Controversial LNP Queensland MP Andrew Laming yesterday revealed he has recently been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In an interview with news.com.au, Laming suggested the condition could explain some of his erratic behaviour, which has most recently included reports he harassed women online, and took an inappropriate photograph of a woman.
Laming’s comments linking these actions with ADHD have attracted criticism. But as an expert in ADHD, I do see certain aspects of his behaviour as possible manifestations of some of the symptoms associated with the condition.
ADHD in adults
We most commonly hear about ADHD in children. But it affects adults too: up to 5% of adults, research suggests.
In the 1990s, the rate of recognising ADHD in childhood increased. But people who grew up before that are often only diagnosed in adulthood.
The characteristic symptoms of ADHD in adults are broadly similar to those in children. One of the biggest challenges with ADHD is difficulty with sustained concentration, or a short attention span, particularly for tasks that don’t have a high level of interest.
Another notable symptom is impulsiveness — reacting quickly without taking a moment to stop and think first, or making a decision based on emotion instead of thinking through the consequences.
Often, in adults, the symptoms are better managed because the person has been dealing with these problems for longer and has developed good coping strategies. But sometimes a person may have significant problems without realising these challenges are due to undiagnosed ADHD.
Some possible explanations
I’m not Laming’s treating doctor and I don’t know all the details of his situation. However, I can offer some general observations about the link he’s proposed between ADHD and his behaviour.
There’s no doubt recent reports indicate some not very sensible behaviour. Impulsiveness — one of the key behaviours associated with ADHD — could go some way to explaining it.
For example, if he’d thought a little longer before taking the photograph, or publishing a disrespectful post online, perhaps he might have reconsidered and come to the decision these actions were inappropriate.
That’s not to say having ADHD excuses these behaviours, or that other people with ADHD necessarily behave in this way. ADHD presents in a wide variety of different ways, and this unfortunate behaviour could be the way it presented for Laming.
Another characteristic worth considering is what’s called the reward mechanism. If you think about what keeps you in a good mood, it’s largely about all the positive achievements you have in a day. But for people with ADHD, their reward mechanisms may not work as well as they should.
This reward mechanism imbalance in the brain means a person with ADHD may not feel the same level of satisfaction from completing a particular task as a person without ADHD would. And if they don’t get that sense of satisfaction, they may go looking for quicker or bigger rewards.
Humans are a social species, so the big rewards are often social rewards — that is, getting a response from other people. Generating an emotional response, even a negative one, can provide a bit of a buzz, and lift one’s mood.
We might call on this mechanism to understand some instances of Laming’s poor behaviour. It’s possible he was subconsciously looking for a quick reward, and has sought this by shocking people or doing something outrageous, and generated that emotional response.
Again, this doesn’t justify his behaviour.
A high achiever
Notwithstanding the recent scandals, a bit of research into Laming’s life points to a terrific achiever.
He studied medicine, specialising in both ophthalmology and obstetrics and gynaecology. He has several Masters degrees, including one from Harvard University. He spent a short stint clearing landmines and providing medical aid in Afghanistan. After several years working in medical research, practice and policy, he of course turned to politics.
A couple of things stick out to me. First, he is obviously very intelligent. What I find in children is the smarter someone is, the further they can go in life before ADHD starts to impinge on their functioning, and becomes apparent. But if a person with ADHD wants to achieve their full potential, sooner or later their ADHD is likely to cause problems and can hold them back.
And second, he’s changed track a lot of times. This is a pattern we see in many people with ADHD, perhaps because they get bored and start looking for a new challenge that can hold their attention.
ADHD may go some way to explaining Laming’s behaviour, but it doesn’t justify it. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their behaviour. Everyone is born with different strengths and weaknesses, and must understand these within themselves and learn how to manage them.
Now he has a diagnosis, Laming will need to get to know himself all over again. He will need to get to know himself on medication, and that’s going to be a slightly different Andrew Laming to the one he’s known all these years.
Hopefully it will be a different Andrew Laming to the one we’ve known in recent times, too. I wish him well and congratulate him for being open about his diagnosis.