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Is Your Poor Sense of Direction a Symptom of ADHD?

October 3, 2017 Noelle Matteson

Some with ADHD have a poor sense of direction. The complex connection between ADHD and your sense of direction may have some explanations. Check this out.

I have wasted so much time trying to orient myself while traveling thanks to my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and my lack of sense of direction. My iPhone battery is a precious resource when I have to constantly check its GPS. I try to inform others that I have a terrible sense of direction, but many still seem surprised at my incompetence (ADHD: Better Late Than Never?). The connection between ADHD and a sense of direction is more complex than I realized.

Sense of Direction and ADHD May Be Connected

Is my experience unique in the ADHD community? According to a number of forums and article comments, no. Quite a few people with the condition note that they easily become lost, and one commenter claims that her ADHD medication improves her sense of direction. However, others say that their sense of direction is average or excellent, showing once again that ADHD is a highly diverse spectrum.

From what I can tell, an underdeveloped sense of direction has to do less with the diagnosis of ADHD and more with the conditions that frequently occur with ADHD. Navigational skills depend on the memory of where you’ve been and where you are in relation to other objects. People with ADHD can have incredible memories for things that capture their interest, but they can forget what they just did.

Conditions Comorbid with ADHD Impact Your Sense of Direction

Some call the inability to competently navigate “directional dyslexia.” A high percentage of people with ADHD have learning disabilities including dyslexia, a disability in which many confuse left and right. Still, dyslexia has to do with reading rather than navigation. But, dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder, also often overlaps with ADHD and can include having a poor sense of direction.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that stores memories, including spatial memory and recognition, and it can create internal maps. One of my theories is that a part of one’s brain needs to be aware of the environment in order to record it, a focus that many with ADHD might lack. People with ADHD also struggle with working memory, the ability to not only absorb and retain information but to draw on it when necessary.

You Can Improve Your Sense of Direction, ADHD or Not

The good news is, even though some (including quite a few ADHDers) are born with an incredible sense of direction, navigation skills can be greatly improved with practice. A study shows that the hippocampi of London cabbies, people who frequently navigate maps, are larger than the average person’s (see “Why Do You Always Get Lost?” in sources). Using compasses to navigate and studying maps before stepping outside are first steps in improving one’s sense of direction.

Please let me know in the comments if you or someone you know has an astounding—or astoundingly terrible—sense of direction and if it occurs with ADHD or another condition. It seems as though there have not been many studies done on this subject, and I would like to know more about others’ experiences.

Sources

  1. Bates, Michael. “Directional Dyslexia.” Dyslexia Reading Well. http://www.dyslexia-reading-well.com/directional-dyslexia.html
  2. Kuchinskas, Susan. “Why Do You Always Get Lost?” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/brain/features/why-do-you-always-get-lost
  3. Lapkin, Emily. “Skills That Can Be Affected by Dyslexia.” Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dyslexia/skills-that-can-be-affected-by-dyslexia
  4. Taylor, Janet. “Dyspraxia in Adults.” The Dyspraxia Foundation. https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/dyspraxia-adults/

APA Reference
Matteson, N. (2017, October 3). Is Your Poor Sense of Direction a Symptom of ADHD?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, October 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingwithadultadhd/2017/10/is-your-poor-sense-of-direction-a-symptom-of-adhd



Author: Noelle Matteson

Find Noelle on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Louise Coleman
July, 20 2021 at 2:28 pm

These comments resonated so much for me. I am 51 and I think I have ADHD (awaiting a diagnosis) and I have always struggled with my non existent sense of direction. Out on a date once i got lost when I came out of the toilet and had to go out to the car park and come back in again! I hate it when my Sat Nav says things like "head east" as I have no idea where that is. The thing that I find strange is that I am not stupid but I cannot seem to learn how to navigate, I have to put the map in the direction I am driving and even then I get lost. It is extremely frustrating and added to my disorganisation I am usually late anyway so getting lost just adds to the stress. It is kind of comforting to know I am not alone though

Sandra Hennessy
July, 7 2021 at 2:15 pm

My son is 19 years old and has ADHD. I noticed when teaching him to drive that he often still confused left and right and still does to this day. He also had a lot of difficulty learning to park. Recently I also noticed that he has difficulty remembering the routes to various places, even though he has been there many times and can get confused even travelling home from a place he has been to quite often. Of course he is fine to go to work and back, something he does every day and does well most days but definitely learns routes slower than I expected. I attributed it to the fact that he seemed to rely on his GPS but since beginning to teach his brother how to drive, I have begun to realize that his ADHD plays a factor. Thank you for this article. I think it would be a very interesting thing for someone to do a study on.

