“I was struggling to figure out why I wasn’t able to keep focus or be productive like those around me. There were times I couldn’t bring myself to get up and do things that were urgent, like paying an overdue bill.”
Do you know an estimated three to five percent of children struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in Singapore and around the world? Yet, not all of them find out about it at a young age. Many will live with undetected ADHD. And as they enter adulthood, they may encounter stumbling blocks that affect their self esteem and identity – including the inability to focus or prioritise urgent tasks, or having a penchant for impulsive decisions that can affect their careers, relationships and personal lives. To find out more about ADHD and its impact on adults, we speak to Aaron Wong, 34, who only received his diagnosis back in 2020.
As a child, Aaron was the typical pesky kid (the kind anyone would remember from their schooling days). He recalls frequently getting punished for causing a ruckus in class, getting distracted easily, and talking to friends. “I never did well in school. It was a struggle to pay attention to anything for longer than three minutes. Back then everyone thought it was normal for a boy – just growing pains,” he says. Looking back, Aaron realises these were early signs of ADHD.
ADHD in Singapore: Seeing the signs
ADHD is commonly described as a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in problems with attention span, impulse control and activity level. You might picture a hyperactive kid who runs around and can’t seem to keep still. But contrary to popular belief, there are three main types of ADHD that each present differently: inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive, and combined.
“This refers to whether your symptoms are mostly presenting as inattention, like having trouble following instructions; or mostly relating to impulsivity and hyperactivity, like having difficulty sitting still; or if you present with a mix of both,” explains Kaiying Sun, clinical psychologist at Hope for Tomorrow Psychology Centre. Aaron struggles particularly with the inattentive type of ADHD.
“People with [this type of ADHD] tend to make careless mistakes because they have difficulty sustaining attention, following detailed instructions, and organising tasks and activities,” says Vinti Mittal, clinical director at SACAC Counselling. “They [also] have a weak working memory, are easily distracted by external stimuli, and may often lose things.”
While Aaron had the ability to hyperfocus on things that he had an interest in (like video games, the guitar and music), he couldn’t regulate his attention on other activities he found boring. He could be at a LAN shop gaming for up to 12 hours, but couldn’t spare more than a few minutes of attention in classes. Ironically, this ability to be completely absorbed in specific tasks is a common symptom of ADHD.
Another symptom he experienced was hobby-bouncing, much to the frustration of his parents. His interests would change quickly as his brain sought stimulation. “I wasn’t hyperactive, but I couldn’t focus on one thing at a time. I loved sports and picked up tennis. My parents bought me a racket, but after three months I was onto something new. My room was full of objects from things I tried and gave up on.”
Aaron remembers his school report books filled with comments from teachers talking about his need for better focus. “The nicest thing they ever said about me was ‘he has potential to be better’,” he says with a chuckle. “I even made one of my tutors cry because she didn’t know how to deal with me. I’ve felt awful about it since.”
Awareness is a salve for those with ADHD
Presently, Aaron’s career looks pristine on paper. The love he developed for music when young (a consistent passion in the face of many fickle hobbies), led him to dabble in the music business, concert promotion, and even influencer marketing. Having recently stepped into a new role as senior manager, digital accounts at Universal Music, you might think this life has come easy to him. However, for Aaron, it was anything but.
“In professional settings like in University or in the workplace, I struggled with the simple matter of just focusing,” he shares. This was apparent to him, especially during long meetings at work. His colleagues often had to repeat things that were said because he wasn’t listening. Eventually, he was let go from the job because he wasn’t able to deliver.
This led Aaron on a downward spiral, where he sunk into bouts of depression and comparison. “I was struggling to figure out why I wasn’t able to keep focus or be productive like those around me. There were times I couldn’t bring myself to get up and do things that were urgent, like paying an overdue bill.”
Things only began to click when a friend, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and executive dysfunction (and recognised the same symptoms in Aaron) reached out to him. “He told me about a support group called Spark for people like me, and asked if I’d like to come for a session,” Aaron shares.
Through Spark, Aaron met other people with ADHD in Singapore and listened to their stories. “They talked about what they struggled with, and I resonated with almost all of it. The inattentiveness, the procrastination, and why we do such things. It fascinated me,” he says.
This led him to get tested and eventually diagnosed. “I felt so relieved. They’ve found a problem, and there’s a solution. I can manage it and treat it.”
A diagnosis can be empowering
While the stigma against mental health disorders like ADHD is lessening in Singapore, there’s still a way to go. This could be due to a lack of awareness and understanding of the matter, and how to handle it sensitively. As such, the idea of getting a diagnosis can feel like a death sentence due to misleading representations perpetuated in the media.
Many adults who have ADHD in Singapore may continue to live in confusion or denial. And parents may simply hope their child will grow out of it to avoid putting them through inconvenience or discrimination. But experts disagree that this is helpful. They share that those who suffer from it will not outgrow it, even if they get better at masking their symptoms.
“Though symptoms may no longer be displayed as prominently, they’re still experiencing brain differences associated with the disorder. In other words the presentation changes, but the underlying disorder remains,” Vinti explains. “They will not be able to hide the impact ADHD has on them over a period of time, and it may appear in different forms. For example, it will show in a child’s school performance. And adults may be unable to hold a job for long.”
Instead, it’s the knowledge of a formal diagnosis that can help those with ADHD understand their weaknesses and tap into their strengths. “They’ll be able to take steps to manage their difficulties, and thus experience fewer problems in life,” Kaiying says. “Without this understanding, they may grow to judge themselves as not being good enough, or lazy. This can have a detrimental effect on their self esteem and identity.”
For Aaron, the support and resources he received after his diagnosis helped him greatly. He was able to learn coping techniques to maintain focus at work, and complete important tasks in his personal and professional life.
“My colleagues and bosses were also finally able to understand what was happening with me, and find ways to help me work around things,” Aaron says. “Even my friends said it was such a relief for them. Some of them previously thought I didn’t care what they were saying when they were speaking to me, or felt that I didn’t want to be part of their life.”
With the help of treatment, Aaron’s goals now include not only being better at work, but striving to be a better partner, brother, son and friend to those who support him.
There’s no need to despair
If you suspect that you have ADHD, the road ahead can look intimidating. Aaron shares a few pieces of advice that helped him navigate his diagnosis. “Don’t be afraid to talk about it,” he says. “It’ll help not just you, but also your friends and family – the people who communicate with you daily. You’ll be surprised how much people care.”
Knowing he had ADHD also improved the relationship he had with his fiancee, who pored over countless research articles to better understand it and help him cope. “I’ve had relationships that have failed because of this. But once we knew what it was, she made me feel encouraged, empowered and loved. If you call them your friends and family, they’ll do the best they can to understand you and extend that empathy,” he says.
Aaron also encourages you not to despair. “There will be days where you can’t manage, but try to reframe your thoughts,” he says. “Remember you always have the next day to make things better.”
You should also consider getting formally diagnosed to receive the expert help you need to manage your symptoms. Treatments like medication and behavioural therapy, and even joining communities like Spark to build a support network, can set you on the right path to success in your personal life and at work. “Don’t forget to be kind to yourself and appreciate the strengths you have, like creativity, high energy, and spontaneity,” Kaiying says.
Dealing with ADHD in Singapore can feel like a challenge. But receiving the help you need will not only help you get by, but learn to thrive in spite of it.
Need a listening ear and professional advice? Reach out to professional counsellors and psychologists in Singapore.