Is There A Link Between ADHD & Object Permanence?
Oct 19, 2023, 7 min read
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with ADHD, you may be curious to understand more about the symptoms and how they can impact everyday life. In recent years there has been discussion around the idea of ADHD being connected to ‘object permanence’. Here, we’re taking a closer look at the potential link, how both can impact things like memory, concentration and relationships, and how to get support for ADHD symptoms.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD, we’re here to help.
What is ADHD?
ADHD stands for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is a type of neurodivergence which means there is a difference in how the brain is hard-wired in comparison to neurotypical individuals. ADHD can take several forms, manifesting as mainly inattentive symptoms for some (like regularly making careless mistakes or forgetting things), while others experience mainly hyperactive symptoms (like extreme restlessness or excessive talking). These symptoms can affect everyday activities such as learning, studying, working, organising, remembering, managing time or getting things done.
In children, ADHD may look like struggling to play quietly or take instructions without becoming distracted, and it can present differently in girls than in boys – girls often present less hyperactivity features and more inattentive features. This is important to remember if you suspect ADHD symptoms in yourself or a loved one so an accurate diagnosis can be made.
You can read more about the symptoms of ADHD in our article; What Is The ADHD Iceberg & Why Is It Important?
What is ‘object permanence’?
Object permanence is a concept concerning cognitive development formulated by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. When babies are born, they have extremely limited object permanence, which is why games like peek-a-boo are so thrilling to young children – they believe that once an object or person disappears, they are truly gone. Piaget found that as children get older, they begin to understand that objects will continue to exist even if they are no longer visible, or within their sensory perception, and will start to seek them out.
It is thought that babies begin to recognise faces at around 2 months old, followed by familiar objects at around 3 months old. According to Piaget, at around 8 to 9 months of age they begin to understand object permanence, so instead of believing something has disappeared, they will begin to search for it as they understand it is simply hidden. More recent findings support the idea that babies may actually begin to understand the idea of object permanence between 4 and 7 months old.
Object permanence is a basic cognitive function, but it forms the foundation of many other developmental and cognitive milestones for children, including things like problem-solving skills, social interactions and more. How our object permanence develops when we are young can affect some of our cognitive capacities as adults too, which is why some believe there is a link between this and ADHD symptoms.
How do ADHD and object permanence overlap?
It is important to distinguish that object permanence is a cognitive function, not a clinically diagnosed condition like ADHD. There is debate as to whether ADHD and object permanence are in fact linked, and without adequate research and studies, the jury is still out.
If they are connected in some way, it is thought that they may intersect at the juncture of attention and memory, which are common challenges for some people living with ADHD.
Those with ADHD may struggle with inattention, which is a developmental milestone that object permanence helps with. To make the distinction clear:
- People with ADHD may have difficulties in maintaining attention and remembering due to neurological differences in the brain
- People lacking a strong concept of object permanence may have difficulties with attention and remembering due to delayed or missed developmental milestones
One concept that is relevant to both is the idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; just as having issues with object permanence may lead someone to forget an object when it is not visible or obvious, those with ADHD may exhibit the same challenge, but instead this is due to a lack of attention and memory – without a reminder, they may quickly forget the object entirely.
Research has also suggested a theory that babies who struggle early on with the idea of object permanence could develop social and attentional issues later, however there is limited research on this idea, so more would be required in order to confirm a link.
How does object permanence affect concentration?
Our grasp of object permanence in early childhood forms the foundation of our ability to sustain attention and concentration. This is why children with limited object permanence may struggle to finish tasks that involve elements of focus, such as searching for a toy. If they are unable to picture an object or person in their mind long enough, they soon forget the task at hand.
According to the theory that ADHD is linked to object permanence, the inattention symptoms experienced by people with ADHD could cause similar concentration issues. As an example, this might lead them to move onto a new task quickly rather than finishing what they started.
How does object permanence affect memory?
Object permanence also plays a vital role in the development of our working memory as children. By understanding that objects still exist even though they cannot be seen, our memory helps us to hold the image or mental representation of this object in our mind for long enough to take action on it. As children’s object permanence continues to develop, they start to remember that objects are hidden, and recall which location they are hidden in.
Those with ADHD may find their symptoms make working memory a challenge in the same way that a lack of understanding of object permanence may affect memory. When it comes to memory in adults with ADHD, the issues stem from the symptom of having poor working memory rather than having a lack of understanding that hidden objects and people remain in existence.
“In the fifth grade, after five years of bringing his lunch to school every day… my son would forget his lunchbox in the classroom about three days a week. Any parent of a grade schooler knows that plenty of things get left behind by all children (just take a glance at any school’s overflowing lost and found). But for some kids with ADHD, what isn’t seen isn’t remembered.” – Kelly Schmidt, writing for Healthline
How does object permanence affect relationships?
A lack of object permanence can also impact relationships, as children sometimes take a while to realise that their parents or caregivers continue to exist when they are not around. Understanding that this is the case can help them to build trust and security in their relationships, and feel safe in the knowledge that even though their caregiver has left, they will come back.
The idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is relevant within relationships too. Those with ADHD may struggle to keep in touch with loved ones regularly enough to maintain relationships. This is not because they mean to ignore people or go long periods of time without reaching out, but it can happen accidentally as a result of poor memory, which can have negative impacts on the relationship.
Is there really a link between ADHD and object permanence?
It is largely believed that there is no real link between ADHD and the idea of object permanence, however in recent years the theory has evolved. Research suggests that platforms like TikTok are spreading misleading information about ADHD symptoms and treatments, including information about the potential link between ADHD and object permanence, despite a lack of evidence or studies.
Although object permanence and ADHD are not directly linked, a correlation can be made based on the features of both. They deal with different cognitive challenges but may present similar symptoms.
How to access support for ADHD (and/or issues with object permanence)
We believe everyone who lives with ADHD should have access to personalised, bespoke advice to help manage their particular symptoms. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with ADHD or suspects they may have it, encourage them to seek professional advice and support to help manage symptoms in the best way. Remember, what works for one person may not work for another, so finding personalised support for you or your loved one is important.
The first step is usually to reach out to your GP to discuss your symptoms, and they may then refer you to a specialist for further testing and to find out about a potential diagnosis and treatment. At Augmentive, we offer access to qualified professionals who can help you understand your symptoms and provide you with a personalised treatment plan so you can better manage your ADHD.
Although research has not yet confirmed a link between ADHD and object permanence, this does not mean there absolutely isn’t one. If you feel a lack of object permanence could be contributing to your ADHD symptoms, you can speak to a professional to find out more – our free 15 minute consultation could help you figure out the most relevant therapist to help you manage your ADHD in daily life.
You may find more useful information in our articles: Your Guide to ADHD Medication in the UK (for Adults & Children) and What Is Involved In A Private ADHD Assessment?
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment and diagnosis, to broader private mental health care.
If you have a question about ADHD, like how burnout from it can manifest, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.