Colton, a small, blue-eyed redhead, is well-liked in his 6th grade class. He’s funny, creative, and wickedly smart, interested in history, literature and science, and constantly shares tidbits with his teachers and parents about Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk and George Orwell. And he has ADHD.
“It’s interesting how smart this kid is, how much he can tell you about (the book) 1984,” says his mother, Tamara, a schoolteacher. “But it’s equally interesting how he can’t seem to remember instructions, whether it’s three steps or a more complicated set.
“It makes things like asking him to take the garbage out after his homework difficult – it ends up just not getting done,” adds Tamara, who says that caring for Colton has made her compassionate to any child with memory problems. “And things like math problems, which he seems to be able to understand in the moment. Half an hour later, or when he gets home from school, it’s all forgotten.”
Andy, a 40-year-old writer, shares Tamara’s pain, except it’s not a child he’s frustrated about – it’s himself. He too has ADHD.
“When I was a kid, bringing homework home was so painful,” he recalls. “I’d listen to the teacher, go through the work and feel good that I understood it, then I’d get home and it’d be like I never went through it at all.
“That kind of thing stayed with me through to adulthood. It’s not limited to work things, either. I’m sitting there talking to my wife, and 30 minutes later she’ll say to me, ‘Don’t forget to do that thing, ok?’ And I’m left wondering, ‘What thing again?’”
What this is is an example of poor working memory, also defined as short term memory. We use working memory throughout the day – taking direction, making a mental grocery list, or just thinking about what we want to get done before lunch. Working memory is inside a part of your brain where store little bits of information, which you’re going to want to pull out again in the near future. Some of us have stronger working memory than others, but for those with ADHD, working memory can be poor – and it can be a frustrating and infuriating symptom, not just for the person with ADHD, but for those around them.
Think about this way. An adult with ADHD who suffers from poor working memory may think, “I have to head to the bank, then get gas, and then grab a bag of milk from the store.” By the time he or she leaves the bank, he or she may have already forgotten about the gas. And the milk.
For a child with ADHD and poor working memory, he or she may take quick notes at the end of the day when the teacher is announcing the homework to be done or reminding students of what might be going on the following day. When the child gets home and reviews the notes (for example, “Finish language homework,”) he or she might struggle to remember what exactly that homework is.
“It was described to us by his therapist to be like a leak,” shares Tamara. “Things just kind of leak through cracks. He holds all of kinds of information in that he’d read before. We’re not just saying it because we’re his parents, but I feel like this kid is insanely smart. And yet at the end of the day, when you ask him, ‘Hey buddy, did you get this, this and this done?’ he’s like, ‘Oh, no. I forgot,’ or ‘Is that one of the things you asked me to do?’”
Is there such a thing as an ADHD working memory test?
Adults with ADHD may find themselves trying to avoid participating in discussions at work or social functions with friends, out of fear that they won’t remember what to share or say. If you’re an adult with ADHD and struggle with poor working memory, school or work projects may be challenging because you have to read things over and over again before you can move forward to ensure you’re remembering what you’re reading.
The following is a sample self-test, which is designed to help you figure out if you have a working memory deficit. However, it’s important to note that if you possibly have issues with short-term memory, this test is for your personal use only – a clinical evaluation and accurate diagnosis is required by a mental health professional.
1. You need to ask someone a question, but he’s unavailable for a few minutes. By the time he’s ready to speak with you, you’ve already forgotten what you were going to ask.
2. You have to complete some work at home, and put together all the items you need from the classroom or the office so you can finish your task at home. When you’re ready to do the work, you realize you forgot many of the important items you needed to complete your task.
3. You’ve got a short list of things to do in the morning: make the bed, brush your teeth, let the dogs out, and turn on the home security system. By the time you get in your car, you realize you’ve forgotten the last thing on your list.
4. Your friend is sharing a story with you, but you’ve already forgotten what she just said a few minutes before.
5. You’re always misplacing things you use often, like your keys, phone or wallet.
6. You need to re-read paragraphs several times before you remember what you’ve read.
7. Your friends or colleagues get upset with you for not listening, because you don’t follow through with some of the things you said you’d do. The truth is, you honestly forgot.
8. You have a hard time remembering people’s names or faces.
9. Big projects are tough for you because there’s always such a large list of things to do. Something’s bound to get forgotten.
10. You often run late because you know there’s something else you didn’t remember to do, and you’re trying to figure out what it is.
