relationships, brought me addictions and depression and continues to prevent me from achieving my goals – not that I have many goals as I rarely ever can contemplate the future. But if I had a button to press to remove my ADD, I would not press it. I like my constant craving for new interesting things, my perfectionism, humour, out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and rule breaking. If my neuro-chemistry were returned to “normal” then I would lose these attributes too. Some might argue that these positive attributes are not part of ADD but they certainly are part of the “differences” package that has set me apart for nearly forty years, only recently diagnosed.

Even though there are no double-blind studies proving the benefits of ADD, lack of proof does not equate to non-existence. Dr. Barkley has not been looking for positives, nor have any other scientists – positives are pretty hard to test for. I do however find that the usual lists of benefits for ADD seem to fit with the ADD people I know, much more so than for people without ADD. Maybe its a little like horoscopes – if you list flattering attributes then everyone will agree they have them? I also find it easy to “diagnose” people around me with “undiagnosed” ADD, as well as people in the media, authors, TV presenters, comics and actors in movies? It seems that their ADD got them those jobs in the first place, the ADD that makes them funny, engaging and interesting. I have found that I have unconsciously sought people with ADD as friends, colleagues and partners over the years. It seems it is common for ADDers to connect with other people with ADD, people who maybe talk quickly, humorously, alight on different topics and keep their boredom away?

Just because the ADD brain is different, it is not necessarily inferior. ADD brains are not broken, some parts are a little smaller, some parts a little bigger, some parts operate more quickly, some more slowly. Would it not be logical to conclude that this means people with ADD can do some things better and some things worse? The major difference in ADD is with our “weaker” frontal lobes, these lobes came late in evolution to help people operate in a tribe – to obey the rules, to be patient, to keep out emotions in check, to plan for the future. If our frontal lobes are less in charge it is inevitable that we will break rules, get bored and be more emotional. But then with weaker control it also seems inevitable that more people with ADD rule-breaking-boredom would become explorers, inventors, artists and comics? For mankind as a whole it is probably beneficial that 95% follow convention and the rules but that 5% break rules, connect new ideas, create and don’t conform. These people bring change.

The problem lies in part with medicine taking responsibility for defining ADD. Medicine defines everything as disorder or illness, that is the business of doctors, psychiatrists, pharaceuticals and therapists. There is no scope (nor ever has been) for medicine to define strengths, abilities or attributes. If you review the DSM IV diagnostic criteria for ADHD, they mandate significant problems or disorders before you can even get a diagnosis. If ADD is a genetically inherited, neurological difference that brings both good and bad then the doctors have immediately excluded all the “well” ADDers by their definition. This is deliberate selection of “disordered ADD” only. The “well” ADDers are excluded, the may well have challenges but their strengths help them overcome these and survive in society. The doctors, including Barkley, have really not done any research on this, maybe one day they will but it seems likely that neuro-typical people would be reluctant to define experiments to prove that they do not measure up to people they classify as disordered? Some of Barkley’s statements have the feel of prejudice and bigotry, it appears it would take an overwhelming amount of evidence to change his opinions.

Not every inventor or entrepreneur has ADD, nor is everyone with ADD an entrepreneur. It is fair to say that ADD people have different traits from normal (neuro-typical) people. Many of these traits cause problems but some can bring unique strengths especially if recognised and embraced. I feel that Hallowell is trying to counter the pure disorder model, maybe there is some commercial motivation too but I like his books and feel him to be a positive influence in the field of ADD – that seems a good thing.

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  • http://Andrewscomments Victoria

    I agree with you.
    I also think the line between Adult ADDers who have coped and managed well, is blurred with and blended into the highly intelligent successful non ADDer.

    This blending and blurring also makes others believe ADD doesn’t exist, and that those who use the term are just using an excuse.

    The key is to find a way to live successfully in life without self medication that interrupts clear thinking.
    Or to cope with life and live a meaningful one with or without medical intervention whichever works for you.

    I’ve seen ADD destroy some lives, mainly because the men were in denial that they needed medical intervention even after failures and stagnation in their social development. These men had other issues along with the ADD diagnosis, including anxiety and anger, which only got worse as they got older.

