Changing the Way we Think about IQ and ADHD

During discussions about ADHD and IQ, two common myths often enter the conversation: (1) Kids with ADHD are smarter or more creative than kids without ADHD, but they simply don’t apply themselves, or (2) the opposite view, that kids with ADHD aren’t as smart as kids without ADHD. In reality, there is no direct connection between ADHD and intelligence. Just as there is a full range of intelligence among kids without ADHD, there is a full range of intelligence among kids with ADHD – some are highly intelligent, most are of “average” intelligence, and some fall into the below-average range of intelligence. While ADHD does not have a significant impact on intelligence, it does make it harder for a child to learn in a traditional classroom environment, and it interferes with their ability to effectively demonstrate their knowledge on assignments and tests. Since kids are often described as being smart or not smart based on the grades that they receive, having ADHD-related academic challenges can lead to the perception a child is less intelligent or less motivated than their classmates.

Intelligence, as it has been traditionally defined, is a reflection of skills measured on standardized IQ tests, including verbal and spatial reasoning, information processing, and memory skills. These are essentially the skills that are most highly correlated with academic success. Traditional IQ tests however, are limited in their ability to capture an individual’s full range of abilities and potential. Fortunately, multifaceted models of intelligence have been proposed to address this problem. Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences is one IQ model that encompasses nine different types of intelligence:

  • Spatial: visualizing objects in 3D, mentally and physically manipulating objects with a specific goal in mind
  • Naturalist: Understanding living things, reading nature, connecting with nature
  • Musical: discerning the pitch, tone, rhythm, and timbre of sounds
  • Logical/Mathematical: quantifying things, engaging in scientific thinking and reasoning
  • Intrapersonal: understanding your own feelings and needs
  • Linguistic: verbal and written expression
  • Interpersonal: sensing other people’s feelings and motives
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: coordinating your mind with your body
  • Existential: grappling with the questions of why we live and why we die

For kids and teens with ADHD who do not fit into the traditional model of intelligence, a Multiple Intelligences framework provides an opportunity for tailoring and personalizing the way that they are taught in the classroom. For example, for children who learn best in a more physical way or a more musical way, teaching math through physical activity or music could have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn. In addition, allowing kids to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that capitalize on their strengths (e.g., through project-based learning) could greatly enhance their academic performance and motivation.

Parents and teachers have the opportunity to reflect on a child’s abilities and consider which of the 9 intelligences represent areas of strength. Providing opportunities for a child to develop these strengths through extracurricular activities will build self-confidence, and help buffer against the feelings of self-doubt that come with having ADHD. With a Multiple Intelligences framework, parents and teachers can start to change the dialog around what it means to “be smart,” and empower kids with ADHD to see their true potential – well beyond the grades that they receive at school.

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