Patti
June, 16 2021 at 9:41 am

I can’t believe others struggle with this. My husband of 25 years has ADD but I never realized his poor sense of direction was related. I asked him yesterday to go to my neighbor’s house right across the street and he went to the wrong house. He points to one direction when something is entirely in the other direction. He has trouble getting out of a gas station if it has more than two entrances. I get so frustrated with him but this helps me understand a little more. Thank you.

John
June, 14 2021 at 10:47 am

Great article! This is an area I have struggled with my entire life. I used to joke I would get lost on an one way road. I have realized that if there is only two ways to go that 99% of the time I will pick the wrong way. Still with practice I have become much better, and GPS is a godsend. I have overcome many learning disabilities, but this is one that is still a challenge. When I referee soccer I have to really focus so I don't point the flag in the opposite direction of what I want.

Kay
June, 4 2021 at 8:17 am

I am relieved to have stumbled upon this article and see that I am not alone. I was diagnosed in my early 40's, finally after always feeling something was just not right.
I can have troubles with something as simple as the direction to get back to my friends at a restaurant, when coming out of the restroom. I have to mentally take note as I'm walking towards it, in order to not look so dumb coming back. And then, on other occassions, I have no problem at all. It's as if something is clicked on that day, and I always find myself wishing I knew what it was so that I could always flip on that switch!
Going to a friend's house with a lot of turns through neighborhoods, has to be done a few times in order for it to finally stick, and then if I don't do it for a long time, I can sometimes still forget all over.
I'm reading through the comments here, and getting some good ideas on how to manage!

Trinity
May, 31 2021 at 5:57 pm

I have a very poor sense of direction and get lost easily. Also, coming back from where I came from. I also forget where I park my car and get lost in unfamiliar buildings. Retracing my steps is very difficult. When there is a lot going on in my visual environment I can not remember things just a few which makes finding places even harder. I was diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type as an adult. I am hoping my ADHD is connected to my trouble finding places. I always feel so stupid! Sometimes I just miss entire party or gatherings to avoid the embarrassment of showing up an hour late because I was lost again.

Sari
March, 23 2021 at 10:10 pm

I've struggled with navigation my whole life and was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Whether it comes to driving or navigating a new building I'm always disoriented. I just wanted to share a tip with those of you who struggle with the same thing. I take pictures of my surroundings especially when I go somewhere new. I take pictures of my care when I park from two angles. I take a picture of the sign on the street corner so I can find it in my GPS. I take a picure of the entrance to the place I'm going to. Seems silly but it's helps me so much and sooths my anxiety to know I can rely on my pictures as a fail safe.

Annie
March, 3 2021 at 1:34 pm

No sense of direction, following directions, remembering directions, knowing I will get lost and the embarrassment of getting lost are as much a part of me as my ADD, chronic depression and anxiety disorder. I have sent my parents, siblings, friends, my husband and my adult children into fits of frustration over my inability to "find and remember". "Pay attention to your surroundings!" I've heard that so many times, I know it's going to come from someone's mouth 5 seconds before they utter the admonition. On more occasions than I can count, I've wanted to scream, "I'm not stupid! I hate this more than you could ever know!" I swallow those words and instead, apologize for my shortcoming and promise to remember the next time. Each time this happens, I tell myself that maybe I am stupid, maybe I don't pay attention, maybe I'm simply not trying hard enough and I hate myself a little bit more. Recently, my husband had to spend a couple of days in the hospital for minor surgery. We had parked in the parking garage at the hospital and made our way to his room on the sixth floor. We'd been there a short while when he realized he had forgotten to bring the book he was reading; he asked if I would mind bringing it back with me when I returned that evening. At that moment, fear and panic went through me like a hot knife, I couldn't remember which elevator we'd used to get up to his floor, the way to lobby or the parking garage if I was lucky enough to get to the lower floor. I smiled and told him I'd be happy to bring his book back with me. I prepared to leave, I looked at him and casually asked if the elevator we came up in was to the left of the nurses station, "yup", he said, and off I went. As I'd feared, when I stepped out of his room, nothing looked familiar to me whatsoever, I was lost before I was really lost. I was asking people for directions at every turn, with panic and anxiety waiting to boil over. When I finally made it to our car, I exploded into tears of anxiety, relief, shame; I hated myself. Upon my return, I went through the same agonizing journey getting back to his room. I shared my experiences with him and asked if he would give me directions for my way back down, not north, east, south or west...I wanted to write them down in list form, using words like "turn left, go right" and I wanted some "landmarks" along the way. For the first time ever, I could see he sensed my fear. I took a notebook and pen from my purse, wrote the number 1. on the paper and finished with number 7. Forgive my prattling, it's part and parcel of my ADD.

