Gifted with ADHD - An Overview & Support Ideas
Common characteristics of gifted ADHDers and ideas to support them
When you have a gifted or twice-exceptional kid, it may feel hard to find information that aligns with your experiences and seems to describe your kid. If you know your kid is an ADHDer - or if you've wondered whether they might be - I wrote this overview so you can get a clear picture of what ADHD can look like for a 2e kid and how a 2e ADHD brain works.
Even if you haven't wondered about ADHD before - maybe your kid focuses really well on some tasks - I encourage you to read below to see if anything resonates. ADHD is often missed in gifted kids because they compensate with their strong cognitive abilities - until they can't anymore.
Unidentified twice-exceptionality is quite common and can be a source of stress, misunderstanding, and mental health challenges. If you're curious about why twice-exceptionality is often missed, you can read my article on twice-exceptionality here.
So what is ADHD?
The popular portrayal of ADHD is that people with ADHD have a deficit of attention or lack attention.
If you have a gifted kid or teen with ADHD, though, you’ve probably already noticed that this doesn’t describe your kid particularly well.
That’s likely because people with ADHD don’t lack attention - they have difficulty regulating their attention. It’s more effortful for them to control what they pay attention to and for how long. Because of differences in their executive functioning, it’s also more effortful for them to regulate other aspects of their behavior, thoughts, and feelings.
The twice-exceptional paradox
People with an ADHD neurotype tend to focus easily on things that are naturally interesting or engaging for them. You may have noticed that your gifted ADHDer can focus for a long time on something they love - maybe reading, Legos, video games, or puzzles. Many parents and teachers don't realize when a gifted kid has ADHD because gifted ADHDers often display excellent focus for tasks such as these that other kids find difficult and can't focus on for long.
When folks with ADHD are asked to focus on tasks that are less engaging or meaningful for them, though, focus doesn’t come naturally. They have to work a lot harder to maintain attention on tasks that are less interesting or engrossing.
You may have noticed that your gifted ADHDer has a hard time staying focused on tasks like brushing their teeth, tidying their room, or feeding the pets.
Parents with gifted ADHDers are often confused by the fact that their kid excels at seemingly difficult tasks like complex math, puzzles, building, or creative writing, but struggles to complete seemingly simple tasks like daily hygiene and the bedtime routine.
When you know that ADHD brains have an interest-focused attention system, though, this seeming paradox makes more sense!
When focus feels easy
For kids and teens with ADHD, their focus easily gravitates towards things that are:
Fun or interesting to them,
Attention-grabbing (loud, bright, screens, games, etc.),
Immediately salient to them.
When someone with ADHD is involved in something fun, interesting, attention-grabbing, or salient, they may actually be very focused or hyper-focused, potentially for a long time.
When kids and teens are engrossed or hyper-focused, they naturally want to continue with their task for long periods of time, until they complete the task, or until they lose interest. Their brain may naturally tune out distractions in the environment and internal distractions like feeling hungry or needing to use the bathroom.
Therefore, when kids and teens with ADHD are in a hyperfocused state, you may notice:
It’s very difficult to get their attention
They don’t hear you call their name, e.g., for dinner (and/or their teachers report that they don’t respond to their name)
They don’t follow instructions or seem to hear the instructions
They need a lot of help to switch their attention to something less interesting
They may have big feelings and reactions when forced to break their focus
They may stay with salient or interesting experiences for a while - for example, they may ask repeated questions about something of interest or stay mad or sad for a long time.
Because kids and teens with ADHD naturally focus on their interests, they need plenty of time with the activities and topics they find interesting and fun.
Time spent with interests boosts well-being and can help with emotional regulation. It’s also hugely beneficial when students with ADHD are allowed to incorporate their interests into their assignments and learning.
Many of the ADHDers I work with also develop work habits that others frown upon but that actually work well for them. For example, many gifted ADHDers find it effective to "procrastinate" on work because they're able to focus more easily when a task feels urgent and salient. Many of these students can excel on tasks completed near a deadline because of their strong cognitive capacities. I've seen that many gifted ADHDers work best this way once they stop judging themselves for focusing more easily closer to a deadline.
