ADHD is one of the most prevalent mental disorders in the world, but despite this, storytellers only seem to rely on inaccurate stereotypes when crafting characters with ADHD. If you want to write a character with ADHD, taking the time to understand the disorder is the first step towards writing about it authentically.
Like the article about Autism, this topic is personal to me since I have this disorder myself. Seeing offensive portrayals of ADHD in mainstream media is unfortunately commonplace, but if you’ve made it to this article, you’re already a step ahead of those stories.
What is ADHD?
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by differences in communication, behavior, and experiences. “Neurodevelopmental” means this is a disorder present from birth. It cannot be cured, nor can it be acquired later in life. It is not a disorder that only affects children.
Individuals with ADHD can be categorized as having Inattentive Type, Hyperactive Type, or Combined Type ADHD, however, this is debated a lot in ADHD communities for being generally inaccurate and unhelpful categorization.
What Causes ADHD?
ADHD is thought to be caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain, resulting in deficiencies of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
- Dopamine controls the reward center of the brain. This is what makes people feel a sense of accomplishment for finishing a task, which in turn motivates someone to start, stay focused on, and actually finish things.
- Serotonin regulates internal processes, such as sleep and digestion, but it also plays a large role in controlling emotions and creating a sense of relaxation or pleasure.
- Norepinephrine regulates cognitive function and stress reactions. It works closely with Epinephrine, another kind of neurotransmitter that triggers the stress response commonly referred to as “fight or flight.”
Although this might sound a bit convoluted for an article about writing ADHD characters, this explanation is important for understanding how ADHD affects a person’s brain. Knowing a list of symptoms and behaviors is not going to help you if you don’t understand the processes behind them.
As you can probably guess from the explanation above, ADHD is much more complicated than just being inattentive and hyperactive.
What is ADD?
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is an outdated term to refer to the idea of “Inattentive ADHD.” It is no longer used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM 5).
The label is no longer used because researchers learned more about ADHD over time, and have come to discover that ADD and ADHD are the same exact condition. ADHD, like all complex disorders, affects people differently, and having a different diagnostic label to refer to individuals with a different presentation of the same disorder is not necessary or helpful.
What is Neurodivergence?
If you’ve done any research about ADHD, you have probably already come across the terms “neurodiversity” and “neurodivergent.”
“Neurodiversity” describes the idea of disorders like ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) being part of natural human biodiversity. The neurodiversity movement promotes acceptance of these differences since differing perspectives and ways of thinking can help create a more intelligent, creative, and overall empathetic society. Additionally, the movement highlights the inherent worth of individuals regardless of their abilities, and aims to encourage the development of a more accommodating and respectful world.
“Neurodivergent” is a term used to describe a person whose brain differs from the structure or function of a “typical” brain. This is generally understood to include neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD and ASD, but many others are welcomed under the umbrella term, including those with PTSD, Dyslexia, OCD, and more.
Some may be inclined to argue about which conditions should or should not be included, but since the movement is about acceptance and celebrating differences, it is against the spirit of the movement to single out or exclude specific mental or neurological conditions.
Symptoms and behaviors
ADHD is not simply being “bad at listening” and “energetic.” This is a complicated neurodevelopmental disorder, and the list of behaviors and experiences it encompasses is lengthy. In addition to that, it affects people differently, and what is true for one person with ADHD might not apply to another.
Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, nor is there an expectation for your character to have all of these traits. Go through and pick out the behaviors that make sense for your character—don’t just apply the whole list.
There are quite a few communication differences between Neurotypical (NT) people and those with ADHD. As you can imagine, it is not always easy for NT people and ADHD people to communicate effectively with one another—oftentimes, it results in frustration for both parties. With that said, those with ADHD are much more likely to connect and get along with other people who share their condition.
People with ADHD are likely to:
- Talk fast
- Talk loud
- Have trouble knowing when it is their turn to speak
- Rapidly change topics of conversation
- Have many seemingly unrelated thoughts happening in quick succession or simultaneously
- Be socially anxious
There’s one other trait that merits a bit more explanation: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD). RSD is defined as a condition in which a person has intense emotional reactions to perceived rejection. Rejection causes the person severe emotional pain, and almost always results in them developing methods of avoiding rejection at all costs—often at the expense of their own quality of life. People with ADHD have a much higher risk of experiencing RSD as a result of ADHD’s impact on emotional regulation.