MC
May, 16 2021 at 6:04 pm

I deeply relate to this. My sense of direction and creating a “mental map” for the future is worthless. My brain just doesn’t retain it. I draw maps or write R and L down in order and then do the opposite on the way back. Not foolproof, but it helps. I also have R and L written in small print on the inside of my shoes just in case 😂 To be serious though, my anxiety and shame when I get lost is the worst feeling. And to be told over and over again that I’m not listening or not paying attention... Lord Almighty, it’s hard not to snap at people.

Holly
July, 27 2021 at 12:05 am

This is so me! Makes me feel so much better to know that I’m not alone. My friends and family have always given me a hard time about my directional sense. I always knew it had something to do with ADD. I’ve noticed that a lack of sleep, not enough food or regular exercise can exasperate my symptoms.

Valerie
September, 16 2020 at 4:17 pm

I have been married to the same man for 47years and it has not all been easy. I thought his inability to find his way in a car was because he was not paying attention. If I fell asleep while he was driving he’d go right past the exit or turn the wrong way and we’d get lost. I always had to pay attention and tell him which way to turn. I did not recognize there is a name for his disorder til later in our married life. He also has ADD which was never diagnosed when he was young. I have wanted him to go to a doctor and get medication for it but he always refused. I have lived with him for so long now I just accept that he has these disabilities.

Misha
October, 27 2019 at 7:15 pm

I have no sense of direction. I might know how to get somewhere, but coming back home just doesn’t make sense, even in houses or buildings. I’ve been lost twice on a mountain. I’ve tried everything to retrace my steps and be aware on my way there, but I haven’t had much luck improving my skill. I have trouble concentrating and at times and when I was young was hyper sensitive to noise. The lack of acknowledgement of the directional dyslexia is so frustrating because often people get irritated at me and think I’m just not paying attention. The truth is, I’m counting streets and trying to recognize visual markers to help me. It’s almost like when they spin you before you hit a piñata without the dizziness.

heather
May, 9 2019 at 11:59 am

my school timetable had the initials of who to follow for each class, I never did learn where the history, english , math, science etc blocks were, i got lost often on the short walk home from school, being lost was scary. I can go off rout in my own village though not entirely lost i end up in the wrong place, I was diagnosed ADHD last year at age 55 I cannot travel alone :(

March, 20 2019 at 1:55 pm

Oh my gosh! I definitely do not remember where I was going once I step out of a shop. I end up spending an embarrassing amount of time on my phone trying to figure out where on earth I should go.
I would research the term "Developmental Topographical Disorientation" (a term that I just discovered). Interestingly, I am also very good at recognizing faces, though I am probably not as good as you and I do not tend to get lost as much in my own house. I wonder if somehow they go together?? Thank you for commenting!

