How to Respond to ADHD-Deniers

Dom Longford
Jun 20, 2023

The last few weeks have been tough for the ADHD community. Firstly, Panorama — the height of the BBC’s investigative journalism, broadcasted a documentary highlighting false ADHD diagnosis by private health clinics.

If that wasn’t enough, Steven Bartlett, a role model to me — also questioned the legitimacy of ADHD on his podcast: diary of a CEO. This podcast is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. Nir Eyal, his guest, clearly selling a book that claims to help with distraction, said that “something fishy” is going on with ADHD, and its simply “poor emotional regulation”.

The ADHD community’s response was powerful, so many responded to these programmes that Steven Bartlett removed a Linkedin post. I am so proud, this activism is necessary in such sceptical times. Congratulations to the ADHD community.

Never has there been more scepticism and doubt about the legitimacy of ADHD as a medical condition, despite years of rising awareness. But fear not, the research and evidence on the seriousness of ADHD has never been so strong, our community is growing in size and strength, but how should we respond to ADHD-deniers?

Before we get into my suggested responses, let me directly respond to BBC Panorama and Steven Bartlett.

BBC Panorama Response

The real issue at play in the BBC Panorama documentary is the conflict of interest with private healthcare, it pays them to falsely diagnose and treat. That is clearly a sensitive subject to the UK, in the context of an overwhelmed National Health Service, and is unresolved by regulation. Yet the documentary focused on a guy who claimed he had ADHD when he didn’t. The documentary suggests many who are diagnosed, might not have ADHD.

The programme was so tone-deaf, so insensitive and the journalist showed zero understanding of ADHD. The documentary spent no time explaining the condition, no definition and daily struggles of ADHD. It is the product of rushy, click-bait journalism. It’s a huge shame. If anyone cites this documentary, simply tell them that the issue is with poorly regulated private healthcare clinics, not ADHD. Done.

The Diary of a CEO Response

This podcast was centred around Nir Eyal and his book on distraction and procrastination. The whole podcast was about the research he did into distraction and procrastination, there is merit to some of his views. However, he came up with an approach that he hopes will help ADHD, but he is not an expert in ADHD. Again, when ADHD was mentioned, he failed to define, explain or demonstrate knowledge in the complex neuro-developmental condition. He profits from doubting ADHD.

Steven Bartlett asks him what does he think about ADHD, and Eyal answers like he is an ADHD expert, but he’s not. He’s an author selling a book. Its logical for him to throw shade on ADHD as a condition, and to simply working on your emotional skills, which is conveniently outlined in his book. If someone recites this to you, I would ask them to listen to an expert on ADHD such as Stanford Neuroscience professor Andrew Huberman and his explanation of ADHD.

How to respond to ADHD Deniers?

Usually if you are in an active discussion about ADHD its with a family-member, friend or colleague. Or perhaps a drunken stranger, but I’m unsure those people are worth much energy. Go easy, be calm and clear.

Empathise: Acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their opinions and that people without ADHD wont have looked into ADHD as much as you, that is not their fault. Try to understand their concerns or misconceptions about ADHD. Acknowledge that Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is complex, has a misleading name (its much bigger and complex than poor attention) and understanding is low.

Understand ADHD diagnosis: The criteria for diagnosis is: “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity–impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development”. While many people can experience similarities, the diagnosis of ADHD involves symptoms so bad it impacts the ability to function. People cannot look after themselves, work, maintain relationships or even think. It can drive people to depression, addiction and even suicide. Sure, some people might have bad focus, but it does it cause significant damage to their everyday life? If not, then they don’t have ADHD. ADHD is serious.

Educate. ADHD is confusing so let's get clear. Its name was given by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in the 1980s when it was deemed appropriate to name conditions based on the most apparent symptom. Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a lazy, confusing and broad-brush name. For example, a common symptom of ADHD is hyper-focus — how is hyper-focus possible when you have “attention deficit”? People with ADHD are smart so what actually happens? My therapist told me that ADHD doesn't involve a deficit of attention but a deficit of regulating attention ie a difficulty to control attention when it matters. Hopefully that distinction helps make the condition easier to believe.

Acknowledge ADHD strengths. ADHD has many strengths and many people with it do well ie they are happy, have good careers and enjoy good lives. However ADHD does not have any impact on IQ, people with high and low IQ have ADHD, and some people can make it work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't exist. For millions of less famous or known people, ADHD makes each day a significant struggle.

This may all seem like doom and gloom, but there is hope for everyone. With some therapy, training and energy-management, its possible to manage and minimise ADHD symptoms. Neuro-plasticity means with training the brain can change and enable handling a modern, distracting and complex world.