Some people with ADHD experience what is known as “emotional dysregulation,” which is just a more clinical way of saying they aren’t able to process their emotions well, leading to intense emotional outbursts.
Here are some examples of what emotional dysregulation looks like in ADHD:
- Mood swings
- Anger issues
- Low tolerance for frustration
- Low tolerance for boredom
- Difficulty coping with stress
- Crying easily
Another aspect of emotional dysregulation is delayed emotional processing. This means that a person may not know how to feel about a situation they experience until they have had time to think about it—even if a situation is inherently traumatic. They may appear good under pressure or apathetic to what is happening, when in reality, the emotional weight of the situation has not set in yet. This can be good and bad since it makes someone more capable of acting in the moment, but it can also delay healing in situations dealing with grief and emotional pain.
As mentioned above, ADHD encompasses a myriad of complex psychological symptoms—aside from hyperactivity and inattention.
Here are some examples of the psychological symptoms a person with ADHD may experience:
- Constant internal dialogue, chatter, music, etc (like constantly having a song stuck in your head)
- Poor working memory
- Brain fog
- Spacing out
- Maladaptive Daydreaming
With that said, not all psychological differences are negative! In general, people with ADHD also tend to be creative problem-solvers and passionate people.
Although ADHD is a mental disorder, it has its fair share of physical symptoms as well. The mind and the body are inextricably linked, and when a person feels mentally unwell, their physical health is certain to follow.
Here are some examples of what the physical symptoms of ADHD can look like:
- Difficulty sleeping
When most people think of ADHD, they tend to think of the behaviors associated with it. Using these behaviors for your character will be the most obvious way to indicate that they have ADHD, but don’t neglect the other sections of this article. A comprehensive understanding of the condition is required to portray it authentically.
A lot of the behaviors associated with ADHD are dictated by a need for stimulation—generally meaning sensory information. Here’s what that looks like:
- Difficulty in waiting for things
- Inability to stay seated or sit normally
- Lack of organization
- Picky eating
- Extreme attention to detail
- Inclination to multitask
- Stimming. “Stimming” is shorthand for “self-stimulating behaviors,” and it references any behavior that a person utilizes to increase their overall level of stimulation. This is most often stereotyped as the hand flapping associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but the list of behaviors that qualify as stims is endless. Stimming can look like bouncing a leg, swaying back and forth, humming, twirling, pacing, touching something textured, staring at music visualizers, chewing on things, and so so much more.
Other ADHD behaviors are dictated by a need for immediate gratification, since, remember, the condition is characterized by a deficit in the neurotransmitters that induce feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. Here’s what that looks like:
- Novelty-seeking or thrill-seeking behaviors
- Impulse spending
- Extreme lack of attention to detail
- Starting and abandoning hobbies suddenly
- Substance abuse and addiction
Notice that some of the points in each list are opposites. This is because the condition not only affects people differently but also presents differently depending on the context. A person may approach stocking grocery store shelves at work with perfection in mind, but keep their desk at home a cluttered disaster. Similarly, a person may be a picky eater, but when faced with one of their favorite foods, will eat in excess. Keep this nuance in mind.
As you can probably guess from reading through the sections above, ADHD has a lot to do with managing sensory stimuli. In general, understimulation is the default for people with ADHD, and their behaviors reflect an effort to take in more stimuli.
However, to complicate things, many people with ADHD also have something called “Sensory Processing Disorder” (SPD), which makes a person much more sensitive to stimuli that a normal person would not be bothered by. This can result in a person swinging rapidly from understimulation to overstimulation. Additionally, SPD can interfere with a person’s ability to decipher stimuli that they take in. Here are some examples of what this looks like:
- Inability to understand words spoken aloud, despite having no hearing loss
- Tendency to hear sounds other people cannot
- Inability to ignore or dismiss background noise
- Inability to focus when multiple people are talking at once (such as in a public space like a grocery store or stadium)
- Extreme reactions to loud sounds, bad smells, unpleasant taste, certain textures, and bright lights
- Inability to tolerate things like tags in shirts, hair in their face, or substances on their hands/skin
- Heightened appreciation for pleasant sensations, like swimming, petting a soft cat, or listening to music
- Difficulty in recognizing bodily cues, such as when to get up and stretch, when to use the restroom, and when they are hungry
- Delayed processing, such as requiring more time to think about something they see or hear in order to understand it
The phrase “executive function” refers to the skills associated with the completion of tasks—both mundane and significant. These skills are things such as planning, organizing, managing time and expectations, scheduling, self-motivation, memory, and self-control.
