Adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder exhibit higher levels of creativity than their non-ADHD counterparts and rely less on prior knowledge when thinking of innovative solutions to problems, a University of Michigan study says.
The study, conducted by U-M Assistant Research Scientist Holly White, asked participants with and without ADHD to think of and draw fruits that could exist in an “alien” society, but do not actually grow on earth. White found participants with ADHD were more likely than those without ADHD to invent fruits that differed greatly from common ones, such as apples and bananas.
White said the ability to offer inventive answers in response to complex problems is an asset in many fields, especially in areas where students will often rely upon previous examples of solutions rather than create their own. She noted that, for example, students in engineering may invent solutions that are less original after viewing example solutions.
“If you show them solutions that might work, it’s very hard for them to come up with new things that don’t include those solutions,” White said. “A task that I tried with students with ADHD was to show them examples and say, ‘Don’t use these examples’ and, in fact, they were able to create high-quality product labels for an imaginary company, and they were able to come up with these and not use the elements that were shown in the examples.”
As a result of her study, White concluded that individuals with ADHD are more creative when it comes to innovative problem-solving. Arash Zaghi, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut, was not involved with the study, but has done research on students with ADHD in the past. He said curiosity is “domain-specific” and cannot be given a blanket definition. However, he said the intense focus many students with ADHD put into work they have a keen interest in allows them to produce original and complex thought.
“When they (individuals with ADHD) hyperfocus on something, and they have an interest in something, the amount of work that they can do is just mind boggling,” Zaghi said.
James Kaufman, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, also mentioned how creativity varies by discipline, but is ultimately, “the ability to develop something that is both new and that is task-appropriate.”
Kaufman classified creativity in four distinct ways: mini-c (personal insights), little-c (everyday creativity), pro-c (expert level) and big-c (creative genius). Kaufman said the kind of creativity exhibited by students with ADHD is often undervalued because it encourages others to be open to newness, which is scary for those who are accustomed to rhythm and order.
“Creative people are more likely to take risks, be open to new ideas, defy authority and seek challenges, which pays off big-time in the long run, but in general we’re not great as a society at looking at long-term benefits,” Kaufman wrote in an email. “Most people want a small, measured amount of creativity that solves small, existing problems.”
Public Policy junior Lena Dreves, who has ADHD, said she often struggles with disappointing parents and teachers because her creativity manifests itself in ways many perceive to be daydreaming and forgetful thinking.
“Walking home from school, instead of thinking ‘I need to pay rent’ or ‘I need to do that homework tonight,’ I’m thinking of some historical moment in history and how the philosophy of a certain leader really affected this generation,” Dreves said. “Yes, it’s daydreaming and I get that, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful break for the mind.”
White also said neurodiverse perspectives are often seen solely as impairments rather than useful assets in fields that may actually benefit from unique modes of thinking.
“I don’t want to say there’s no impairment with ADHD, because of course it’s going to be something where people are having trouble focusing and paying attention,” White said. “But I want to underscore that it’s a different way of thinking that, in some contexts and for some types of problems, is definitely an advantage.”
According to Zaghi, including the perspectives and viewpoints of students with ADHD is often challenging in the short-term, but can have long-lasting benefits. He said while students with ADHD may have some difficulties completing certain tasks during a project, their ideas often complement those of students without ADHD and enhance the overall product.
“We need diverse types of skills,” Zaghi said. “Some of the students are very task-oriented, they are very comfortable adhering to process and presenting a very refined, polished product. We cannot only, for example, say ‘ADHD students, because they have these creative ideas, can produce the best product.’ They need to work to get there. That’s why we need to have a neurodiverse group of students.”
Dreves said another challenge she faces is others’ unwillingness to legitimize ADHD and see it as a real disorder that can have both positive and negative effects. With the growing use of medication such as Adderall and Ritalin among non-ADHD students, Dreves said she often has to justify her condition to herself and actively create her own sense of self-esteem.
“It’s forced me to find self-esteem and self-value inside myself,” Dreves said. “That sounds really cheesy, but at the same time, it’s really real. Because if I put my worth on what everyone around me is expecting, then it gets crushed every time. And I think that’s definitely positive.”