Are People with ADHD Smarter or Just Different?

by CJ McDaniel // September 14  

This question is extremely interesting given the history of people with ADHD being thought of as lacking in intelligence and ability. However, I want to be clear from the very beginning about this answer so as to avoid any misunderstandings. There is quite a bit of assumption in declaring any one group of people better than any other in any category, and throughout the years such assumptions have led to many conclusions that of been used to marginalize and oppress certain groups of people. So, I’m going to answer the question concisely by saying that people with ADHD are not smarter but rather different than other people.

The study of smartness or intelligence are fraught with many errors, assumptions, and injustices that have caused great suffering to various groups of people. The history of the study of intelligence is one that is haunted by racial and cultural biases on one spectrum and by nefarious eugenicists on the other spectrum. Many are unaware of this barbaric history of how intelligence testing and studies in psychology were used to justify euthanizing various groups of people throughout history.

So, I am all too aware of the dangers that lie ahead in the proposition of such a line of questioning. Thus, I seek to make it clear from the beginning unequivocally and without question that I hold that all peoples have intelligence and capacity in a variety of ways which make a beautiful diversity human ingenuity and creativity.

We must first begin this discussion by analyzing what does it mean to be smart or to have intelligence, and then we can begin to understand perhaps the different kinds of intelligence that exist among our neuro- diverse species. Intelligence has at its core a sense of capacity or function rather then a pure intellectual storage space of useless facts and figures. Researchers theorize on an inmate capacity that does not change over one’s lifetime, but these notions are only theories. Their research of neurological function that displays the brain activity of “intelligence” do not coincide with the brain activity of peak performance functioning. Furthermore, it has been shown in repeated studies that intelligence scores increase based upon the education and experience of the testtakers. Therefore, we can at least say that the science on the subject of intelligence is rather incomplete and potentially at the most even say it’s theories are lacking in substance. However, one can certainly say that the capacity that enables one to survive as an individual and as a species is what we may call being intelligent.

Given the state of affairs of our human existence and the many crises we face you might be tempted to say that humans don’t seem all that intelligent. Certainly it is without question that our societies took a very different path than our predecessors in respect to living in harmony with nature and with its various ecosystems. We also differ quite significantly from the rest of life on this planet and that we engage in massive oppression and injustices in the pursuit not only of resources, but total domination. In this article, I must forgo this discussion on the existential crisis of our human species for the sake of keeping brevity and sis synchronous to the answer of this question. However, I do believe that the exploration of neuro- diverse intelligence in the function of that diversity will reveal insights that can be quite helpful in understanding the human condition and the role that ADHD has played in the evolution of the human species.

When we asked the question of intelligence we unknowingly make a variety of assumptions that come from our own biases of our environmental adaptations. For example, we assume that we know what is intelligence, because we assume we know what it should be used for. In other words, what makes intelligence is specific to the situation that is being presented. Without knowledge of that situation, then this is near impossible to say this set of intelligences is better than that set of intelligences.

The situation that an individual, group of individuals, or even a species is in determines the need for specific skills and abilities in order to survive that situation. Since none of us possess the ability to predict the future, then we are not able to say exactly what situation will present itself and thus which skills and abilities will be needed to survive. However, despite this lack of critical information nature has provided a most brilliant solution by creating a wide diversity of neurological aptitudes within the human species. Therefore, we possess within the larger context of our modern society many different types of individuals with many different types of intelligence. It is for these reasons why it is impossible any logical to represent anyone type of intelligence being better than another.

There have been many pioneers that have studied the great diversity of human capacity and among them there is one that stands out from the rest in his popularization of different kinds of intelligence. Murphy Gardner developed his multiple intelligence testing model back in the 1950s, but even today his wide analysis of neuro- diversity remains but a shadow to our monotone neuro- typical framework by which we attempt to measure the diversity of the human mind. I use the word measure in almost a cynical sense as in reality we use our preconceived notions of what intelligence is and is not in order to conform, mold, and indoctrinate those who do not fit what our preconceived notions.

At-large these preconceived notions of intelligence and pseudo-measurements are used to declare what is and is not a civilized society, and thus to justify actions that impress certain groups of people and give others a great amount of power. Therefore, the notion of multiple intelligence has been kept in the shadows as it reveals the underlying errors of our modern society.

Murphy Gardner realized that everybody has different aptitudes and abilities, and those differences should be understood and harnessed rather than contrasted against the mold of societal expectations.

Our society often values certain kinds of intelligence over others to such an extent that culturally we have come to believe that these valuations are the entirety of intelligence. Culturally speaking, we tend to value logical, mathematical, mechanical, and linguistic types of intelligence in application to the sciences, engineering, auditory and written language, and various other fields that utilize these skill sets.

However, in Gartner’s research he uncovered more than a dozen different forms of intelligence that are often overlooked and not valued in terms of intellectual capacity. Such forms of intelligence include somatic, kinesthetic, musical, creative problem-solving, interpersonal, intrapersonal, whole systems thinking, spiritual, and many more.

You will notice that none of these other forms of intelligence are ever evaluated or tested in both intelligence tests or in the larger educational system. IQ tests typically only test logic and reasoning skills while SAT tests will include verbal comprehension evaluations. However neither of these tests have ever incorporated other forms of intelligence. In addition, the educational system, at-large only, focuses on what is called convergent thinking by which there is a problem with only one right answer. Divergent thinking, the ability to derive multiple solutions to the same problem, is never incorporated in mainstream education, and thus many forms of intelligence that are divergent in nature are completely left out of the educational process.

