Client Populations Neurobiology

Harnessing ADHD Benefits with a Neurodivergent-affirmative Approach

This article explores how clients diagnosed with ADHD can harness its benefits through a neurodivergent-affirmative approach.

By Mental Health Academy

Featured image

Receive Australia’s most popular mental health e-newsletter

15.0 mins read

This article explores how clients diagnosed with ADHD may be able to harness its benefits, along with advantages of implementing a neurodivergent-affirmative approach.

Jump to section:


Is ADHD a curse, or may the differently-functioning brain have some upsides? In our previous article (ADHD vs Neurotypical Brains: Implications for Therapists), we outlined how the ADHD brain is wired differently to neurotypical brains, and discussed the dangers of untreated ADHD. In this article, we explore ADHD’s potential benefits, along with reasons to adopt a neurodivergent-affirmative approach with ADHD clients. For an introduction to the topic of neurodiversity, read this article.

ADHD definition and symptoms summary

ADHD affects the brain’s executive functioning: the ability to self-regulate and control thoughts, words, actions, and emotions (Health Direct, 2020). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) defines attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interfere with functioning or development. The symptoms must be present before the age of 12 and impair functioning in at least two settings, such as at home and at school or work.

There are three subtypes of ADHD: predominantly inattentive type; predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type; and combined type. The symptoms of inattention include difficulty paying attention to details, difficulty sustaining attention, forgetfulness in daily activities, poor organisation, and poor planning and time management. The symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity include fidgeting, restlessness, excessive talking, interrupting others without waiting one’s turn, acting impulsively, and often being “on the go”, as if driven by a motor (American Psychiatric Association, 2022). (Health Direct, 2020; APA, 2022; Hallowell & Ratey, 2021).

The differences have benefits

There’s a good chance that you have come across an individual with ADHD, whether you are a therapist working with someone (either a child or adult) who has been diagnosed with ADHD or you have encountered it in your personal life. Perhaps you even have the lived experience of this condition of different brain wiring. We have previously discussed ADHD’s symptoms, causes and risk factors (here), and also the neuroscientifically-established brain differences, along with the dangers of not recognising and treating ADHD (here).

Now, we highlight how ADHD’s often-contradictory nature typically produces equivalent and opposing benefits to the challenges it presents. After identifying the main benefits, we propose how a neurodivergent-affirmative approach may play a role in lightening the load of those who are neurodivergent through ADHD, create the systemic change that will shift things for individuals, and help us grow as therapists. First the benefits.

Listing the benefits of ADHD

Hallowell and Ratey (2021), in their book ADHD 2.0, have a robust discussion about how each characteristic negative trait of ADHD produces an equivalent advantage for those who have the condition. In addition, Healthline, ADDitude, and Medical News Today have joined the chorus of online commentators who see the strengths typically conferred by ADHD.

High energy

That brain going at the speed of light is associated with a body that is also chronically “on the go”. While the person’s primary school teacher may have decried their inability to just “settle down”, that booming energy now may keep someone going in the exhausting stages of starting up a business, see them come out on top in a sports performance, or just keep going when circumstances demand an extraordinary output of energy. Seeking a career which demands a lot of movement may not be a bad idea!


Mental health professionals and sympathetic observers like to point out that someone with ADHD, particularly if they have already reached adulthood, has spent a lifetime being criticised: being told they are “dumb”, “lazy”, or “not trying hard enough”. They have had to work out how to behave in unnatural-feeling ways in order to be accepted by neurotypical people (we discuss the problem of masking within the context of autism in this article). Meeting ongoing challenges in this way has developed a hardy spirit in them!


This one is the positive equivalent of the impulsivity that, while it can mean suboptimal decision-making when immediate, not-well-thought-out choices are made, can also bring us a partner, friend, or family member who spices up life with their ability to come up with spur-of-the-moment ideas for that fun outing, novel recipe, or new activity.


In a similar vein, ADDitude Magazine (2022) notes that the positive opposite of forgetfulness is that life can be full of fun surprises: the money or possessions deemed lost which suddenly turn up, the purchased-but-never-worn garment that emerges from the depths of the wardrobe. . . .

Creativity, out-of-the-box thinking

Because ADHD brains are genuinely wired differently, their owners often have the capacity for generating unusual solutions: a wonderful asset giving the edge to workplaces and work teams, and making life interesting for everyone.

Potentially good conversationalists; sense of humour

True, the person with ADHD might have a habit of interrupting; they might be so full of ideas that they use up more than their fair share of the conversational space, but they are interesting! Full of life, energy, and optimism, they can be a fascinating conversational partner if the topic sparks their interest. Beyond that, look out for what might be a wicked sense of humour as they frame social realities with a somewhat unconventional perspective – and sometimes, they are just the life of the party!

Hyperfocused: the positive aspect

In other blogs, we have noted the difficulty for people with ADHD of having occasional hyperfocus; it comes about, say neuroscience experts, as a result of the low dopamine levels typical of ADHD which mean that the person has difficulty pulling away from something interesting to focus on a needed task. The upside, though, is that, in hyperfocus mode, a person is able to move through tasks quickly, possibly doing a normal day’s work in a few hours (if it’s interesting).


