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Researching with ADHD

Dr Amelie Gourdon KanhukamweDr Amélie Gourdon-Kanhukamwe [pictured] shares her experiences of conducting Psychology and Neuroscience research as someone with ADHD and her advice for other students with the condition and their colleagues.

Please could you introduce yourself and your work in King’s Health Partners Neurosciences?

I am Dr Amélie Gourdon-Kanhukamwe, and I am a lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychology Education, based in the Department of Neuroimaging, School of Neuroscience, IoPPN. My role is focused on contributing to our BSc programme in Neuroscience and Psychology, on which I teach judgement and decision-making psychology, and mostly research methods and statistics, including coding in R. In my role, I also tutor a small group of students, supervise student projects and look after the BSc Neuroscience and Psychology placement year.

What is ADHD and how does it affect someone’s life?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, although nowadays many of us in the ADHD community prefer to talk about it as a condition, to move away from the strictly medical view of ADHD.

There are neurological bases to ADHD, and even reasonable evidence that it has a fair genetic component; but what makes it a disability is that ‘ADHDers’ have to navigate a world that is not accessible to their needs, and therefore we find that talking about it as a disorder underplays these social influences; instead, we try to intently talk about ADHD/ADHC (where ADHC is for Attention Disorder and Hyperactivity Condition). There are three types of ADHD/ADHC diagnoses – inattentive type, hyperactive type, and combined type – although we all share similar experiences.

ADHD/ADHC affects mainly executive control, which can be expressed in difficulties in managing emotions and time, and in controlling impulses. Most people know that ADHD/ADHC is also associated with difficulties with focus and attention, and imagine that we essentially lack focus, but in fact, it is rather that we have difficulties regulating our focus: it can be hard to find this focus when we are trying to do something we may be less interested in, or that we may be a bit apprehensive about (in my experience, we often overestimate how hard some tasks will be); but at the other end of the spectrum, we can easily become hyperfocused, engrossed in a task for hours and forgetting about everything else. It is the lack of middle point between these two ends which can be difficult regarding our focus, and focus regulation is generally where the time management difficulties stem from.

Finally, we cannot glance over hyperactivity, but here again there are misrepresentations in the general population: hyperactivity can obviously be physical, for example with people seeming not to be able to sit still in meetings, but it is also very often in the mind, being unable to put thoughts to rest. Adults will have developed ways to channel this additional “energy”, for example doing a lot of sports (something Anusha Ramji, a KCL MSc student, is currently researching): the mind cannot race as much when you are practicing something that needs attention and while you are supervised by a coach, and personally I need a good amount of tiredness to get my mind to stop when I want to sleep.

This internal mind hyperactivity is important to be aware of because it is thought to be more present in women, who traditionally have been socialized to be less physical, which in turn leads to this group being under-diagnosed. There are other minority groups which have been traditionally under-diagnosed, for a variety of reasons, and, in reflection, we could question if the physical interactivity is not simply an expression of this mind hyperactivity.

Can you talk about how ADHD might specifically affect students and researchers?

That lack of middle-ground in focus can be challenging, making it difficult to start tasks, and once hyperfocused, leading us to postpone everything else. 

While the hyperfocus can sound like an advantage, and is certainly great to get some work in, ideally we should be able to stop a task when the working day ends so we can maintain some work-life balance. The difficulty in starting tasks is also often reflected in a leaning towards working under pressure: everything needs to become urgent enough for our focus to turn on. While this often means that we can work great under deadline pressures, this does not support a healthy work-life balance. I think this aspect of ADHD/ADHC is critical for students and researchers, as we are working in very flexible environments, managing our time very individually.

What advice would you give to students and researchers who have ADHD? And what advice would you give to colleagues, collaborators, or managers of someone with ADHD?

Finding ways to build structure in our days and work is something I find really helpful, ideally also making myself accountable to others.

For example, my main sport is rowing. When I am supposed to be in a boat, people cannot train on the water if I don’t show up, so twice a week I have to stop whichever task I am hyperfocused on and leave the office at 18:00, which helps with maintaining work-life balance.

On the other end of the focus spectrum, working with many colleagues on projects, rather than in small teams, helps with starting tasks: often in larger teams, work will progress faster and your accountability to others will give you just the nudge needed to get started on the things you have to do for that team. So as a student, I would find a working group, and make sure to have other activities in my life to maintain a healthy balance.

Being open about your ADHD/ADHC certainly helps, as this might help meeting other ADHDers and share experiences, but it is obviously easier to do when in a stable situation: there are many pressures that make it difficult for some researchers and students to talk about it, and one should only be open if they are comfortable about doing do. Nevertheless, there are dedicated student groups at KCL and wider communities on social media which people can join while not having to be open about their ADHD/ADHC to everyone.

I think finding these peers is also important to realise that we are not alone, and we belong here: there are many people with ADHD/ADHC in academia, at all levels, likely more than thought as many may not be talking about it. I would certainly be happy to discuss such options with others who may want to know where to look for these communities.

If you are a colleague, collaborator or manager of an ADHDer, I would suggest to not make too big of a deal of it. The starting point is to ask them if there is anything you can do, and what, for support, but at the same time, do not offer help in an over-bearing way, making us feel we are underperforming and/or that you are concerned about us managing our condition.

And as for more diverse identities, do not over-rely on the ADHDer to explain how to make the environment more inclusive: too often, the diversity work falls on diverse groups, and while some of us certainly want to do some of that work, it should not be expected from us simply because we have that experience. There are many resources to look for on making the work environment more inclusive for neurodivergent people. This includes my own work with colleagues at the Framework for Open and Reproducible Research Training who have a position statement where we offer concrete suggestions to make scholarship inclusive to neurodivergent people.

Finally – what is it that you would most like other people to know about life living with ADHD?

ADHDers can find difficult to choose a single discussion point, so this is a conundrum for me! But I think if it has to be one, it would be that it’s not all gloom, there are also positive sides to having ADHD/ADHC: for example, the racing mind is a great vessel for creativity, and we are often very curious, information lovers and seekers; this leads us to connect things others may not have thought of connecting, because we have this tendency to not be interested only in our main research interest.

In fact, there is a trend at the moment where people present neurodivergent conditions as super-power: I think this is risky because it undermines that we have true difficulties in daily life, but it has the benefit of shining light on the condition being both weaknesses and strengths.