"I Can't," Living With ADHD

Case Vignettes:

1. A youngster comes home with a homework assignment from school involving writing a creative story about life among Native Americans before the arrival of the Europeans.

2. A man is given an assignment at work to establish an incentive system to motivate the staff to work harder and increase sales and revenues.

3. A teacher is asked to have his Middle School class put on a play about election day and democracy.

4. A grievance is brought against a supervisor in a social work agency because of his failure to provide leadership in helping his staff work with the homeless.

There is one common denominator that all of the subjects in these scenarios share. All of them have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), primarily of the "inattentive type." Although these subjects are diverse as to age, gender and job description, they each react to their assignments in the same way. They immediately tell themselves, "I can't do that." Each then feels a deep sense of dread and a wish to run away.

It is now well known by psychologists, psychiatrists, and clinical social workers that their ADHD problem affects what is known as "executive function."

There is no clear definition of "Executive Function," but, in a general way, it refers to taking a problem and engaging in planning, using past memories and stored information, thinking in abstract terms and initiating appropriate actions to resolve the problems at hand.

For the executive function to work, it is important to be able to focus attention without being distracted by outside and extraneous stimuli, such as television, radio, noise or any other environment stimuli that must be filtered out. It is akin to focus on a discussion with one person while in the midst of a cocktail party where surrounded by other people engaged in conversations.

People with ADHD find it difficult to filter extraneous information and, because of their difficulties with attention, become immediately discouraged and give up. This is what is meant by their often repeated statement or thought, "I can't do it."

I agree with Dr. Goldstein's recent posting entitled, "
The Upside of ADHD," that it is important for people to think in terms of their strengths and not just in terms of their problems. His article can be found at:


First, there is help available for those with ADHD, whether children or adults. This help comes in the form of medication but, also and more importantly, in the form of training. In that training people learn strategies to compensate for their weaknesses and get the job done.

However, it is also important to know that ADHD brings with it real strengths. For example, those with this disorder are often extremely creative.

There is an entire movement in mental health called "positive psychology." It has to do with looking at strengths instead of focusing only on weaknesses. The human brain is extremely plastic and that gives us the ability to accomplish great feats with the gifts and weaknesses we are born with.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking, "I can't," stop, remind yourself that it is not true and that, "You can and will." If you need help, psychotherapy is available whether its for ADHD or any other behavioral disorder.

Your comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD