It's Not a Deficit

The full form of ADHD is Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Sounds accurate, right? People with ADHD can't focus enough, so 'deficit' seems like an appropriate word to describe our attention reserves. But this word is problematic in ways I didn't even realize until fairly recently. 'Deficit' means a lack of something, in this case, the capability to pay attention. On the surface, this seems to describe people with ADHD fairly well; one of the defining traits of ADHD is the inability to sustain focus on certain things for long periods. But this is pretty inaccurate. People with ADHD do not, in fact, have a lack of attention. It's more complicated than that.


Think of it this way: imagine everyone has a little dial in their brain that decides which tasks to focus on and how much attention to give each task. In neurotypical people, this dial is labeled from 1 to 10, with equal intervals of focus and attention, and the needle moves systematically between the numbers. In people with ADHD, the dial is numbered 1, 2, and 15, and the needle switches back and forth randomly. What this means is that while neurotypical people can identify tasks that require sustained focus, prioritize them, and commit to paying attention to them, people with ADHD basically have two modes: inattention and hyperfocus, and while we're pretty bad at prioritizing and focusing on the tasks that are important but not necessarily interesting to us, we can concentrate for extended amounts of time on things that are exciting, interesting, or not monotonous. For example, I find it nearly impossible to write essays for school. The amount of planning and outlining needed to start the essays leads me to compulsively procrastinate and then rely on the rush of adrenaline I get near the deadline to give me the motivation to finish as much of the work as possible. This usually results in low-quality work with errors and typos. On the flip side, if I'm learning lines in a script, working on a challenging drawing, or writing about something that personally interests me, I can focus for hours and sometimes even regain focus after a momentary distraction.


There is no deficit of attention in people with ADHD; we have plenty. What's really going on is an inability to regulate attention. I can't bring myself to focus for long enough to reread and edit something I wrote previously. Still, I can hyperfocus for as long as I need while writing the first draft. The issue here is that 'deficit' implies that we can't pay attention, period, while we actually can pay attention, just not to things that don't excite us. This wording is harmful because it fosters stereotypes of people with ADHD as lazy or unmotivated or simply not trying hard enough. It also creates the perception that people with ADHD can't be helped because they simply don't have enough attention, which only contributes to the stigma around the condition and prevents people with ADHD from learning strategies to cope.


So the next time you meet someone with ADHD, don't assume they can't concentrate on anything because that's not the case at all. There are plenty of people with ADHD who are successful in their jobs and life because they can focus on the things that excite them and have strategies to help them concentrate on the things that don't. People with ADHD are not automatically failures because of their inattention, and this is precisely why saying "attention-deficit" is misleading.


TL;DR :

The phrase "attention-deficit" creates false perceptions of people with ADHD because it implies that we don't have enough attention, which isn't true. People with ADHD can concentrate, but have trouble regulating their focus. This creates two modes of concentration: inattention and hyperfocus, for which "deficit" is an inaccurate description.