Perhaps it’s the in-the-moment way of living, or the tendency to have intense emotions. Or maybe the person with ADHD is able to take an empathetic stance because they, too, have had judgments levelled against them. Whatever the roots of it, the neurodiverse person with ADHD is so generous that, as Hallowell and Ratey (2021) note, they may “give away the store.” Even though they may miss social cues in the moment, they can feel deep empathy for another’s plight.

Strong sense of justice/humanity/compassion

In this vein, people with ADHD know that “fair” doesn’t always mean “equal.” They understand that neurodivergent people need different things to succeed, and they’re committed to helping whomever they can.


In terms of physical danger, the person with ADHD has occasionally been deemed a risk-taker owing to the differently-functioning frontal lobe (where most of the executive function network is located). Such an individual may also be a psychological risktaker also in terms of the amount of failed tries they are willing to endure to have success eventually.

(Categories identified by ADDitude, 2022; Hallowell and Ratey, 2021; Nall, 2021; Sherrell, 2021.)

So, how might we as therapists help these wonderful ADHD advantages to be made manifest in the person’s daily life? We suggest using a neurodivergent-affirming therapy approach.

Harnessing ADHD benefits with a neurodivergent-affirming approach


Many therapists may claim to be neurodivergent-affirming in their therapeutic approach, but are we clear on what it means? “Neurodivergent”, suggests counsellor Antonio Siciliano, refers to certain conditions that were previously labelled as disorders being viewed as positive parts of our identities rather than “disorders”. Beyond ADHD, this category includes conditions of autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, hyperlexia, synaesthesia, Tourette’s Syndrome, sensory perception disorder, and rejection-sensitive dysphoria. “Affirming” occurs when we encourage those who are different neurologically to view their neurodivergence as a positive characteristic of themselves (Siciliano, 2022).

How can a neurodivergent-affirming approach help?

By deciding not to pathologise conditions such as the above, we help clients who are neurodivergent to reduce the level of stigma they experience, improve their self-esteem, and go forward feeling less “othered”. But it’s not just the clients who are helped, and not just in the shorter term. By working in a neurodivergent-affirming way, we help usher in a more inclusive society, creating long-term cultural changes. And we help ourselves to grow. Here are some benefits of such an approach (related article: Supporting the Lost Generation of Adults with Autism).

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy adds a new leg to the diversity movement. We are all already an intersecting set of identities, according to variables such as gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, and more. An approach which affirms the validity of all of our life experiences is essentially anti-racist with cultural humility. It is inclusive. Affirming neurodivergence is one more leg of this.

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy challenges our current views on mental illness. People who have ADHD have pointed out that, although they may process sensory stimuli, thoughts, and emotions differently than neurotypical people, they still process them. Thus, their differences can validly be regarded as individually and culturally recognisable and equitable: differences that don’t need to be “fixed” by therapists (which either has no effect or harms the client).

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy emphasises strengths rather than differences. This may be particularly important for clients who have been told all their lives that they are not ___ enough (not smart enough, not hard-working enough, etc). The spillover effect is that we add our effort to the shaping of our society in a positive way as we all come to be more strengths- rather than weaknesses- or differences-oriented.

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy emphasises systemic change. Western economic and social systems tend to be developed by and for those who are “typical”, those who can fit in and adapt easily to the norm. People who work or function in a different way tend to be marginalised. The more mainstream people adopt an affirmative approach to difference, the easier it becomes for those who are different (neuro-different, or different in other ways) to find their voice, to advocate for acceptance and inclusion in the broader scheme of things.

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy is trauma-informed. Most people diagnosed with ADHD have been wired in a neurodivergent way from birth. Some conditions of neurodivergence, however, are acquired through traumatic experiences in life. A neurodivergent-affirming approach helps clients to deal with overwhelming experiences in the most adaptive manner possible, as symptoms are examined for whether they are organic or acquired and plans formulated for healing trauma.

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy uses cultural humility. The sensitivity and awareness – that is, the cultural humility – that we bring as therapists to encounters with those from non-mainstream cultures can be used with clients who are neurodivergent, giving us experience using an ever-wider lens for viewing and affirming difference (Siciliano, 2022; Hallowell and Ratey, 2021).

Ultimately, it is up to the client to view their ADHD more as a “condition” than a disorder. We can facilitate that stance if we, too, genuinely approach the work with them in a spirit of cultural humility and openness, using a neurodivergent-affirming approach.

Key takeaways

  • ADHD is a brain condition which affects the ability to self-regulate and control thoughts, words, actions, and emotions, resulting in lapses in attention, decreased ability to organise and plan, and/or symptoms of restlessness, hyperactivity, or impulsivity.
  • ADHD’s often-contradictory nature typically produces equivalent and opposing benefits to the challenges it presents
  • ADHD benefits include high energy levels, spontaneity, creativity, generosity, and a strong sense of social justice and compassion.
  • By employing neurodivergent-affirming therapy with ADHD clients, therapists not only further their own understanding of the brain and mental health, but can also reflect more deeply on cultural perspectives and views of mental health, leading to greater inclusivity for all.