ADHD: Beyond the DSM5

Feb 16, 2024 | ADHD, Neurodiversity, Stigma

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that can impact daily functioning and development. Or at least, that’s how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) characterizes it.

When we talk about ADHD, we often limit our understanding to the diagnostic criteria listed in the DSM-5-TR. However, ADHD is much more than a collection of symptoms; it’s a unique way of interacting with the world that comes with its own set of challenges and advantages. It is so much more than “dysfunction” or “deficit”, in fact, many choose to see it as an accepted neurological difference that should be celebrated and embraced by society.

ADHD is a multifaceted condition that weaves its influence throughout various aspects of personality. It’s not confined to a checklist of traits; instead, it’s a dynamic interplay of cognitive processes, emotions, and behaviours that contribute to the rich and complex identities of those living with it.

ADHD affects every aspect of an individual’s life, not just their ability to pay attention or sit still. It influences:

  • How they process information
  • How they manage emotions
  • How they engage in social and romantic relationships

People with ADHD often experience the world more intensely, leading to a rich inner life, creativity, and a capacity for innovative thinking. Yet, they also face daily struggles with tasks that others might find straightforward, such as organizing tasks or following traditional schedules.

The Positives of ADHD

Focusing on the strengths, individuals with ADHD often excel in areas requiring rapid problem-solving, creative innovation, and the ability to think outside the box. The constant stream of thoughts and the ability to make unique connections often lead to inventive problem-solving and outside-the-box thinking.

Their energetic approach to life can be infectious, inspiring those around them to see the world from a fresh perspective. People with ADHD often bring a dynamic and passionate approach to tasks, injecting vitality into their surroundings and inspiring those around them. This energy becomes a defining trait, fuelling their pursuits and interactions, and contributing to the magnetic charisma often found in those with ADHD.

Many people with ADHD are also driven by a deep passion for their interests, leading to significant achievements in areas they care deeply about. These are known as “Special Interests”, and refer to the deep, intense fascinations or passions that individuals may have, often characterized by a strong desire to explore, understand, and engage with a specific subject or activity. These interests can cover a wide range of topics, from specific academic fields to hobbies, and they provide significant joy and fulfillment to those who pursue them. Individuals with ADHD can experience periods of intense concentration and engagement with their special interests, leading to a profound expertise or skill development in these areas. Pretty neat, right?

The Challenges

Despite these strengths, the challenges of ADHD cannot be overlooked. The societal and educational systems are not always designed to accommodate neurodiverse individuals. Misunderstandings about ADHD can lead to stigma, making it difficult for those with the condition to seek the support they need. Individuals with ADHD often face stigmatizing assumptions that their brains are “broken” and that stimulant drug treatment is a necessity rather than one of many options for managing symptoms​​. This stigma can lead to a reluctance to seek diagnosis or treatment for fear of being labeled or misunderstood.

The constant struggle with executive function tasks can also lead to feelings of frustration, low self-esteem, and being misunderstood. ADHD involves consistent struggles with executive functioning, including planning, organizing tasks, and self-motivation.

These challenges highlight the cultural expectations of neurotypical societies. They speak to the world around us and the common belief that everyone should be able to handle things on their own. This belief doesn’t always leave room for people who need extra help or who approach tasks in unique ways.

A prominent and painful experience for many with ADHD is Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), which involves intense emotional pain and panic in response to perceived rejection or criticism​​. This often develops due to a lifetime of feeling rejected for being their authentic ADHD selves and forcing themselves to fit the desired neurotypical mold. This sensitivity can significantly affect social interactions and relationships, leading to behaviours that are overly restrained and people-pleasing behaviours.

Additionally, many individuals with ADHD describe themselves as “time blind,” experiencing time in a non-linear fashion, which affects their ability to manage time effectively and meet deadlines or appointments​​.


Due to these many challenges, living with ADHD can instill a sense of resilience and determination. Individuals often develop coping mechanisms, adaptability, and a tenacious spirit, navigating challenges with unwavering determination and an unparalleled zest for life. This resilience becomes woven into the fabric of their personalities, shaping them into individuals who approach life’s hurdles with a unique blend of courage and perseverance.

However, though many choose to cope in healthy ways, those with ADHD are also prone to:

  • Higher levels of substance use
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Addiction

This is why therapy can be a very valuable approach for those with ADHD.

Therapy & ADHD

Each individual with ADHD experiences the condition in a way that is unique to them. Therapy provides a space to explore and understand these unique manifestations, such as sensory preferences, attention patterns, and the way ADHD impacts daily functioning and relationships. By learning about how ADHD specifically affects them, individuals can begin to tailor their strategies for managing symptoms, leveraging their strengths, and accommodating their challenges in a way that fosters self-acceptance and growth.

A key component of therapy is helping individuals with ADHD recognize and accept their differences, rather than viewing them as deficiencies.

This involves exploring and implementing accommodations that can make daily life and tasks more manageable. For example, understanding one’s need for movement can lead to seeking out work environments that are more flexible or incorporating regular physical activity into the day. Therapy can facilitate the identification of such accommodations, fostering a sense of empowerment and self-advocacy.

Many individuals with ADHD have internalized societal messages that pathologize their way of being, leading to deep-seated beliefs of inadequacy or brokenness. Therapy can be instrumental in challenging and unlearning these beliefs. Through therapeutic work, individuals can begin to dismantle the harmful narratives they’ve absorbed about needing to be “fixed” or conform to neurotypical standards. This process involves recognizing the value in neurodiverse perspectives and learning to set boundaries that protect one’s well-being, rather than constantly seeking approval from others.

The journey of “coming home to yourself” also involves navigating the stigma associated with ADHD and developing a positive self-identity. Therapy can provide a supportive environment to explore personal values, strengths, and aspirations beyond the diagnosis. It can help reframe ADHD as a different way of thinking and interacting with the world, rather than a deficit, allowing individuals to embrace their neurodiversity as an integral part of who they are.

Beyond the Diagnosis

Understanding ADHD requires us to look beyond the diagnostic labels and appreciate the complete person. It’s about recognizing the unique strengths and challenges that come with ADHD and creating environments that support neurodiverse individuals in thriving. By fostering a culture of acceptance and accommodation, we can unlock the full potential of those with ADHD.

Embracing Neurodiversity

Embracing ADHD as a part of the broader neurodiversity movement is crucial. It’s not about seeking a “cure” or insisting on conformity but about valuing the diverse ways of being and thinking that ADHD individuals bring to our communities and society at large. ADHD is much more than a set of symptoms to be managed; it’s a different way of experiencing the world. Through understanding, acceptance, and support, we can ensure that individuals with ADHD can lead fulfilling lives, contributing their unique gifts to the world.