ADHD: The Invisible "Disability"

by Terry Matlen Patient Expert

While reading Eileen Bailey's recent SharePost, "When People Stare", it felt like someone punched me square in the stomach... and on a number of different levels. Having a child with ADHD means you, as a parent, more than likely experienced very similar experiences as Eileen and her son. You've been stared at, scorned and have heard your share of indignant and ignorant comments.
I have my own horror stories too. But the title of her piece is what initially jarred me, because it brought to the surface the fact that ADHD is an invisible disability and one that people react differently to than, say a condition that is more outwardly apparent.

When I first broke my kneecap a few months back, it was impossible to walk for any extended period of time. My leg was in a full legged brace after my surgery, which obviously hampered my mobility. Once I gained just enough strength to get out of the house, my family and I took an excursion to Target. I knew pain and fatigue would overcome me quickly, so I chose to use one of their electric carts.

That experience changed me forever and helped me to understand even more how people with disabilities are treated.

What struck me immediately was that I suddenly became invisible. People averted their eyes when I came tooling down an aisle. They silently moved out of my way, as if I had some sort of infectious disease.
No words were exchanged (no "excuse me", for example). However, children stared- no gawked at me- as if I had two heads. THAT I could understand, remembering my own childhood curiosity about anyone who looked different.
What struck me right after realizing I had suddenly become invisible was the gnawing question of how I reacted in the past when I saw someone in a wheelchair or electric scooter. Did I also look away? Were they invisible to me as well?

During my invisible visit to Target, I became depressed almost immediately. I lost my dignity, my independence and identity as a fellow human being. What does that say about a child with ADHD who struggles at home, school, socially and just about everywhere? How can we educate people to understand that although children with ADHD look like most every other kid, what they experience internally is quite different?

My point here is twofold. One, people with ADHD, learning disabilities, brain and psychiatric disorders typically look like most everyone else; their challenges are less apparent than the person with physical impairments. However, that doesn't mean their lives are any easier than those whose limitations are more visibly apparent. What that means, often times, is that people have higher expectations and less understanding and empathy for their difficulties. "Just try harder", or "If I can do it, so can you" are comments folks with ADHD often hear.

Secondly, given the fact that people simply might not understand the behaviors of those with invisible disabilities, it's even more important to teach, to explain. Instead of fuming inside, offer information. I once knew a mom who, when her ADHD son was quite young and having difficulty controlling his behavior in public, handed out business card sized messages to those who stared or made inappropriate comments: "My child has ADHD. He sometimes is unable to control his behavior. To learn more about ADHD, please visit for more information." I thought that was brilliant of her- instead of internalizing anger, embarrassment or sadness, she took a proactive approach to dealing with the all too common situations she faced.

When Eileen shared her personal story of her son's behavior in public, it made me wonder: if he had a _physica_l disability that made him stand out, would people have acted differently toward him and his mother? If he were on crutches but had fallen in the middle of the fast checkout lane at the market, would people have stared at him in disgust?

Would parents of those children need to hand out information cards? I think not.

Terry Matlen
Meet Our Writer
Terry Matlen

Terry wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for ADHD.