Diana
May, 13 2021 at 6:09 am

I have ADHD, a visual perception disorder and a hearing persecution disorder. I also mix up numbers so easily I have to stare at them for several seconds and double check them to make sure I am not reversing them in my networking class. I also have messed up my bank account badly because I reversed numbers and bounced myself. For instance 123 can easily be 321 or 231 if I don't double check several times. I have a horrible math disability that nobody knows the name for so my teachers never bothered to teach me past 3rd grade math because they said I couldn't retain the information.
I also get lost so easily that I have to have GPS with me at all times even if I've been to the place 100 times over I will sill most likely get lost. My husband and even my kids think it's funny when I get lost but honestly it's quite embarrassing. I've had to have my husband come and get me because I spent hours driving around town trying desperately to get home but I was so lost. It's like nothing looks familiar ever. If it's dark that makes it 1000 times worse since I can't see well at night. I can not take the kids trick or treating because everything looks the same and I have trouble remembering which side of the street we were on and I can't remember which houses we were at. I also can not travel far distances alone ever or I would definitely get lost. Visiting my mom that lives two hours away requires my husband to drive me because I can't remember how to get there even though we have been going there for nearly 17 years. However if I see a face once I can remember it randomly off the streets if I see them again years later. I often stare at people trying to remember how I know them because I remember their face but not where I met them. I remember random conversations that happened years prior with my husband but I can't remember where I put my phone 3 seconds ago. In my martial arts class I have to see my instructor do the move while I copy him move for move and verbally hear him explain it. And I can't talk or listen to someone speaking and write at the same time at all so taking notes in class is next to impossible for me. I can also remember some of my dreams I've had when I was a little kid 30 plus years ago detail for detail. I wonder if its all related somehow or if it's just my uniques?

Andy
March, 18 2019 at 4:42 am

Yep... this is me all over. Recently found I have ADD, and my sense of direction is so bad that I lose my bearings in my own house. I can drive the same route 100 times and it just doesn’t stick. If I have a work meeting at a client’s building I dread having to go to the loo because I’ll 100% get lost trying to find my way back to the meeting room, even if it’s just a couple of corners and shot corridors away. If I walk into a shop off the street and spend only a couple of minutes inside I’ll walk back to have no idea which side of the street I was on and in which direction I was walking. It’s like a strange fog that won’t clear, but it’s specific to directions which I find really interesting as I have a creepy memory for other things - I can remember word for word conversations that happened 20 years ago and I recently tested as a ‘super recogniser’ for facial recognition with a score of 100%... literally never forget a face, can see a stranger once in the street and pick them out again months later. But if I walk up to the landing in my own house and all the doors are closed I sometimes literally can’t remember which one is the bathroom. Brains are fascinating...

heather
May, 9 2019 at 12:43 pm

I have the same sense of direction but i also do not recognize faces eg- if I meet the lady whos served me in the shop for the last 20 years any where out of that shop though she will be sort of familiar to me i will not know who she is, to avoid being rude and appearing snobby I pretend i know who people are Doh!

May, 31 2019 at 1:16 pm

Hm, so it sounds as though you might have both Developmental Topographical Disorientation and face blindness? I wonder if there is another cause, apart from ADHD. You sound very considerate--to be thinking of what others might feel when you don't recognize them, when you are the one who has to deal with the problem! Remember, it is not your fault. I wonder if there is a specialist you can see? Perhaps a doctor or neurologist can give recommendations? I know this isn't always available. Thank you for commenting, and I hope you have a good week. <3

queenie
June, 8 2019 at 5:22 am

hi, it seems like we almost shared the same conditions, i could remember faces of so many people, but when it comes to lands, directions, i never learned it unless i get lost and had bad memories on that place, i used to talk and ask strangers for directions, once that person lead me to bunch of directions, i started to feel dizzy and forgets words of direction he or she said. i couldn't even memorize the direction of the malls i have gone hundred times, sometimes i have terrible remembering names once i pronounce it wrong or named them wrong, it stuck to my mind, even calendars sometimes i get lost the sequence of days just passed, i have some difficulty to separate the reality from my dreams. and if i used to the route example from my dorm to my college, and someone ask me how to get to my college, I can't give the perfect direction,I cant picture out the places on my mind that use to go to. i i could remember the image of the buildings how they look like but to draw the direction is impossible for me. i cried several times when i get lost , that somehow makes me remember the place once i get out of it. and if you'll suggest a google map? no way i can understand it, i tried many times i still get lost.

June, 8 2019 at 3:37 pm

Hi queenie, thanks for commenting. I'm sorry to hear about your struggles. Sounds frustrating! The struggles with dreams and reality sounds a bit like dissociation, and it also seems like there might be an emotional element to it (since after you cry, your head feels clearer). Can you talk to a therapist or doctor about this?

Amy
July, 7 2019 at 7:28 pm

I completely relate! When I used to go in the grocery store and my family waited outside in car, they took bets about which door I’d walk out of. It’s so frustrating.

