ADHD Object Permanence

ADHD & Object Permanence: Nope, They Don't Exist When I Don't See Them

Do people with ADHD neglect things and people when they don’t see them? Is it rooted in object permanence? What are its impacts? The answers and more, when you read this article on ADHD & Object Permanence. 

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What Does ADHD have to do with Object Permanence

Object Permanence was first proposed by Swiss mental health professional Jean Piaget. It refers to our understanding that objects exist even though they are hidden from us or when they are not around (a.k.a., we can’t see them). According to Piaget, very young kids (younger than 4 to 7 months old 👶, have no understanding of object permanence yet, and it is only when they are past 18 months to 2 years old they have full grasp of it. 

object permanence is the a ability to know that objects continue to exist even though they are no longer  be seen or heard

Put object permanence this way: children playing peek-a-boo with their parents often become confused when the parent is not there (hiding), and then become joyful when they see them again 🫣. This is because they do not yet understand object permanence and believe that the person or object has disappeared forever. When a child's brain has fully developed and they have acquired personal experience, they will understand that their parents are still there even if they’re away 👪. 

Another perfect example of the term object permanence relates to a child's toy that they just left in another room. Despite not being able to see it, they still know that the toy is present and will search for it despite its absence from sight. 

But what does it have to do with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Do our ADHD symptoms have anything to do with object permanence and our ability to keep track of objects? 🤔

Object Permanence Starts with Mental Representation

Piaget tested children's object permanence through the Blanket and Ball study on infants. Toys were used for children to play during the evaluation and then hidden under a blanket while the children were watching 👀. The idea is that if a child has an understanding of object permanence, then, they would look or search for the toy under the sheet.  During the study, object permanence issues were seen mostly with those who haven't developed an active mental representation of objects and weren't visually aware of what those things are. These children were often younger than 8 months. 

As a child's brain develops and progresses 🧠, these objects are kept within our working memory for conscious awareness. Thus, they tend to search for these essential items even though they are removed from plain sight. When our brain has a fully developed object permanence and working memory, ideas of these objects, people, or events remain vivid, and we do not struggle to find or remember them.

In the case of people with ADHD, object permanence issues aren't directly related to any ADHD struggle. What appear to be object permanence problems may actually be connected to inattention and working memory issues of our Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder 👌. 

Even though object permanence is not considered an ADHD symptom, our struggle with awareness when things are out of sight still exists and is valid.

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ADHD Symptom Highlight: Forgetfulness

As mentioned, our seemingly object permanence problems may stem from forgetfulness and inattention, symptoms that are often related to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These symptoms might make it hard for us to be aware that relationships, objects, or events still exist even though they aren't seen. As the issue is NOT about object permanence, people with ADHD know things are there, but we might need sensory cues to remember that objects continue to exist 👍.

For example, we might have difficulties doing tasks but it’s not because we don’t recognize their existence, rather, we just often forget them! This can be solved by making post-it notes visible or making to-do lists 📝. 

Of course, we know that we have a budget, but we are often easily distracted in buying something in the grocery store 🛒. That makes us spend more than our budget. The good news is when there's a shopping list present, we can start paying attention to our needs and stick to the list. 

One more thing: we can relate our understanding of object permanence when we misplace things and forget where we place them ❓. We know that these items still exist. We just don't remember where they are at the moment.

When our ADHD symptoms start to give us difficulties, such as misplacing things or difficulties in remembering other tasks, it may be our working memory problems that are causing this issue. Object permanence problems aren't inherently connected to ADHD but our working memory problems and lack of attention are, making it harder for us to remember things.

Staying On Top Of Inattention And Forgetfulness

The American Psychiatric Association suggests that a lot of people with ADHD will benefit greatly from consistently using visual reminders and other cues to inform them of the tasks they need to remember. Our executive functioning abilities may be affected by our ADHD symptoms, and thus, these visual cues would be much helpful for us to remember the things that we need to.

Have you ever experienced paying bills late because you opt to subscribe to paperless billing 💰? Or did you forget to bring the items you need to school because they were not placed in front of your eyes? These kinds of problems are the ones that may seem like we lack object permanence. Coupled with a few ADHD symptoms, these struggles may make an ADHD person's life more challenging.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When some people with ADHD don’t see an object or remember a task less, the concept of “out of sight, out of mind” comes into play. We know that the object still exists, but our lack of concentration and working memory issues make it hard for us to remember them when they are not seen anymore. 

The thing is, this “out of sight, out of mind” principle also affects relationships - not just objects. 💔

Object constancy refers to the positive emotional bond that we establish despite the distance and conflicts that intrude our attachment with people. When we have object constancy, we believe that the relationship is still stable even when we become upset, disappointed, or angry about something. 

But when the “out of sight, out of mind” approach enters the picture, issues within the relationship may arise. 

Emotional Permanence May Affect Relationships

Like mentioned earlier, object permanence happens with people, too. When someone isn't always in our sight, or we have little to no contact with them, we may forget that they exist - not literally, of course, but you get the picture 😉.

When our out of sight, out of mind traits start to manifest with friendships, we may have difficulty remembering to check up on them unless they are the ones reaching out first. We may frequently need to explain why we forget to talk to them to get rid of the idea that we never cared about them.

I do need to set up a few reminders for my closest friends so that I can have the chance to greet them on their birthdays and not forget to send them my regards 🎂. Not surprising. After all, you have to exert a lot of effort to maintain good relationships or remember things you need to remember because of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Tips for Establishing Object Constancy

Neurotypical people may experience being forgetful as well when things go out of their sight, as they, too, can struggle with their memory. But for many people with ADHD and possibly those with less developed object permanence, these struggles may affect their lives even more. Sometimes, their work or school performance gets affected because they tend to forget an important task, or maybe they have to explain why they failed to take their ADHD medication in time 🙁.

My Tips: Automate, Make it Obvious, and Use Reminders

As someone who tends to battle with ADHD symptoms and working memory issues, here are some of the tips that we can try to prevent consequences of forgetfulness and inattention from happening:

  • Take the opportunity when tasks can be automated. Some tasks can be automated, like paying bills at a particular date or setting reminders on a repeat 📱. Automating these important tasks creates a safety net for us to do these things because we are not reminded of them.
  • Place essential items where you can easily see them. ADHD medicines should always be visually present so we won't skip them. Our conscious awareness increases when we often see something we use 👀, preventing us from losing things.
  • Use reminders or make a to-do list. It is tough to trust our brains, ADHD or not. Writing everything down on paper 📝 or setting up visual cues can help us remember what we need to complete. Reach out and talk with people, even if it's just a reminder.
  • It is okay not to always remember people. It is not a sign of disrespect or a lack of care. Our relationships should never be judged by how often we get in touch with them but by how much effort we are willing to put into them ❤️. We all have our struggles as well.

ADHD and Object Permanence: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is object permanence? How is it different from object constancy?‍

Object permanence is the understanding that things continue to exist even when they are out of sight. Object constancy, on the other hand, pertains to the belief that the bond shared continues to be stable despite disagreements, angers, or any other negative emotion present in the relationship.

Is object permanence a symptom of ADHD?

No, it isn’t. In fact, there’s little evidence that it’s connected to the symptoms of ADHD. Some people with ADHD may seem like they lack object permanence due to inattention and forgetfulness.

Does object permanence affect relationships, too?

The better term is object constancy, but in essence, it does. When the out of sight, out of mind principle comes into play, relationships may get affected.

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