People with ADHD have impaired executive functioning because, as mentioned above, the condition results in part from a deficit of dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for satisfaction and accomplishment. People feel incentivized to complete tasks because of the sense of accomplishment that follows, but in a dopamine-deficient brain (like those with ADHD), that sense of accomplishment never comes. The person with ADHD must endure an unpleasant task with none of the neurochemical reward that NT people expect. Doing something as simple as unloading a dishwasher can feel comparable to voluntarily placing one’s hand on a hot stove burner—as in, the activity is unpleasant and there is no inherent biological point to it.
Executive dysfunction in ADHD looks like:
- Trouble multitasking (or, inability to focus without multitasking)
- Trouble focusing
- Poor Time management skills
- Poor memory
- Being easily distracted
- No attention to detail
- Frequently losing things
- Poor planning
- Trouble starting tasks
- Trouble prioritizing tasks
- Trouble following through with tasks
- Starting many tasks but not finishing most of them
- Working well under pressure
- Time anxiety
- Work momentum (difficulty getting started and difficulty disengaging)]
- Losing all ability to continue working if attention is broken (such as a coworker approaching with a question)
- “Waiting mode.” Waiting mode is at the intersection of anxiety, time blindness, and executive dysfunction. It describes the phenomenon of a single scheduled activity (such as a phone call, appointment, party, etc) stopping any and all productivity prior to the event. Rather than doing other things in the meantime, people with ADHD can find it nearly impossible to start something else, even if their appointment isn’t for another 5 hours, which results in them simply waiting… for the entire 5 hours. Naturally, this is one of the most frustrating parts of ADHD, since, as mentioned above, waiting is very taxing for people with the condition.
One of the reasons why “waiting mode” happens is because of a behavior known as hyperfocus.
When a person with ADHD engages in a task that is particularly interesting and stimulating, they can slip into a state of focus that completely tunes out all thoughts not relating to the task in question. This includes bodily cues of pain, discomfort, hunger, tiredness, and more. A person may not have any awareness of the passage of time, even if the room gets dark around them with the setting sun (as long as the change in light doesn’t interfere with their activity, like ones that involve screens). The instant their focus is broken, they will become suddenly aware of all the bodily cues they missed while absorbed in the activity.
A person’s awareness of their tendency to hyperfocus on things can trigger anxiety about losing track of time, which helps explain why they avoid engaging in activities if they have a scheduled event later in the day. Hyperfocus also explains why people with ADHD are so prone to forgetting things and burning their food when cooking.
Additionally, people with ADHD often have hyperfixations similar to Autistic special interests. Unlike special interests, however, fixations are often short-lived, with new interests being picked up and abandoned according to a person’s whims. For the brief (or not so brief) period of time a person engages with a fixation, it will be their entire world. It will seem like the only thing the person can talk about, and it will be the only thing they want to engage with in their free time (or even when they are supposed to be working. Like… on an article for their website, for example…).
Hyperfixations can be vague or broad, and just about anything you can think of qualifies—such as learning an instrument or language, creating some new kind of art, learning to skateboard, collecting something, playing a game, obsessing over a specific character or actor, and more. In fact, it’s pretty common for a person with ADHD to purchase all the equipment they need for a new fixation only to lose interest in it after a little while. (I haven’t opened my guitar case in years…)
If you are making a character with ADHD for your story, you need to consider what their current hyperfixations are, and what kinds of things can trigger hyperfocus. For some people, they may get sucked into scrolling social media easily, whereas someone else may easily slip into hyperfocus when reading articles about history. Another person could zone out often and hyperfocus on their own thoughts or imagination. Likewise, a person’s current fixations are a large part of their life, so neglecting to consider what a character is fixated on would be like neglecting an entire aspect of their personality.
“Masking” is the behavior of hiding one’s true self in order to appear more socially acceptable. For people with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and ASD, this usually means hiding their symptoms and unusual behaviors, often to a detrimental extent. People have a variety of reasons for masking, but the most prevalent reasons are to avoid stigma and feel more accepted within peer groups.
