Listening to what others are saying is the kind of everyday task that most people take for granted but people with ADHD struggle with.
Missing information that was communicated verbally is one of those annoying ADHD behaviors that can be difficult for people without ADHD to understand.
“Don’t you care what I have to say?” they might ask, mistaking symptoms of ADHD for a simple lack of caring.
Because not listening is a symptom of ADHD. For example, the DSM diagnostic criteria for ADHD list “Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly” as one of nine inattentive ADHD symptoms.
While difficulty listening to spoken information might seem like a relatively benign symptom, it’s one that causes real problems when repeated over and over. Imagine missing important verbal instructions at work, or often failing to hear things that people in your life try to tell you, or zoning out for large swaths of lectures at school – you can see the perils.
As is so often the case with inattention, not listening to a conversation is something that just happens for people with ADHD. Without initially realizing it, your attention shifts to some suddenly interesting internal thought or external event. Or it doesn’t shift to anything in particular at all, but kind of goes out of focus: you still vaguely hear the words that are being said to you, but the meaning of those words fades into the background.
We know that when people with ADHD don’t listen, it’s not because they “aren’t trying.”
In fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research found that the same amount of listening requires more effort for people with ADHD.
The study reached that conclusion by asking people with and without ADHD to listen to spoken information while simultaneously doing a visual-motor task in the laboratory.
Think about something like taking notes during a classroom lecture, and you get the general idea of what the participants were asked to do. In the lecture example, the lecture is the auditory information, and taking notes is the visual-motor task.
This study design allowed researchers to measure participants’ listening effort, by taking the difference between how people performed on the visual-motor task by itself versus how they performed when also having to listen to spoken information. If people’s performance declined more dramatically when the listening task was added in, that would seem to indicate that listening took up more of their “cognitive resources,” or required greater effort.
It turned out that the study participants with ADHD expended greater listening effort, as seen from a greater drop in their performance on the visual-motor task when they had to listen to spoken information. To put it another way, having to listen taxed the ADHDers’ cognitive resources more.
That finding led the study’s authors to conclude that:
Among young adults who need to continuously process great volumes of auditory and visual information, much more effort may be expended by those with ADHD than those without it.
If we return to the example of a student with ADHD trying to process an ongoing verbal lecture while translating the important information down into notes – and also resisting distractions from the surrounding environment and internal thoughts – we start to see how this ADHD symptom could put someone at a disadvantage in a place like school.
And while the study was done on young adults with ADHD, it seems plausible that ADHDers of all ages could face parallel struggles in their own lives.
The fact that listening apparently requires greater effort for people with ADHD goes to show how certain environments might bring ADHD symptoms to the fore. Our hypothetical college student who has to listen to lectures all day is constantly being asked to put more effort into learning through sustained, passive listening.
No wonder, then, that one of the most frustrating things people with ADHD can experience is being told to “try harder.” In many cases, people with ADHD already are trying harder – expending extra energy to stay afloat in environments that don’t fit with their brains, or to perform tasks that people without ADHD consider automatic.