Can Smart People Have ADHD?

Yes, they can.

Being smart does not protect a person from the difficulties of having Attention Deficit Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADD/ADHD, respectively. A study led by Dr. Thomas E. Brown featured 117 children and adolescents with IQ scores of 120 or higher who placed in the top ninth percentile of their age group. Some of the students excelled at verbal comprehension, others in visual-spatial reasoning and some in both. They were not challenged with intelligence, but instead they were challenged by how their knowledge is employed effectively with work and social skills. The students suffered from completing their work adequately, retaining what they’ve learned, and organizing and completing assignments.

Why do bright students struggle?

The answers to treating ADDD/ADHD do not have to do with intelligence. It has to do with poor executive functioning. ADD/ADHD is not a behavioral problem. It’s a developmental problem, and those with ADD/ADHD find difficulty in carrying out executive functions. Executive functions are the management center of the brain, essential for working effectively and for self-regulation. They include activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory, and action.

According to Dr. Brown, each of these functions work together in various combinations, and are impaired in those with ADD/ADHD:

 Activation – organizing, prioritizing and activating to work

 Focus – focusing, sustaining and shifting attention to tasks

 Effort – regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed

 Emotion – managing frustration and modulating emotions

 Memory – utilizing working memory and accessing recall

 Action – monitoring and self-regulating action

If it’s not really interesting to me, why can’t I focus on it? I know it’s important and I still need to do it. Those with ADD/ADHD are better at focusing on some activities rather than others. Dr. Brown notes all the students in the study reported no difficulties in pursuing—and carrying out—executive functions for a select few activities such as playing a sport, making art or music, cooking, website design, or car repairs. We are naturally apt to focus on what interests us.

There is a scientific explanation for why focus is harder for those who suffer ADD/ADHD: Executive functions require the release of dopamine in the brain which is not something that can be voluntarily controlled. Dopamine, a brain chemical that helps keep us safe and happy, also aids in our focus and concentration.

According to Adult ADHD coach Jacqueline Sinfield, the ADD/ADHD brain has less dopamine than the average brain. Sugar, caffeine are substances that give a boost. So do some ADD/ADHD medications. One of the best ways to feel the effects of dopamine is to accomplish something, like exercise—get moving or overcoming a challenge. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what our level of competence is, as long as we work to overcome what mentally (or physically) challenges us.

ADD/ADHD has nothing to do with how smart a person is. Some individuals are super-smart on IQ tests and many score in the average range. Some are much lower. The focus therefore shifts to other methods of improving the way tasks are carried out, or executive functioning.

Learn more about Dr. Brown’s work at