There are many different strategies people employ when masking. Even if a person is unaware of their disorder, they will often instinctively utilize these strategies based on the reactions of people around them.
Here’s a brief explanation of some of the different masking strategies:
- Mirroring describes the behavior of mimicking other people’s mannerisms in conversation in an effort to “fit in.” A person can use a “mirror” in the same way an actor plays a character, and they will likely develop different ones for different people they interact with. This can, of course, get rather messy when a person is faced with many people in a group. A type of mirroring can also occur when a person adopts the personality or traits of a person or character they resonate with from tv.
- Scripting is the process of developing go-to phrases to use in conversation, or practiced answers to common questions like “how are you?” and “what did you do today?” If a person has something they want to share with someone else, they may also practice saying what they want to say—usually while looking at their own reflection.
- Overcompensating is fairly self-descriptive. A person with a neurodevelopmental disorder may have to work twice as hard as someone else to achieve the same outcome, and then lie about what they suffered to achieve that.
Aside from those strategies, there are thousands of tiny ways a person may police their behavior in order to be seen as “normal.” They can repress stims, make assumptions about things they didn’t hear or understand someone saying, lie about how they feel, and gaslight themself by invalidating their emotions.
To be clear, masking is not the same as learning emotional regulation strategies or communication skills. Masking is self-sabotaging behavior stemming from shame and stigma, all because harmful expectations are projected onto someone whose brain works differently from the majority.
Like with many neurodevelopmental disorders, ADHD commonly occurs alongside other conditions. In fact, roughly half of all people with ADHD also have another co-occurring condition, and when you consider diagnostic bias and missed diagnoses, that percentage can be presumed to be even higher.
Although the reason for this isn’t entirely clear, it is theorized that many neurological conditions share a common genetic cause, thus increasing the likelihood of two or more similar disorders co-occurring. Additionally, living with ADHD can make a person more susceptible to traumatic experiences like bullying, ostracization, and abuse, which can lead to the development of further mental health issues.
Commonly comorbid conditions include:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Learning Disabilities
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
- Anxiety (including Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Health Anxiety, Panic Disorders, and more)
- Anger Disorders (such as Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED))
- Bipolar Disorder
- Tourette Syndrome (TS)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD)
- Eating Disorders (Such as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Binge Eating Disorder)
If you choose to give your character one of these other conditions (or something else not listed here), make sure you do the appropriate research to portray both/all conditions appropriately.
Tips for Writing a Character with ADHD
Writing a character with any complex disorder (even one that you have yourself) can be daunting. However, if you do the research and just keep a few things in mind while you’re drafting the story, your ADHD character will end up being vibrant and authentic.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- ADHD has positive and negative aspects. A person with ADHD isn’t necessarily going to suffer every day of their life through every situation they encounter. Many of the things that can be bad about the disorder can also be reframed as positive for a different setting or character. A lot of extra energy might make one character restless, but it may give a different character extra spunk and enthusiasm. Hyperfocus could make someone anxious in one setting, or incredibly helpful to the protagonist or story progression. Thrill-seeking behavior could also be a powerful asset in any kind of adventure story.
- Stating the character’s disorder isn’t necessarily…necessary. Although I believe in proudly naming characters’ disorders for the sake of representation, I’ll admit it isn’t always important to bring attention to. If you do everything right, readers who understand the condition should immediately be able to pick up on the character’s distinctly ADHD behaviors—or at least be able to resonate with the character on a personal level.
- Give the character a sense of self-awareness. Generally, people with ADHD are aware of the behaviors they exhibit, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to change them. They’ll know when they’ve upset someone, interrupted someone, or failed to follow instructions, and generally, they will feel bad about it—and then probably do it again. It’s not something they can help, but I promise you, it bothers them as much as it bothers other people.
- Have the character subtly fidget frequently. Any time there’s a pause in dialogue, utilize an action beat to draw attention to how the character is moving. Whenever the character is idle, thinking, focusing, or otherwise present in a scene, casually bring attention to their stimming behaviors. You can also use these fidgets to help show how a character is truly feeling beneath a “mask,” since they may rely on specific, comforting stims when upset or frustrated.
