Language matters — ADHD edition

[Note: I’ve split this text out from my previous post on ‘Seven myths about ADHD in high achievers,’ in case it sounds familiar…]

Language matters (1): I am filtering, not masking

In everyday community discourse around neurodivergence we often use the word ‘masking’ to describe the ways in which we compensate for our deficits. I hate this term, because it implies a degree of dishonesty — that we are hiding these aspects of ourselves from the people around us.

As long-time readers of my blog will know, nothing infuriates me more than the implication that people are being dishonest when they make careful choices about how they present themselves to the world.

For example, consider the way we describe coming out as ‘speaking your truth’ and ‘no longer in hiding.’ This language is symbolic violence directed against people who have limited options for self-presentation in a world where it is not safe to identify as queer, trans, and/or mentally ill. Discourse on gay/queer lives is rife with this violence and I am sick to death of it.

I would prefer the word filtering to describe the day-to-day, moment-to-moment process of choosing which aspects of our presentation of self to emphasise in a given particular situation, and which aspects to downplay.

[Thanks to friend of the blog Prof Kath Albury for putting me onto the Prof Jill Walker Rettberg book that got me thinking along these lines!]

Language matters (2): reclaiming ‘disorder’

People in the mental health community often shy away from the language of disorder, often preferring terms like neurodiversity and neurodivergence that imply ADHD is a simple matter of cognitive difference.

Saying someone has ‘a disorder’ definitely implies there’s something wrong with them, right? And that’s stigmatising, isn’t it?

When I use the term ‘disorder’ I am using it in a different way. I’m talking about the disorder the condition creates in our lives — the difficulties it causes in translating our drive and capability into real change in the world we live in.

There’s something important about this second sense of the word disorder. In diagnostic terms, if there’s no disorder in your life, there’s no disorder in your brain either. The two senses are distinct but intertwined.

The ‘disorder’ of ADHD is what feminist scholar of technoscience Susan Leigh Star called a ‘boundary object’ — it is a material reality that circulates both within and between the psychiatric and mental health discursive communities.

It performs the important functions of bringing these communities together and coordinating their functions, but it means something quite different in each one. In the language of actor-network theory, it translates a personal difference into a psychiatric condition that can be diagnosed and given treatment (pharmaceutical or otherwise) as well as social accommodations.


I believe the difference framing — the language of neurodiversity — can unhelpfully conceal the fact that ADHD is not just an aspect of personal difference, it is a long-lasting condition that actually causes problems for us.

While I endorse the social model of disability, you can provide all the accommodations in the world and I will still struggle with ADHD. In a socialist utopia I might feel less stressed about it, living in a system that didn’t force me to function effectively in a low-paid job — but I would still struggle with the way in which differences in my executive capabilities affect my ability to carry out my plans for achieving change in my personal and social world.

Everyone faces challenges in life — from a Buddhist perspective, being alive means grappling with the unavoidable fact of suffering — so we should not be afraid to own the disorder as well as the strengths that having ADHD can bring.

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