  • dmgli

    DENIAL. The only people we tend to amuse with the ADD is ourselves. Recently I found a diet/allergy connection to my ADD. The change in diet has recently given me many moments of almost feeling what it is like to NOT have ADD.
    Not having to be the life of the party, or start and keep some conversations going, not putting my foot in my mouth, living without feeling like I am on the edge, having moments of total peace and tranquility are qualities I could live with and good riddance ADD.
    I used to thnk the same things about missing it if I didn’t have it and it being a part of my personality. It feels like this was a disorder that needed to be fixed. Make no mistake that I still have issues to deal with and mostly with the remnants of a lifelong ADDer but this time has ended for me and it is time for me to have a different more stable and tranquil life.

    As for the curious my food allergy connection is with wheat and gluten. This recent discovery may have changed my life.

  • Jeff


    That’s an interesting connection though, as you yourself note, it does not cure anything but may lessen behaviors.

    Consulting the Internet’s Oracle of Wisdom (aka Google), I found the following:


    ADD and Gluten

    These links provide some (excuse the pun) food for thought. (Hopefully gluten-free food!)

    I know of others who are not A.D.D. and who have found the results of a gluten-free diet to be marvelous. They said they had more energy than they had in the past (and the person who said that is about 70 years old). I wonder if any diet that moves away from processed/manufactured/chemical-pumped foods, that is, moves away from Twinkies, white bread and beef (to put it in simple terms) and goes to a more vegetarian diet (be it lacto-ovo or pure vegan, see: Vegetarianism) may be healthier for many of us. There may still need to be dietary adjustments on an individual basis. However, that dietary move in itself may be extraordinarily beneficial.

    Now please excuse me while I have a cup of coffee and a bagel widda shmear. ;)
    (bagel widda shmear/)

  • Victoria

    As a note to parents and maybe even some adults….I kept a journal for both of my boys diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. I found that after baseball events when the coach would haul the team over to Dairy Queen for ice-cream, my son would bounce off the walls after his “treat”. He could not at any time, eat DQ ice cream. This was back in the mid 80′s. He would also amp up and breathing would change when he ate Dorito’s.

    My other son’s ADD improves dramatically for his day work, and almost disappears with intense weight lifting and working out on a nightly basis.

    The temptation once one is sort of tired of all the changes is that he or she could resort to lesser desireable coping mechanisms.

    The key to early intervention is teaching coping mechanisms and helping to build self confidence in kids to understand their own inner navigation and how it works for them.

    I love being able to help kids understand that they have so much to offer, this helps them as they become young adults…….Any way those are just my thoughts!

    Thanks for this site, I love it.

  • betsy davenport

    Andrew’s post is one of the most well written, balanced and true pieces on this point of dissent I have ever read.

    The very fact that he has found not middle ground, not bi-partisan, not either-or — but has combined and described the many facets of the AD/HD life and experience is a tribute to his clear thinking and his having thought in a considered way about the apparent dichotomy we all face every day.

    Of course, as a person who would have been willing to stand in a long and boring line ending at the counter where you could get a trade-in for a standard-issue brain, I fully appreciate the red button idea. I think I’d push the button and be delighted with the result. But, like Cinderella, on the stroke of midnight I’d have the new better brain replaced with my old erratic one and then, having sampled both, go back and stand in line, thus wasting precious, learning-to-cope hours.

    I stopped fantasizing that line a long time ago, though it returns to me on occasion. I was even willing to give up 15 or more IQ points in the bargain, counting myself thoroughly lucky to have the IQ points to spare.

    Which brings me to this, said before: people who are similar, as Andrew says, tend to hang out together. People who are smart hang out with people who are smart. Some of them have AD/HD. People who have not succeeded in our school system, who dropped out or did drugs (or both), living on the edge of legal, hang out together and many of them wind up in jail. With their AD/HD. Which is less problematic in prison because there is little need for the executive functions as things are handled by someone else, by tight structure, clear rules, and let’s not forget fear, the greatest stimulant ever..