Our educational system focuses quantitatively to analyze and evaluate the kinds of intelligence that our society has chosen to value while completely neglecting and addressing a wide range of intellectual capacities and abilities. Unfortunately, for people with ADHD, it is these neglected intellectual capacities that people with ADHD tend to be highly skilled in. People with ADHD historically have a propensity toward creative problem-solving, people skills, innovation, artistic and musical abilities, athletic talents, and many other traits that are associated with divergent thinking and other forms of intelligence that our society has chosen not to evaluate, measure, or value in the intellectual conversation.

However, and most ironically, our society values very greatly the results and works of people with these abilities including highly successful entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, athletes, inventors, actors, leaders, and many more. It seems that the works of these people including their businesses, music, art, sports games, inventions, movies, leadership, etc…are often more valued and accepted, then the personality and neuro-divergent intellect of the creator of such works.

This may, at first, seem like a harsh assessment, but one only needs to go to history to find the endless examples of people who were not accepted by society other than their works such as Leonardo da Vinci, Nikolai Tesla, and even Einstein whom all were greatly ridiculed and rejected by their contemporaries until their works became so highly valued that society was forced to recognize their intellectual capacities.

Our cultural lack of acceptance for individuals that exhibit these neuro- divergent intellectual capacities is simply and unequivocally because they are different than the social norms of our society. People tend to fear that which they do not understand, and these intellectual capacities are not so easily quantifiable, and thus understandable.

It is for these reasons that I say that people with ADHD are not necessarily smarter, but are definitely different in intellectual neuro- divergent abilities. It could be argued that people with ADHD are smarter in certain areas of intellectual ability.

However, the valuations of a society are based on the fulfillment of a past societal need and social norms, and thus only in retrospect can we see with absolute certainty what was needed at a given time. In our current place in the cycles of our society, we are encountering a great many challenges and problems that will require creative and innovative solutions. Therefore, it is people who have creative problem-solving skills and divergent thinking that will appear to lead the pack in pioneering solutions for humanity at this time.

It is true that many super successful and famous individuals throughout history also had ADHD. In fact, most famous and notable people throughout history were diagnosed or thought to have neuro- divergent differences that today are labeled as ADHD, autism, bipolar, etc…

Thus, in times of great change and challenge, people with neuro-divergent differences and intellectual abilities will often find themselves uniquely equipped to provide solutions and innovations to the challenges at hand. However, given that our society is not really set up for neuro- divergent individuals, then it is increasingly difficult for such individuals to offer their unique talents and abilities.

So, unfortunately many people with ADHD suffer greatly because our society lacks the right resources and support in the educational and occupational arenas. When neuro- divergent individuals are placed in the right environment that matches their learning style and aptitudes with uniquely qualified mentors and coaches whom are highly successful high functioning neuro- divergent individuals themselves, then they are able to excel greatly.

I believe that what is behind the question “are people with ADHD smarter?” is actually the observation of what happens when neuro- divergent individuals are in environments by which they can thrive and excel in their aptitudes. If one is unaware of these latent and abilities, then it would seem compared to others that people with ADHD may possess higher intelligence.   However, I hope it is clear from this article that I do not believe nor subscribe to any such ideology of intellectual supremacy among any group of people.  Such thinking has led to horrific acts in history and it is imperative that we do not allow ourselves to entertain any such fallacies.

I know that people who have been labeled with ADHD and have suffered years of being misunderstood and marginalized may feel  that the question is a deserving one due to how far and how long the pendulum has swung in the other direction. It is true that for decades people with ADHD have been thought to be slow, lazy, and not as mentally capable as other people.  In recent years, this has been shown to be false on all accounts.  However, I do not believe that it will benefit people with ADHD to engage in a conversation of intellectual supremacy by which not only have many horrific historical acts been done by such ideology, but it serves only to further obfuscate and distract the conversation away from one of the accepting and embracing neuro- diverse intelligence and abilities among all people.

 It may be fair to say that people with ADHD are smarter in certain ways and in certain aptitudes, but that could equally be said of every person whether they have ADHD or not. The bottom line is that everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and furthermore we are all different in those various strengths and weaknesses. The question, while pointing to cases where people with ADHD have and can excel over others; I hope can deepen itself to looking at the individual’s needs rather than the need to compare. 

In a world where diversity is not only abundant, but necessary for survival it does not seem fruitful to compare apples to oranges. I would encourage us for the progress of humanity to set down the measurement tools of comparison in our obsessions with supremacy, which have done nothing but bring great pain and suffering throughout history, and instead to pick up the tools of understanding, acceptance, and appreciation for all of the differences that exist among us.

We have at our disposal, in this modern age, the ability to connect with more people, in more ways, and across more distances than we have ever had before. It seems such a waste to focus those efforts in attempts to determine which flower among 10,000 is better than the rest. An ecosystem by nature requires all of its participants in order to survive, and thus discussing which flower is better than the rest is in all actuality discussing the end of all life.

In the corporate world there is now a movement to build neuro- diverse teams due to their higher efficiency. In fact, neuro- diverse specialists are one of the largest and most rapidly growing fields in the human resources arenas of the corporate world. Billion dollar companies have found out through decades of research that taking proper inventory of their employees’ neuro- diverse abilities in order to place them in the most optimal environments that suit their talents yields a much more effective and harmonious workforce.

Now, if those in the corporate world can do this for the purposes of workplace productivity and profit, then it should be clear to all peoples that this is not a philosophy or an abstraction but rather a fact of nature- i.e. a fact of life.

In nature there exists a multiplicity of diversity of various species for the sake of evolutionary survival. The question before us is not just are we going to understand the uniqueness and neuro- diverse abilities of people with ADHD, but are we going to recognize the differences and uniqueness among all people.

Furthermore in that recognition are we going to accept, embrace, and appreciate that it is those very differences that have enabled humanity to not only survive, but thrive?

About the Author

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!