What I Learned Getting Tested for ADHD

After years of suspecting that I might have ADHD Inattentive Type, I finally got psychological testing. The results surprised me!

For a couple of years now, I suspected that I may have ADHD Predominately Inattentive (ADHD-PI). I've never been hyper, or energetic in general, so I never gave ADHD much thought in the past. But I first suspected it while reading a Hacker News thread of programmers with ADHD, describing their various non-pharmaceutical interventions that they use to manage their work and lives. It struck me that many of their coping strategies were things I did too. I'm forgetful, so I write todo lists, checklists, and other reminders. I'm distractable, so I wear noise-cancelling headphones and block out external stimuli whenever I can. I forget about things without environmental triggers, so I leave dumbbells lying around so I remember to exercise. My mind wanders in conversation, so I prefer instructions in writing. Nearly every response I read made me think, "Huh, that sounds like me." Did I have ADHD and not know it? Had I learned to do all of these things as a coping mechanism without realizing what I was trying to fix?

Given these perceived deficits and the behaviors I adopted around them, I decided to get properly tested.1 After an extremely boring 20 minute n-back test, I finally have hard data about my likelihood of having ADHD.

The data suggest that I do not have ADHD.

The test itself involved watching a series of colored shapes pop up briefly on a screen. I had to hit the spacebar if the same color and shape showed up twice in a row. My webcam was monitoring eye movement during the test as well, looking for signs of distraction. Despite being excruciatingly dull after only a few seconds, I somehow managed to stay focused on the task.

I was a bit more impulsive (hitting the spacebar when I shouldn't have) than average, but also quicker than average. I'm not sure how a lifetime of playing video games would affect my performance—supposedly not at all, but I'm not fully convinced.

The overall distribution of correct answers and errors was very much in line with the given sample case.

The psychologist, upon reviewing my test results with me, put it this way: "I think you're just a smart guy who gets impatient with the slow pace of things. And you're probably too hard on yourself about what you expect to get done."

He may be right. I can be extremely impatient at times. I listen to podcasts and YouTube videos at more than 2x speed, I mostly skim while reading, and I hate standing in lines. And I'm definitely hard on myself, feeling like I should accomplish more than I do.

I told all of this—my test results and the doctor's interpretation—to a friend of mine with an ADHD diagnosis. His first reaction was: "...kinda sounds like ADHD". He also said that his testing took 4 full hours and included many more types of evaluation than n-back. I'm now wondering if my test was too calibrated to specific aspects of ADHD that I don't display. Some of my data look borderline, and I still identify with many of the DSM-V crieria for ADHD-PI. I'm debating whether I should take a more rigorous test.2

In any case, I'll keep writing todos and checklists.

1. But only after putting it off for several years... ↩︎

2. Neither my test nor my friend's were cheap, costing $525 and$1,400 respectively. So I'm hesitant to give it another go. ↩︎