Attention Deficit Disorder is not a Deficit of Attention

Jeff Copper

ADHD is Mis-Labeled

Labels are misleading. We drive on parkways and park on driveways. When someone says a person is a leader, we may think of the first person in line or we may think of a charismatic individual who can influence others. Labels don’t always direct our attention properly.

All too often, labels point us in the wrong direction. Take the label “attention deficit disorder.” With such a label, we naturally infer that a person lacks the ability to pay attention, is devoid of attention, or has limited attention. Right? Maybe not.

Executive Function Deficit Disorder 

Dr. Russell Barkley’s Executive Function Deficit Disorder theory argues that ADD is not an attention issue, it is a self-regulation issue. It explains why those with ADD can’t attend to things that are boring, and why they can’t stop themselves from attending to things that are stimulating.

Put differently, have you ever commented that all your ADD child does is play computer games? Or, have you ever lost track of time and found yourself surfing the web 3 hours after you intended to go to sleep? If ADD is a deficit of attention, how do we explain this? In truth, the label “attention deficit disorder” has us all paying attention to the wrong thing.

The notion that ADD is a self-regulation issue changes the game. We now see that those with ADD can actually attend in excess when properly motivated! The good news is that we can help those with ADD learn from what they can attend to as a way to get past what they cannot attend to. As a coach, it is an incredibly effective technique.

Attentional Blindness

Attention is a funny thing when directed by such things as labels. It causes something called attentional blindness. Experience it yourself by taking the awareness (attention) test at this link. (Come on, don’t skip this part. It’s only 1:09 and worth every second.)

So, how did you do? Did you get the correct answer? Whether you did or didn’t, did you notice everything? Or were you blind to anything that was not as obvious or was out of place?

Simply put, attentional blindness means that when we focus attention in one direction, it can prevent our ability to see other obvious things. Our brain can only focus on one thing at a time – we can pay attention to one thing, and are blind to everything else.

What’s Most Important to Pay Attention To

This is where self-regulation comes in. To most effectively manage ADD, children and their parents must understand what is actually happening in the ADD brain. It’s not enough to worry that our kids “can’t pay attention.” We must understand where they are having trouble regulating themselves, and teach them how to find the motivation to gain the focus they need to achieve their goals.

As I’ve preached countless times on Attention Talk Radio, if the obvious solution isn’t working, you are attending to the wrong thing. As a parent, if you approach ADD as purely a deficit of attention, there is a good chance you’re missing what requires your attention the most. As ImpactADHD always teaches in their courses and programs, “the solutions are in the successes.” Consider approaching your child’s ADD/ADHD as a self-regulation issue, and pay attention to what s/he is actually paying attention to. Take advantage of their natural patterns of attention to help them get on track.

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