    My main point of disagreement with Andrew is the one I always have, which is the embracing part. To the extent I must take into account all of my own traits in order to be a healthy, autonomous person, it is incumbent on me to accept all my traits. That pragmatism can hardly be called an embrace; maybe one of those half-hugs you give to Aunt Charlotte on Thanksgiving every few years or so. You don’t have to like something to accept it, and I know I will never, ever, like some of the things that go wrong due to my quirky brain. The things that are neutral or maybe even interesting or funny that my quirky brain has to do with? I know plenty of funny and interesting people without AD/HD.

    My father was so not-AD/HD; but he was eccentric, he liked and appreciated the unconventional, preferred his own company a good deal, had no trouble not conforming to the expectations of the culture, had many innovative ideas (never mind subversive ones), a great sense of humor, was a deep thinker, could be cajoled by his brood to retell dramatic, hilarious, wet-your-pants stories from his youth.

    Hell. No wonder I admired him so. All of that and getting things done, too. Didn’t lose things, took good care of tools and kept them sharp, fixed things, knew where his unruly kids were, had an even temper except when the machine shed roof leaked, badly, the first rain after we’d been up there pulling the nail heads off and rolling them down the corrugated aluminum to see whose got there first.


  • Jeff

    Yes..please…show me what line I stand in to get a standard-issue brain!! And I’m in complete agreement with you about the halfhearted embrace. Like that Aunt you tolerate at the family gatherings, you embrace her because she is a part of your family and NOT because she is someone you would ever willingly and knowingly choose.

  • dmgli

    Meanwhile your Aunt thinks she is what makes the party. We are all delusional in our belief that we are the life of the party.

  • http://AnimalMineralorVegetable dmgli

    Just to clarify Jeff’s early comment about Twinkies being a procesed food there are only three categories in the world, Animal, Mineral, or Vegetable. Therefore Twinkies are clearly Vegetables. Potato Chips are vegetables fried in vegetable oil, a double dose of vegetables.

    We can narrow our definitions of the world the way we want but experiencing a world of chaos or chaos vs a world of tranquility or some things needing minor repairs I will always choose world two.

    Be careful as our definitions of ourselves can limit who we are, what we can accomplish, and what we can become.

  • Andrew


    Firstly thanks for making a post from my previous comments.

    I thought I would add a new comment to try to more clearly define the two sides to this debate of whether ADD is a gift or curse. The issue is an emotional one and effects people quite deeply, myself included. I do see the debate more as a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one, right now. Do we consider only the problematic parts of our character are from our ADD. Do we assume all our positive traits to be just our natural character? If we have unique talents or skills should we consider these part of our normal (non-ADD) character and intelligence or are they unique ADD characteristics? The two philosophical camps seem to be

    1. The “disorder” view – held by most in the medical establishment and many ADDers is that people with ADD have a disorder that causes many problems from under-performance in education and work, broken relationships to co-morbidities such as addiction, depression and anxiety. Doctors and ADDers here wish to externalise their ADD as a “disease” that they suffer from, an illness to be cured. ADD medications offer a partial, if temporary cure. The view is perhaps the simpler and less controversial view, it makes it easier to argue for help, aid and medical support for people with ADD.

    2. The “disorder/gift” view – held by a number of authors, many ADD coaches and ADDers is that ADD is a neurological difference, not a disorder. The difference does bring with it the problems defined by the “disorder view” that may need medication and/or support but the ADD difference can also bring “special” traits, perhaps even advantages over neuro-typical minds. These traits include ability to hyper-focus, intuition, creative thinking (out-of-the-box, big picture, inventive), energy, humour, greater empathy and high-intelligence.

    I have moved between the two philosophical camps since my diagnosis 18 months ago. But I do not see how anyone can be certain that either view is “correct”. There has been virtually no research as to whether there are advantages to ADD, the medical establishment is just not that interested in this area. For many doctors arguing the “disorder” model is understandably a much easier way to gain funding and support for patients than a more complicated “neurological difference than can cause problems” model would be! There is not much more that anecdotal evidence to support the “gift” view either. But even the statistics and evidence of the disorder of ADD are problematic. Without a specific genetic test, brain scan or blood test for ADD, no one has really pinned down what ADD is yet and who really has it, whether ADD is one disorder/difference or many. I am not debating the existence of a set of characteristics found in a proportion of the population that we call ADHD (incidentally I hate the H in ADHD as I how can I have a hyper-activity disorder when I am quite usually lethargic and not remotely Inattentive!) but we do use a fairly simplistic subjective list of symptoms and characteristics that, for medical convenience, excludes people who have ADD characteristics but don’t have serious problems? Research indicates that 40% of people with ADD have had problems with depression, is that because the DSM criteria specifically rules out well functioning people with ADD? ADD shows some widely differing traits under/hyper-focused, hyper-active/slothful and some ADDers respond to dopamine, some nor-epinephrine and some to neither – I think diagnosis still remains more an art than a science.