Different types of working memory
There are two types of working memory: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory. Auditory memory is what’s used when you’re hearing or listening, while visual-spatial memory records what you’re seeing or looking at. Working memory is your brain storing audio and visual information that you’re going to use at a later time.
Both Colton and Andy, in recognition of their working memory deficit, use different tips and tools to help them. There are many ways to improve working memory in children and in adults. From working memory worksheets to listening to music, try out one or more of the following suggestions, which will compensate for your tendency to forget.
1. Use a calendar app. Almost everyone has a cell phone or tablet, on which you can download a calendar app which comes with a reminder function. Some people use these calendar apps to include things like doctor’s appointments and haircuts, but there’s no limit to how many items you can include on your own app. Consider including nearly everything you need to do throughout your day, like taking out the garbage, throwing in a load of laundry (and taking it out), and defrosting meat for dinner. If you don’t want to use a phone or an app, keep it old school and use a notepad, which you should keep in the same spot of the house or office (so you never forget where you left it). Keep a running list of things to do on that list, and cross things off as you get them done.
2. One step at a time. When faced with a big project or something that requires a large number of steps, make a list of all the things you need to do. Do one thing at a time – two if you can handle it or if time is an issue – instead of focusing on the entire project at once. If you’re renovating your bathroom, for example, you’re likely going to be tasked with getting rid of what you no longer need, organizing all the materials that are currently in your bathroom into another space, replacing all the fixtures, painting, tiling, and so on. That’s a big job! Don’t get overwhelmed, and focus just on the first item: get rid of what you don’t need. When that task is fully completed, move on to the next.
3. Create a routine. Routines are fantastic for those who live with ADHD. Routines help keep you grounded, comfortable and secure, yes, but what they also do is get you used to the things you need to do every day. If your morning routine includes letting out your pets, brushing your teeth, laying out your clothes, taking a shower, making your bed, having breakfast and preparing your lunch, that repetition will be helpful. Before you know it, you’ll be on auto pilot and you’ll get all those things done without forgetting anything.
4. Make checklists for even the little things. Checklists are helpful to anyone, even for those who don’t have ADHD. Take a look at your calendar app and see if any of the tasks you’ve listed there need to be broken down further into smaller steps. For example, if you’ve set aside time for sales calls, make a list of all the potential or current clients you need to call. If you have Christmas shopping on your list of things to do, make a checklist of everyone you need to shop for (and maybe even what you’re planning on getting them).
5. Get playful. What works for some might not work for you – or maybe they will! Try different ways of improving your memory skills. Some people find it helpful if they “sing” their to-do lists, while others find that leaving Post-it notes throughout the house or office helps. Some experts even recommend taking a mental picture of yourself doing certain duties, like paying bills or getting an oil change. Because those with ADHD tend to learn well using visuals, perhaps a mental image you’ve taken of yourself doing some of the things you need to do will help you remember to do them.
6. Practice saying no. You may be the kind of person who feels badly saying no to anyone, so you constantly find yourself committing to more social activities, projects, and things around the house. You have no idea how you’re possibly going to remember one or two of those things, let alone all of them! Cut back on some of the things you’ve felt obligated to do, and focus just on the things you really want to do.
7. Listen to music. While some people like total silence when concentrating, you may very well an improvement in your focus and concentration skills when you turn on music you love. Classical music has been touted as calming, and helps many people studying literature or history. But any music that soothes you may help you with improving your memory, and an added plus is that if you like a particular song, it’ll lift your spirits, too.
8. Challenge your working memory through the use of everyday games. There are lots of games that will help you with your working memory, including memory worksheets, but you can work on improving your memory throughout the day using things you see on a regular basis. For example, when you’re parked at a store, read a license plate out loud, close your eyes, and repeat it to yourself. You can even try saying it backwards. Ask a friend to recite their phone number (obviously one you don’t yet know by heart!) and repeat their number to them. Any challenges you give yourself that include numbers or text will help you boost your working memory ability.
While this article is written primarily for the adult with ADHD, all of the tips and suggestions included here can be adapted for children. In place of a calendar app, buy your child a colorful notebook with plenty of differently colored pens and markers to jot down the tasks of the day. Encourage your child to repeat instructions after hearing them, and perhaps suggest that they draw a picture of themselves completing a specific task.
If you have ADHD, or are the guardian of a child with ADHD, and you’d like to find out more about improving your working memory, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com to book an appointment.
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