Johnny Has Done This a Hundred Times

Johnny, I know you can do this properly. I’ve seen you do it a hundred times! Stop being lazy.” (or “stubborn”, or “rebellious”)  The teacher is trying to motivate Johnny as best she knows how, but if Johnny has ADHD, she is missing the point entirely.

The brain wired by ADHD often presents the owner with a uniquely paradoxical ADHD equation: the short version reads “proficiency = failure”. The long version is “proficiency = routine = boredom = mistakes = failure”.

In one study, children with ADHD and children without were parked in front of a computer screen and told, “When you see a dot appear on the computer screen, click the mouse”. The researchers then measured the response times of the children, as well as how consistently each child’s response time was from dot to dot. 

When the dots appeared at random, unpredictable intervals, the response times of the two groups were the same, as was their consistency. This is because ADHD brains can attend to unpredictable, new situations as well as non-ADHD brains can. 

However, when the computer dots were made to appear at consistent, predictable intervals (eg. every 2 seconds) - so that the children knew when the dots were going to appear - something odd resulted:
- the response times & consistency of the children
without ADHD improved
- the response times & consistency of the children
with ADHD worsened

Typical brains improve efficiency with predictable, patterned, routine stimulus, while ADHD brains wander under those conditions. This is not news to those who have ADHD. 

The ADHD brain can easily attend to situations that require them to be alert, on edge, guessing. In fact, their brains often need those factors in order to pay attention. In variable or novel circumstances the ADHD brain performs as well as any. It’s when things get predictable and routine that they often begin to malfunction. 

Compared to a non-ADHD brain, where proficiency predicts success, with ADHD proficiency often predicts failure. Hence the paradoxical ADHD equation mentioned above: 
       “
proficiency = routine = boredom = mistakes = failure

Automatically labelling Johnny “lazy” for making mistakes in something that he has “done a hundred times” isn’t an informed assessment. The very reason that Johnny is making mistakes now is precisely BECAUSE HE’S DONE IT A HUNDRED TIMES. The predictable routine of the task has led directly to his inattention. He is not purposefully being “lazy”, “stubborn”, or “rebellious”. Johnny's brain literally disengaged once there was no sparkle, novelty, challenge, or adventure left in the process. Once his brain didn’t really HAVE TO pay attention, it truly COULDN'T pay attention.

Apply this phenomenon to a career, relationship, finances, or other important areas of life. When these become routine, people with ADHD tend towards one of two options: either they walk away from the situation, or they add risk to the scenario to spice it up a little. The first option is an attempt to “free" themselves from the mundane routine, the other, an attempt to “salvage” their focus. 

The ADHD equation makes it is easy to see why people with ADHD can often achieve success in life but, once there, find it much harder to retain it; and why, as a group, they have higher employment turnover, divorce rates, bankruptcies, incarceration, etc. 

Unfortunately, a third option - making a conscious attempt to purposefully revitalize the perceived dullness of routine - is rarely contemplated or attempted; even in areas of life which truly mean the world to them. 

Having an ADHD brain simply makes it too hard to conquer routine on one’s own. This is one way that a treatment option, like coaching, can help the individual with ADHD; it helps them discover their own unique spice of life and add a dash of it to the areas of life that truly do matter, so that the attention required to maintain success in important life domains is achievable.

note- for a more thorough explanation of how this phenomenon works, please watch this 25 minute podcast Attention, Interest and Importance in ADHD


      © Dan Duncan 2013                                       part of the