Consider ADHD as a mismatch and not a “Superpower”.

Let’s first consider for a moment ADHD as some sort of superpower.

Joel Olympio
6 min readJan 24, 2024

Preface: I am not a medical professional, I’m just someone who thinks about and researches ADHD a lot.

The first thing that raises flags in my head is if ADHD is a superpower then why can it cause so much suffering and daily challenges?

But to challenge that for a moment, I think about comic book superheroes. Every superpower no matter how great has a weakness and every superhero no matter how great has to learn how to control their ability. If they don’t it always appears to cause a burden in their life. But once they learn how to control it then they seemingly flourish, they become the hero, right?

An ability becomes a power when you have full control over how and when you use it.

What happens when you have a percentage of people that have particular abilities not exhibited in the average population? The X-Men narrative applies: The people are labelled, segmented and divided about their abilities. Some use it to their advantage, some fall into antisocial behaviour and some just want to live a normal life and would prefer not to have their X-gene abilities at all.

The first group of people have come to understand their abilities and learned to work with them rather than against them, however, it does not mean they are not met with challenges. Maybe they turn blue every time they use their power, or maybe they have to wear special gloves to control the power or special glasses to channel it on demand. There’s always a cost or sacrifice to using one’s superpower. Many heroes hide their identities with masks. Others struggle to maintain relationships. Some juggle their office job alongside their daily hero escapades. The hero lifestyle can get in the way of traditional life pathways. How can Peter Parker maintain high school grades while saving New York every day? How can Bruce Wayne build a family when he feels the need to do everything alone? If ADHD is a superpower, how can you integrate your abilities into a streamlined society?

If we are keen on seeing the positives of ADHD and presenting it as a superpower, then let’s not forget how superpowers are used, the challenges they bring and the pathways one takes with them. If we’re ready to tell people their daily struggle is a superpower, then let’s not forget the loss, pain, failings and social factors that come with being a superhero. Let’s not forget the superheroes who want to live a “normal life” and would rather not have their powers. Let’s not forget superpowers, if not harnessed correctly, can lead to antisocial behaviour. ADHD as a superpower can boost self-esteem, can reframe one’s thinking of their ADHD traits but if we’re using that terminology, then consider too all the aspects that come with having a superpower. You won’t find those aspects in scientific literature. You’ll find them in comic books, movies and on T.V. How can we look at comic books and fictional tales, to inform us about ADHD, a serious condition? Well, superpowers are not real so if you want to convince people ADHD is a superpower, our only source of informative literature is comic books. People have remarkably been able to portray what it would be like to have a superpower in everyday life and it’s not all positive. While the hero always saves the day, they never do so without failing and sometimes sacrificing the norm, their livelihoods, their friends and family and their jobs. They willingly put themselves into stressful situations and choose fluctuating comfort over consistent effort. They choose a lifestyle where their ability becomes a power but their ability in itself is not by default a power. This might be fine for some but not for all.

In a metaphorical sense, I think superheroes could teach us something about ADHD as a superpower, but I don’t think it’s the best perspective. Superheroes tend to have extra abilities that don’t necessarily compensate for their lack of ability. They are usually portrayed as everyday humans in disguise who have additional abilities rather than everyday humans who are good at some things and not so good at other things. ADHD can present itself as qualitative differences in brain performance. The range of qualities is usually at opposing ends. I’m good at spatial reasoning but not good at verbal processing. My spatial reasoning tends to make up, sometimes, for my lack of good verbal processing. As in if I have to reliably remember something it needs to be visually represented and then processed in my memory rather than told to me. I don’t have superpowered spatial reasoning, I just use it more than usual to make up for my lack of ability to remember verbal information. And if you consider the parts of the brain that control spatial reasoning as a muscle group, then if they are used more they will likely perform better than average. Could I train my verbal processing to be better? Honestly, probably not. I’m not sure what’s going on up there but it’s not good. And I think that’s what “neurodiversity “ is about. It’s not about making X-men out of neurodiverse people, it’s about fostering an inclusive society whereby different kinds of brains are encouraged to work the way they are not the way we assume they should. It’s about creating environments, products and systems that are tailored to different kinds of brains and allowing people to work and learn in ways that suit them best.

On a societal basis, I think we should be careful not to switch the segregation dial from disabled to super-abled.

ADHD, for all medical intents and purposes, should be treated as a disability. Socially and individually, I think instead of communicating ADHD as a superability it’s perhaps more apt to say that it’s a mismatch of ability and environment.

How do you solve this mismatch? Well, you either adjust the ability or adjust the environment.

This is not as simple as I make it seem, but it offers a framework of thinking for problem-solving both on an individual and societal basis. It presents ADHD as a dynamic juxtaposition rather than a fixed negative set of symptoms or a fixed positive set of abilities (superpower).

I think the mismatch model helps to communicate the dynamic and sometimes positive nature of the condition while still capturing the difficulties that come with having it. If someone with ADHD can say to themselves, “I can’t do this because of a mismatch” it encourages action: Can I adjust myself or could I adjust the environment? If I adjust myself can I do so consistently? If I adjust the environment will it cause a mismatch for someone else? If neither can be adjusted, should I reconsider what I’m doing or where I am? Can I adjust the environment to my ability? (This is what I’m exploring in my research and startup).

Whereas the alternative thinking, “I should be able to do this because I am superpowered” can be frustrating.

This dynamic viewpoint of ADHD ability both helps from an identity point of view (My ability or attention is very dynamic) and a problem-solving point of view (It is in this context that my ability is significantly impaired). I use “very” and “significantly” because it is the frequency of impairment and variability of attention that dictates an ADHD diagnosis.

Please however note that this viewpoint only addresses ADHD ability and not necessarily motivation or emotion though they are of course linked. There are complexities in the condition that differ individually and varying factors that influence its presentation. This is a conceptual social and behavioural framework. If you have any thoughts or feedback please feel free to reach out to me!