- Exaggerate the character’s reactions to things. Remember that people with ADHD often experience heightened sensations, and their boundless energy often translates to bombastic personalities. Use this to your advantage to create contrast between characters and add emotional depth to scenes. Remember that masking may play a role in how a character projects their emotions, making them exhibit an emotion (or a degree of emotion) that is different from what they truly feel.
- Don’t be afraid of showing the realities of living with a neurodevelopmental disorder. Ultimately, it is hard to live with something like ADHD. On top of all the stigma, it also simply makes every aspect of life more difficult. It’s okay to show your character getting frustrated with themself, or experiencing hardship as a result of their disorder. Just be sure to give the character positive traits and don’t make them seem like a burden to the other characters. Also, be cautious about not telling a story that is only about ADHD suffering—leave that to someone with personal experience.
- Center the story around connections between characters. This might sound a little cheesy, but ADHD people function best with a strong and stable support network of people who understand them. Many executive functioning struggles are lessened with the presence of other people since a group creates a sense of community, accountability, and support. ADHD characters will be much more motivated to achieve things on behalf of the group, rather than themself alone.
ADHD is a complex disorder with many different ways it can manifest. With that said, there are a lot of things that many people with ADHD can relate to, and those are important for you to understand in order to highlight your character’s experiences as a person with this condition.
One of the things everyone with ADHD is (unfortunately) aware of is the presence of diagnostic bias in clinical settings. Like with ASD, ADHD is much more commonly diagnosed in boys as opposed to girls, and much more likely to be diagnosed in children as opposed to adults. Marginalized identities, such as being Black or Queer, can further complicate the pursuit of official diagnosis.
In addition to that, many people with ADHD have shared experiences in the ways they were raised and treated by peers. Individuals with ADHD are often accused of being lazy, when what they are really experiencing is “ADHD Paralysis” as a result of executive dysfunction. When a person is relentlessly accused of being worthless and lazy (especially during formative years), they can develop incredibly toxic self-image and esteem issues.
Finally, people with ADHD are taught from a young age that their behaviors are seen as unpleasant, unwanted, and inconvenient for other people. They are taught to change or hide their behaviors, even those that are harmless. Even if the intention behind the words isn’t bad, being told to “sit on your hands” or “stop disrupting others” will inevitably contribute to internalized shame.
However, not all shared experiences are traumatic. There are many behaviors that ADHD people experience independently that are better described as funny or silly (albeit sometimes only in hindsight). These are things like:
- Pacing around while reading or talking on the phone
- Watching the same movie or playing the same game regularly (usually referred to as a “comfort movie/show/game/etc”)
- Placing an item in a place they couldn’t possibly forget it and then forgetting where it is
- Literally constantly listening to music, leaving the TV on, or otherwise having some distraction playing (even while sleeping)
- Checking the time and still not knowing what time it is
- Burning food while cooking because there are so many things to get distracted by in the few minutes it takes for something to cook
- Never replacing the toilet paper because the moment they start washing their hands, the thought leaves
- Relating to others’ experiences by telling similar personal stories (usually to the dismay of the conversation partner)
- Frequently changing up clothing styles or haircuts
- Having way too many tabs open at once
- “Out of sight, out of mind” applying to all the fresh produce in the fridge
- Buying something at the store, only to come home and realize there’s already a bottle in the pantry—and then doing the same thing again next time
- Putting things away in the wrong place (like making coffee and then putting the milk in the pantry and the sugar in the fridge)
- Feeling the absolutely irresistible urge to finish other people’s sentences (especially when the topic is exciting!)
And so on and so forth. For more ideas like this, you can check out forums like r/ADHD and other related Reddit forums.
Avoid Stereotyping Your Character with ADHD
Really this whole section exists to simply say: Don’t use the “ooh look, a squirrel” joke in your story. That’s it. Just don’t do it.
In all seriousness, it is important to keep in mind that people with ADHD are complex individuals with diverse experiences and personalities. If you’re creating a character with ADHD, you need to approach it the same way you would approach making any other kind of character. They need flaws, history, experiences, culture, passions, goals, and depth. They are so much more than a disorder or a diagnostic label.
For tips on character creation, you can check out some of my other articles!
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me! I hope you found this useful.
(As an aside… The fact that this article took me 2 years and 3 months to complete is a testament to how Executive Function works. There is nothing I am more passionate about than this blog, and nothing I am more knowledgeable about than my own experiences. AND YET… it still took me THIS LONG to finish this particular article.)