July, 8 2019 at 5:38 pm

Oh no! Sounds like your family wasn't too helpful in that situation heh. And then figuring out where I parked has always been many rounds of, "Dude, where's my car?" Thanks for stopping by, though!

Mike
January, 9 2019 at 5:54 am

I got lost last week trying to go to a friends house I’ve literally been to over 200 times. They live 5 miles from me in my town. My phone broke and I didn’t have gps to get me there?

January, 12 2019 at 4:26 pm

Oh my gosh! I can really relate. People sometimes ask if I've never been to a certain place before because I'm so unsure of how to get there... even when I go there very regularly. Thank you for commenting. It's good to know I'm not alone. XD

Melissa
November, 3 2018 at 3:30 pm

I have ADHD and I have a really good sense of direction. I don’t know where my sense of direction came from...whether I inherited it from one of my parents, or whether it is some sort of adaptation or compensation for my ADHD. I also have a really good sense of balance. I suppose my good sense of balance may be related to my directional sense and my ADHD.

November, 10 2018 at 5:44 pm

That's really cool! One of my relatives with ADHD had a great sense of direction since he was young. I wonder if it's how we process things--visually, kinetically, etc. I guess a lot of people with ADHD must have good balance since it in no way prohibits them from being athletes. Thank you for sharing!

Louise Thompson
April, 26 2018 at 6:33 am

My daughter has Add with mild dyslexia and she had problems with sense of direction and thought that London and Birmingham were near each other. She now does a job that takes her all over the country and thanks to technology she manages the job very well. My husband doesn't have a diagnosis of Add but I am sure that he has it. He recently got lost taking the dog for a walk when he was meant to be taking my daughter to hospital!! He takes wrong turns or misses important signs while driving as he isn't always concentrating on where he is going. He also has a poor visual memory and often doesn't remember where he has put things. He finds it difficult to recognise people out of context which can be embarrassing. Thankfully I have a good memory for these things and can get him out of various predicaments. There is never a dull moment in our house!

Danielle smith
January, 9 2018 at 12:50 am

Thanks this is helpful. My husband has adhd and his lack of direction astounds me. He will think we should go north to a city 3 hours south of us, etc.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 10 2018 at 8:42 am

Glad it was helpful, and thanks for checking it out. Oops... sorry about your husband. I kind of understand how he feels. XD

Trudy Hibler
October, 3 2017 at 8:15 am

I forgot to mention this. My husband has dyslexia, but has no problems with N/S/E/W and can read a map like nobody's business. He thinks it's pretty funny that I like to look at maps, but can't use one to get around.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 5 2017 at 6:14 pm

Also, thank you for commenting! Makes me feel glad I'm not alone. XD

Trudy Hibler
October, 3 2017 at 8:11 am

I just have to laugh. I consider myself to be directionally challenged. I know that if I'm facing north, west is on my left. See what I did there? They kind of rhyme. But I have to know where north is, first. Recently my husband and I were in a strange city. I had to do the driving while he did some navigating. He'd just had a medical procedure and was under the influence of the anesthesia, still. The sun was blinding me so I couldn't see the signs to know where or when to turn and my husband told me, "Right here! Turn east!" I yelled back, "I don't know where east is!" LOL Pretty funny now, but not at the time! I can't read a map, either, to save my life. They also require knowing that whole north/south/east/west thing. Please. Give me directions such as, "Turn left on old county road. At the second stop sign, turn right then go about a 1/4 of a mile until just past a big red barn on the right and make a left at that intersection." So much easier! And I have to actually drive somewhere new to be able to find it again later. My spatial skills suck, too. I admire people who can read a map or diagrams on putting something together. I haven't been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, but I do have bipolar 2 (heavy on the depression side) and generalized anxiety disorder along with a large dose of social anxiety.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 5 2017 at 6:05 pm

I remember it as "Never Eat Shredded Wheat"--North, East, South, West, going clockwise. However, I have to think of that almost every time I try to orient myself. I'm more comfortable when I know which way is north, but then I get turned around so easily. I might know which way a road is going, but as soon as I step into a building or turn a corner, I forget where the road is in relation to where I am.
I suppose people with Bipolar Disorder have a high risk for ADHD, but I have no idea if that's the connection to having a hard time navigating. XD So interesting that your husband has dyslexia but obviously not "directional dyslexia." Do you like to look at maps for aesthetic purposes? Because they can be beautiful, hehe.

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