    I favour the “gift view”, as I mentioned previously, in my lifetime I have experienced my differences from other people, with not only negative but positive traits. My girlfriend, also ADD, has a very different ADD from mine. Some of her challenges are different but some are the same. Some of her “gifts” are different but some are the same. I don’t tend to see our challenges or gifts to be as pronounced in non-ADD people. Some of our strengths seem to logically follow from having less executive control and perhaps more dominant right brains, though perhaps they are just our normal underlying characters? But if our neurology if different, would it not make sense that it would bring both bad and good attributes? It is not that our brains are smaller or don’t function, it is just that they are connected and wired slightly differently.

    I am about to start coaching ADD adults. I want to help them Understand what ADD is, to Accept the challenges it brings but also to Embrace their positive traits too. I do not want to deny or avoid the negative traits but to use experience, support, work-arounds, medication, supplements, sleep etc to help with them, but I also want to help clients (and me) to focus on what we do well, our strengths whether we call them “ADD gifts” or just part our innate character, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I do want to encourage them to take the positive view: that ADD is a difference and not a disorder.

  • Andrew

    There does seem to be a connection for some people with ADD and allergies.

    Since I unhappily had to stop taking ADD medications because of heart problems, I had a lot of tests done to see what supplements might help and what allergies I might have. It turned out I had several allergies that I was not aware of, one of the strongest reactions was to wheat. I previously had heard that around 57% of people with depression have a wheat allergy and I have generally had a low mood. I love bread and apparently this can be a sign that you have an allergy, when you really like a food! The allergy response produces endomorphines and you become “addicted” to the body’s response to the allergen. Interestingly Histamine, the allergy hormone that is produced when you have an allergy, also regulates the neuro-chemicals, dopamine and nor-ephedrine. Several pharmaceutical companies are researching how histamine-based medications could be used for ADD. I certainly know that anti-histamines knock me out and make me depressed.

    Anyway, I have been off wheat for about four months and my mood is definitely brighter. Incidentally on some earlier tests I was found to be extremely low on magnesium, zinc and folic acid (despite a very healthy diet with plentiful organic vegetables etc). Several studies have shown these to be common deficiencies in people with ADD. I have since been taking quite high supplements of all of these and they have made a lot of difference, my mood is better than ever before, as good as when I was taking Ritalin or Adderall.

    Hopefully a lot more research will be done on diet and supplements as I am convinced they can play a serious part in managing our ADD alongside or instead of medications.

  • Jeff


    You wrote “there are only three [food] categories in the world, Animal, Mineral, or Vegetable. Therefore Twinkies are clearly Vegetables. Potato Chips are vegetables fried in vegetable oil, a double dose of vegetables.”

    I think I now know why the F.D.A. does not allow A.D.D.ers to create the food pyramid.

  • betsy davenport

    The food pyramid. I have often asked a person who has become engaged to the food pyramid whether he or she has ever taken the government’s advice on anything else. If so, I inquire how that turned out.

    Important to know: the food pyramid was created by, guess who, the Dept. of Agriculture, the same folks who think corn syrup is a good thing to add to every food they can get their sweaty mitts on.

  • betsy davenport

    Andrew, while it might seem a picayune point, character is quite different than brain organization. Whether or not we think AD/HD is a gift or a curse, I think all agree it is in the neurological system.

    Character, on the other hand, is a thing that develops in a person from infancy on. This information can go a long way toward relieving some of the pain experienced by those among us who were mistreated when behavior was seen as evidence of bad character.

    My mantra to people who castigate themselves for their ADDesque foibles is this: “Neurology precedes psychology.”

