How can a high achiever have ADHD?

Neurodiversity and intelligence are not the same thing. There are brilliant thinkers with ADHD just as there are neurotypical people who cannot get themselves organised, show up on time or read a book in full.

adhd high achiever
Cluey Learning Thursday, 3 November 2022

ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) is being discussed a lot in all sorts of social and professional arenas lately. Some believe that the extended lockdowns and mental health pressures of the pandemic led more people to seek psychiatric help, people who might not otherwise have considered exploring their mental health.

Many of these people are high achievers whose intelligence and adaptability had masked neurodiversities until the stress of isolation and uncertainty overcame their considerable management skills. Some of these high achievers have been diagnosed with ADHD, which has challenged previously held stereotypes of what ADHD looks like. 

Perhaps you’re intrigued by this new information. Perhaps there’s been a diagnosis in your family. Perhaps your resident teenager has started sending you videos from ADHD TikTok, or, for those of us who are “from the nineteen hundreds” (a phrase this teacher chooses to take as a mark of respect for her maturity and wisdom), Instagram reels.

Perhaps you’re now wondering whether you or someone you love might have ADHD. Perhaps you’ve been dismissive of the idea of ADHD because it’s been synonymous with underachievement for such a long time.

So, how can ADHD be responsible for both the hyperactive child who can’t focus long enough to read a book and the established professional with rewarding relationships and self confidence? How can a high achiever have ADHD?

ADHD can help some people with academic and professional achievement. 

Neurodiversity and intelligence are not the same thing. There are brilliant thinkers with ADHD just as there are neurotypical people who cannot get themselves organised, show up on time or read a book in full.

Neurodiversity impacts how a person can apply their intelligence, but intellectual ability and academic aptitude are just as variable in the neurodiverse population as they are in the neurotypical. So, someone with ADHD might be a high achiever simply because they’re highly intelligent in a way that is rewarded by the schooling and social system in which they find themselves. 



The quieter signs of ADHD like perfectionism, creativity, organisation and hyperfocus can be ADHD traits that serve higher academic and professional achievement. If a person with ADHD has interests that align with the priorities of their schooling system, they may do quadruple the work expected of them in half the time because they are engaged and interested.

They may not have any control over this kind of focus, but school systems tend to privilege assessment and measurement over wellbeing or individual efficiency. This means that the person with ADHD might now be a world expert in their Year 7 science topic, and they might be exhausted by their efforts, but they got 100% in the yearly exam and that’s what, systematically, matters.



ADHD means that the brain follows its interests, come hell or high water. This can mean deep diving into one passion for years on end, or it can mean switching rapidly between interest areas and hobbies. If the latter, then the person with ADHD can become a very thorough generalist making them very good at synthesising information, seeing connections between different disciplines, solving problems in creative ways and helping others to understand complex questions.

ADHD can also prompt some people to read widely, deeply and hungrily which means that they gain enormous amounts of knowledge, extensive vocabularies and literacy skills beyond their years. This translates, in school and at work, into high achievement.


Imposter syndrome

ADHDers are prone to feeling like failures or imposters. Some will use their poor executive functioning to discount their academic or professional achievements. This can look like a teenager receiving an exemplary test result but still berating themselves for leaving the paper at school instead of bringing it home to show their family. Imposter syndrome with ADHD can also look like forgetting the things you’ve already achieved because your interest has moved on and those qualifications are no longer a challenge to conquer.

This can look like a student having crippling anxiety over failing every single test, even though they’ve earned high marks in every previous task in that subject. While imposter syndrome can exhaust and dishearten students, and compromise their confidence in other areas of life, it can certainly motivate hard work, and high achievement. It might also generate social achievement by being mistaken for modesty, humility or excessive admiration for the achievements of others. 

ADHD can help some people with social achievement.


People Pleasing

ADHD often means being told off for your behaviour, especially as a child. This can teach some ADHDers to become well attuned to the emotional states of the people around them, sometimes taking more responsibility for how others feel than they should, because their behaviour seemed to upset adults so much when they were little. This can lead to people pleasing behaviours which have their benefits and drawbacks. For those around them, an ADHDer might be the most helpful, caring, considerate, entertaining, interesting and funny person they’ve ever met.

They might talk quickly and enthusiastically about everything, never be bored or boring and are always able to cheer others up and solve their problems. This is exhausting for the person with ADHD, and can become toxic for them, but we measure social achievement by how people impact others, so, for the most part, these traits can help people with ADHD gain and maintain lots of valuable friendships and professional connections. 