When focus feels difficult
Conversely, because it’s difficult for kids and teens with ADHD to control their attention at will if the task is not inherently interesting to them, it can feel effortful, difficult, or impossible for them to pay attention to things that:
Feel boring or dull to them
Are repetitive or unengaging
Feel difficult or uncomfortable for them
Are not salient or meaningful to them
Are not urgent
Have many steps or parts (because staying on track requires attention regulation and relies on other executive functioning skills such as initiation, organization, planning, or working memory)
Children and teens with ADHD can also find it difficult to organize their thoughts, time, actions, and belongings. You can think about this in terms of attention - organizing something requires you to move your attention around to focus on multiple things, then put those things in a clear order. That’s tough when it’s hard to regulate your attention!
Due to their differences in attention regulation and executive functioning, parents or teachers may notice that gifted children and adolescents with ADHD:
Need multiple reminders to complete daily tasks like brushing their teeth, getting ready for school or bed, remembering their belongings, and picking up their belongings – these tasks often feel repetitive and unengaging
Avoid or struggle to complete assignments they see as boring, repetitive, or not personally meaningful
Misplace or lose their belongings regularly
Avoid tasks they dislike or that are uncomfortable
Rush through work – often to try to complete it before they lose focus
Complete the stated requirements for work and then stop, which others may perceive as doing “the bare minimum” but which can also be seen as an efficient work style that maximizes productivity when focus is hard
Forget to do things a same-age peer usually remembers to do
Need more hands-on help to start and complete tasks
Have a messy room, backpack, and play area, and aren’t sure how to organize it
Lose track of time
Sometimes can’t get started on tasks or forget to finish tasks
Do things in a different order or at a faster or slower pace than others
Complete their work but don’t turn it in on time
Find it difficult to notice small errors in their work, like misspelled words or calculation errors
Acting on impulse
People with a hyperactive or combined presentation of ADHD also have a difficult time pausing before they act on their thoughts or feelings.
Folks without ADHD may perceive a short moment between their thought or impulse to act and the action itself. They have a moment to consider the potential action, notice the context, consider if the action will be appropriate and effective, etc. For someone with ADHD, their brain moves more quickly from their thought or impulse to their action.
In gifted kids and teens, this can look like:
Jumping into conversations
Calling out ideas and answers in class
Saying hurtful things when upset
Kicking, hitting, or throwing when mad (when it is not developmentally common)
Ripping up their papers or breaking pencils when frustrated
Sharing honest or spontaneous thoughts in conversation
Making plans and decisions without thinking through all the implications (e.g., planning a gathering at their house without consulting their parents; going out with friends and forgetting to inform adults where they are).
Some of these behaviors may be more noticeable in gifted kids and teens with ADHD who are also particularly curious and eager to share their ideas, who seek novelty and new ideas, or who have strong feelings about living up to their own high standards.
Finally, kids and teens with ADHD are often perceived as inconsistent because of their fluctuating capacity. They may be able to focus, do their homework, remember their lunch, and stay calm during a transition one day...but not the next.
This fluctuating capacity is an integral part of their neurodivergence and it’s important to recognize that these fluctuations are not intentional or willful disobedience.
Just because your child can do something one day does not mean they can do it the next.
All of us experience fluctuations in our capacity, but neurodivergent kids and teens are easily affected by internal and external variables beyond their control. When a child with ADHD is emotionally upset, distressed, tired, or hungry, it’s even more difficult for them to access their executive functioning skills, and their challenges seem more prominent.
It’s important that the adults in their lives know that inconsistency is to be expected and is not willful. You and they can learn to support them in both easy and hard times while also accepting that their capacities naturally fluctuate, and that’s okay.
How to support gifted ADHDers
Read below for a few different ways to support your gifted ADHDer at home and school.
Have realistic expectations
ADHDers are often accused of being lazy, careless, unmotivated, or irresponsible, but these narratives are harmful and inaccurate. First and foremost, it's important to develop an affirming view of your child's neurotype so you can appreciate how their brain works and what's truly easy or difficult for them. I encourage you to learn more about ADHD - ideally from ADHDers - so you can understand your child's experience better and let go of terms like "lazy," "unmotivated," and so on. I love this resource from Neurowild on Instagram to help you understand and discuss your kid's ADHD brain.
The more you understand what's easy and difficult for your kid, given their ADHD brain, the better equipped you'll be to form realistic expectations for what your kid can manage independently. Many gifted ADHDers continue to need help with daily routines, remembering their belongings, and organizing their homework into middle school or high school. A lot of parents feel pressure to help their kids function independently, but pushing for too much independence too early can cause a lot of extra stress, pressure, and conflict in families with gifted ADHDers.
