Aphantasia can look a bit like ADHD

Bare feet and calves, with toenails painted a dark grape colour, sticking out the front right-side window of a car
Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

My first post to mention aphantasia, nearly five months ago, recounts how I asked to be referred for assessment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, having wondered on and off over a period of 10 years whether I might have that condition. (It turns out that I almost certainly don’t.) In this post, I’m again going to flirt with the danger of Google-assisted self-misdiagnosis.

It wasn’t until I read Natalie Slivinski’s “What It’s Like to Have an ADHD Brain” that it struck me that some of the behaviour that I’ve been putting down to the effects of aphantasia is also characteristic of ADHD. ADHD is something I’ve never thought much about. As far as I knew, it was something that kids get and that I didn’t have to worry about because I don’t have kids. The fact that its name includes “hyperactivity” was also a clear signal that the condition had nothing to do with me.

But, having been hooked by Slivinski’s piece, I began to Google ADHD and learned that there are three subtypes, including the “inattentive” one which doesn’t include hyperactivity. And the inattentive subtype fits me surprisingly well.

In “Aphantasia is not a disability”, I wrote about my apparent disengagement from my own life:

I’ve rarely had a regular, full-time job. Though I’ve been married, most of the time I haven’t been in a relationship. I’ve no children, of course. I owned a flat (apartment) for a few years in London but for most of my life my accommodation has been precarious, temporary at best. I never learned to drive.

I had various different reasons for not learning to drive (e.g. the oil crisis of the 70s, ecological considerations) but one of them undoubtedly was that I didn’t trust myself to maintain the necessary degree of concentration. As a passenger in a car, I often drift off into a trance-like state. I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing behind the wheel.

As I read more online about the inattentive subtype, I kept finding examples of behaviour I recognized in myself. My living space is invariably chaotic. Years ago, one of the people I shared a house with said he always knew when I’d been in the kitchen because the cupboard doors were left open. I can look at someone who’s speaking, nod periodically and seem to be listening intently— and not take in a single word. (In fact, I was taught to do this by a primary school teacher in advance of a school visit by some dignitary, probably the bishop. I don’t think he suspected that I’d still be making use of the technique more than 50 years later!)

When I was in school, I regularly didn’t do my homework. (Instead, I’d read all the stories in our English reader, including the ones not on the syllabus, multiple times. And when I got bored with them, I’d smuggle other books into the study hall.) I got away with this most of the time because I could wing it in class. If written work was required, I’d scribble a few paragraphs in the minutes before the teacher arrived. Later, in university, I never followed a lecture all the way through. (I thought this was normal, and perhaps it is.) I told myself this didn’t matter, as I believed that the purpose of a lecture was just to give pointers as to what to look out for when reading the books.

And then, of course, there’s my problem with planning, prioritization, goals, focus and persistence:

There is no plan A

Some further thoughts about aphantasia and visualization

I have no doubt that this difficulty is a consequence of aphantasia. It’s not exactly that I don’t have goals or aims but rather that I can’t “see” a path to those goals from wherever I am at the time, nor can I mentally picture what it would be like to have achieved them.

One often hears claims that ADHD is overdiagnosed. I began to wonder if the effects of aphantasia (which, as I’ve noted before, vary widely among people with the condition), have sometimes been mistaken for the symptoms of ADHD. It was while Googling that question that I found this forum post from Rick Green’s TotallyADD site:

Inability to visualize
Inability to visualize Viewing 13 posts - 1 through 13 (of 13 total) What a relief! I thought that I was the only…forums.totallyadd.com

This is fascinating for a number of reasons. The poster (whom I’m assuming to be female as she refers to her husband in a post from 2012) is clearly describing some of the features of aphantasia (and probably SDAM). In 2012, the term “aphantasia” hadn’t yet been coined and the condition itself was not widely known about. (I didn’t even suspect it existed till I read Blake Ross’s post in 2016—and it was nearly two years later that I accepted that it really is the case that a majority of people can visualize to a greater or lesser degree.) So the poster’s puzzlement is easy to understand. The most interesting aspect of the post, though, is that she associates her inability to visualize with ADHD, or at least thinks that lack of visualization is impeding her efforts to deal with the disorder.

In the course of my Googling, I’ve found some tantalizing hints that deficient visualization is a recognized characteristic of ADHD. I’d really like to know more about this, so if anyone can throw some light on the possible link, I’d be very glad to hear from you in the comments.

Update: My posts on the topic of aphantasia have been developing into an accidental series. Here’s a full list, which I’ll update if and when I add further posts:

Aphantasia: my posts on Medium
In April 2018, I started to write about the subject of aphantasia. At the time, I thought the condition was an…medium.com