Fake it till you make it

Getting on with others socially is a highly valued trait in our schools and social groups. For some people with ADHD, and many without it, the company and conversation of their peer group does not stimulate their interest, and they can feel isolated in caring about things that others aren’t intrigued by.

This can mean that some ADHDers learn to fake it until they make it on the friend-making front. They put their main interests aside in social situations. They learn topics of conversation that are socially acceptable, how to crack a joke, how to lead the conversation when needed and how to measure people’s reactions to their behaviour and adapt accordingly.

ADHD can, in this way, help some people to become social chameleons and social butterflies. This can make them wonderful leaders, project managers and dinner guests, all of which can contribute to social and academic achievement. It may never occur to the person with ADHD that they have social strategies or had to practice their social skills in a way that others didn’t. This can be equally exhausting and rewarding for the person with ADHD.

ADHD can help some people to develop their sense of self.



Some kids with ADHD learn to regulate their behaviour very early in life, usually without realising it until later, if at all. This means that they can become more self-aware than others their age and this can empower them to be more active in constructing their identity and reputation. This, like so many ADHD traits, has pros and cons.

Among the benefits are being able to reinvent yourself confidently as you grow up, and to curate your personal attributes with a discipline and consciousness that takes others decades to develop. It also opens the door to anxiety about getting things right in life, taking more responsibility for your impact on others than is fair on yourself, and growing up earlier than your peers. Socially, we’re more likely to reward confidence and to dismiss anxiety, so this can also be a path to high achievement.



The process of getting diagnosed with ADHD can mean that the person with ADHD has had to develop their self-awareness to a point that people without ADHD have never had to consider. Whether as a child or an adult, getting an ADHD diagnosis requires an honest audit of how your brain behaves, how you interact with others and yourself, and how you want your life to look. This is rarely a smooth road, but by facing those challenges people with ADHD can find a lot of self-confidence through self-knowledge.



Somewhat counterintuitively, ADHD can hide itself in counselling. Talking about yourself and doing things to fix your problems, improve your relationships and self-esteem, and even exploring trauma can be thoroughly interesting. Someone with ADHD might be hyper focused in therapy in a way that pauses their regular ADHD symptoms like fidgeting or redirecting the conversation, meaning that their psychologist or mental health provider has no evidence to suggest that they should consider whether ADHD is at play.

This can mean that people with ADHD have been through a lot of therapy to try to figure out their imposter syndrome, their anxiety, their inability to relax, or their compulsion to keep achieving. This can lead to substantial self-awareness, and potentially, self-confidence.



Finally, it’s worth remembering that humans like to feel good about themselves. If we get rewarded for doing something one way, we’re highly likely to keep doing it for the dopamine it gives us, and to do it more and better and faster to keep increasing the reward. Pavlov’s dog got treats, but humans get approval from their teachers or parents for academic achievement, praise from their peers for being funny or interesting, and satisfaction from achieving things for themselves.

In this way, achievement perpetuates achievement as long as it keeps working, whether it’s academic, social or personal. ADHDers are particularly susceptible to seeking praise, approval and satisfaction because these things give all humans a hit of dopamine – the neurotransmitter that people with ADHD lack.


How can you help?

If you have a suspected or diagnosed high-achieving ADHDer in your life, there are a few things you can do to support them. If they don’t have ADHD, these ideas can’t hurt:

  1. Discuss achievement, expectations and disappointment with them in real and specific terms. If your ADHDer is working themselves into the ground, even if it does produce good results in school, knowing that you’re proud of them, of how hard they work, and of what they’ve already achieved can help build their defences against anxiety and imposter syndrome. 
  2. Engage enthusiastically if they share their interests with you. The topic might bore you to tears, but the knowledge that their passions matter and that they can share who they really are with someone safely is worth so very much in a young life. 
  3. Tell them they’re doing a great job and add specific detail to prove it. Focus on things that aren’t school or social achievement, things like bravery, persistence, asking for help, knowing when to stop, speaking up for themselves, asking for what they need, trying something new, ditching something new if it doesn’t fit, eating well – it doesn’t have to be big, it just has to show them that they are enough as they are, that you see and love them as they are, and that external achievements are just a nice bonus. 

How can Cluey help?

Tutoring can be a powerful supplement to schooling because it gives students a chance to honestly audit their skills, knowledge and ambitions without any social or academic consequences. It can extend students with ADHD in their areas of interest, remedy gaps that may have developed because the content was boring at the time and support them in their overall school skills. It’s also an opportunity to ‘nerd out’ with someone who shares their passion for Jane Austen or comic books, their interest in twin primes, or their enthusiasm for sustainable technology. 

If you’re curious about Cluey’s approach to tutoring students with ADHD, get in touch with Cluey today.

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