Be flexible with expectations and offer support when needed
When you remember that capacity fluctuates for ADHDers and that inconsistency is the norm, it makes sense that it's appropriate to be flexible with your expectations day to day. I encourage parents to offer support when their kid is having a hard time, even if they've seen their kid do the task independently before.
For example, let's say you expect your teen to get ready on time once you've helped them get up in the morning. If you notice they're running behind one morning - maybe they were up late; maybe they're anxious about a test - it's completely appropriate to help them out by making them a to-go breakfast, packing their bag, or even driving them to school if they miss the bus (assuming you're able to help this way). A kid who is supported this way is more likely to recover from their stressful day and rebound to a higher capacity sooner - whereas a kid who is punished or lectured about falling behind may simply become more stressed and actually lose capacity over time.
Devote time to interests
As much as you can, support your child's focus and well-being by helping them spend time on their interests. As I mentioned above, time spent with interests boosts well-being and can help with emotional regulation. It’s also hugely beneficial when students with ADHD are allowed to incorporate their interests into their assignments and learning.
You can also incorporate your child's interests into daily tasks that are otherwise a struggle. For example, could your child listen to a podcast while getting ready in the morning, or look forward to some game time before school once they're dressed? If you find that your child gets distracted by a podcast or game time, you could try body doubling to better support their focus (see below).
During body doubling, another person is present while an ADHDer works on a task that may be difficult to focus on or complete. The other person doesn't help with the task itself, but their presence can facilitate focus and make it easier to persist on tasks that are not inherently interesting.
Here are some examples of how you might try body doubling with your gifted ADHDer:
Your child does their homework in the same room as you, while you read, do work, or cook
You clean the living room while your child practices piano in the living room
You hang out and talk with your teen or fold laundry in their room while they clean their room (you could also help them clean, which would be an additional support.
Provide accommodations at home and school
Many ADHDers are eligible for accommodations at school through a 504 plan or IEP. Accommodations alter the environment, curriculum/task format, or supports available so someone with ADHD can access tasks that would otherwise be diffiult to access or complete.
One of my favorite resources for potential classroom accommodations is Understood.org; here's their list of ideas for students with ADHD.
For gifted ADHDers in particular, I often suggest parents advocate for accommodations that allow the student to be excused from work when they have already mastered the content. I don't think it's reasonable to ask a gifted ADHDer to complete an unengaging set of homework questions (for example, a page of math questions or short-answer comprehension questions) when they have already mastered the material. For these students, such work is not only uninteresting but also serves no learning purpose.
At home, you can help your kid access and succeed with daily routines by providing extra support with transitions, hands-on help getting started with tasks, reminders about daily routines or belongings, or other creative supports for what's hard.
If you have frequent power struggles with your ADHDer, you can learn some strategies to prevent and reduce power struggles with my free five-day email mini-course, Reduce Power Struggles with Your Gifted Kid.
Resources to learn more about ADHD & gifted ADHDers
If you'd like to keep learning, check out the resources below.
Explaining Brains with Dr. Liz Angoff - Get scripts and resources to help you explain your child’s ADHD brain in an affirming way, to help them build a positive neurodivergent identity.
Let’s Talk About Your Brain from NeuroWild - A free resource to talk with kids about their ADHD brain in an affirming way.
A Strengths-Based Rewrite of the DSM-5 Criteria for ADHD - This great resource was created by Reese Ramponi of Neuroabundant; you can click through the Instagram slides to read the details.
Embrace the Muchness with Bobbi-Jo Molokken - Many parents learn about their own ADHD through their experience supporting their child. Bobbi-Jo is a gifted ADHD adult and she helps adult ADHDers understand and accept themselves while building strategies to ease stress in their daily lives. Her website has a large list of resources around ADHD, including a section for parents.
Everything is Connected to Everything: Improving the Healthcare of Autistic & ADHD Adults, from All Brains Belong VT - Did you know that adults and kids with ADHD often have multiple intertwined health conditions that may actually get worse with traditional approaches to medical care? All Brains Belong offers free resources to learn about common interrelated health conditions for ADHDers, along with a letter you can present to your child’s doctor (or your own) if relevant.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.
If you know or suspect that your kid is an ADHDer, you may feel unsure how to support them and honor their natural way of doing things while still helping them feel successful in places like school, social situations, and daily routines. In Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid, my 8-week coaching program, you'll learn all about how to understand your kid's unique brain and what they need to thrive.