    Anyone who has seen an ultrasound of a three month old fetus has seen its brain. At that age it has no psychological development, no personality, and no character. And no mistakes.

  • Andrew

    Betsy, picayune was a new word for me – checked on Wikipedia, a tiny spanish coin – “trivial”, I like new words, thanks.

    I agree that character develops over our life times but I am very much in the nature dominates-hugely-over nuture view of character. I think Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, put the most reasoned and scientifically backed case for this, when he states that 50%-70% of the variation between people (in intelligence, personality, tastes, political views or any other characteristic you can think of) comes from genes, 0%-10% comes from childhood/home environment and the remainder is from chance or non-parental environment. So I see genetics (and hence I guess neurology) as being the greatest determinant of character. There are plenty of separated twin studies that show that people are indeed born not just tall or short but happy or sad, serious or funny, environment has a minor effect only.

    The brain in the foetus is already set to have particular abilities and unfortunately weaknesses. Its genes will have a profound effect as to whether it will grow up confident, or happy or anxious, or even ADD. The genetic blueprint shapes the neuronal connections that hold “character” in the brain. Life events do effect character and might make a genetically determined happy disposition into a slightly sadder one or a low self-esteem child into a little more confident one. Knowledge and memories of course shape our views too, but I think (sadly because it makes change harder) that genes/neurology are the dominant force of character in our lives.

    Having had therapy over several years I believe psychotherapy to be far too focussed on how past events shape our emotions, when most often it is genes that caused the issues, perhaps with some nudges from life events. This is particularly true when therapists try to help someone with ADD without realising they have ADD. No matter how much of their past and childhood history that they explore, there is ultimately no historical explanation for their self-esteem issues, depression or anxiety, the “blame” lies with their genetically-determined neuro-chemicals.

    So I do very much like your “neurology precedes psychology” phrase.

  • Pingback: The Gift/Curse Debate: A Nuanced Perspective (Part 2) | Jeff's A.D.D. Mind

  • Scott Hutson

    In my review of my life, as pertains to ADHD/ADD, and comments made by my school teachers about possibly being “Gifted”, I now see, I never was or am “Gifted”.I just cheated in a way….Let me explain.

    In the 3rd grade, on my class visit to the library, I borrowed “The Biography Of Thomas Alva Edison”. I read it,and remembered most of the little details about his life, and the way he thought about things,from the authors point of view.So, from then on, every year when time came for written/oral compositions, I would get A’s,and raised eyebrows from teachers.

    Also, my grandmother had been a school teacher,and she would get my older brother(4 yrs older)and me together,and have fun games of competition,with quizes about state capitols,who could write the multiplcation tables the fastest,etc…Which resulted in me being ahead of other students in school.(I was the winner,most of the time,in the games with my brother,eventualy).

    No genius here,just practice, made fun via grandmother,and a visit to the library,at a young age.So, reality just checked in, and deflated my genius bubble.


  • Jeff


    Let’s assume for the moment that if you have A.D.D.; A.D.H.D.; A.D./H.D.; A.D.-H.D. (I think I covered all bases here), that you are, in fact, a genius. But as is often quoted from Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” and it’s the 99% part that trips up almost every single

  • Scott Hutson


    That is a very good example(the quote)that brings to mind, a post I read. One of things said by the author of the post, was his being accepted into college at the age of 16. It hit me right away, that the author was suggesting he had an above average I.Q.(or a certain gene that enabled him)…. But maybe I can’t understand his point.

    I can remember very well, average students, myself included, at that age. We(I believe)had the abbilty to do the same, if we wanted it bad enough to do it(the persiration part).

    Mr.Edison was, and still is, an inspiration to all that will use it. That’s easy for me to say….but the persiration does drip on the slippery floor of my mind.

    A.D.D. is easier to type,and less stress on my keyboard(chuckle).So I’ll stick with that(if I can remember).


  • Scott Hutson

    Well, I did it again! Showed undisputable proof that I am no genius. A genius dose’nt miss-spell perspiration over and over on the same post. And a genius would’nt think Mel Brooks is a genius. Probably would’nt even watch all his movies….oh well. What food group are campfire beans in, I wonder?

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