Object permanence is NOT a symptom of ADHD

"Out of sight, out of mind" isn't the same thing as object permanence.

Bright yellow background with a girl, toddler-aged, hiding her face. photo by Anna Shvets.

Many people with ADHD struggle with remembering simple tasks, like paying bills or responding to texts. This has been commonly attributed to the whole “out of sight, out of mind” ideology, which people correlate with the idea of object permanence. 

But is ADHD really related to object permanence? 

Yes - but also, not really.

What is object permanence?

a father and young daughter holding a pillow. The dad is hiding behind it and the toddle is looking for him.
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Simply put, object permanence is the knowledge that an object still exists, even if it’s hidden or out of sight. It mainly applies to developmental skills in infants.

The concept of object permanence was coined and tested by psychologist Jean Piaget, who concluded that in order to understand that objects continue to exist even when they are unseen, infants must first develop a mental representation of the object.[1] These mental images are called schemas, or categories of knowledge about something in our world.

To determine if a child has reached this milestone, Piaget conducted a simple experiment by showing a toy to an infant before hiding it or taking it away — sometimes hiding it under a blanket. He’d then observe the infant to see if they’d look for the toy.

Some children would appear confused and upset when the toy was hidden, suggesting that they hadn’t yet achieved object permanence. Other children would start searching for the toy, indicating their firmer grasp of object permanence.

Examples of object permanence: 

Playing “peek-a-boo”

Babies who haven’t yet developed object permanence will think the adult has disappeared when they hide their face.

Hide-and-seek

By the time they reach their first birthday, babies have usually mastered the idea of object permanence.[2] They understand that when a person is hiding, they aren’t gone forever, which is why hide-and-seek is fun for them!

Separation anxiety

Infants who understand object permanence may experience separation anxiety - when they know that objects and people exist even when they’re no longer in sight, they may become upset and throw tantrums when parents or beloved toys are no longer visible. 

Developing object permanence is an important milestone for babies because it’s the first step to other types of symbolic understanding, such as pretend play, memory development, and language development. 

Is ADHD related to object permanence? 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder consisting of a combination of persistent detriments, such as difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.[3]

ADHD symptoms 

There are several ADHD symptoms people commonly confuse with object permanence. These include:

  • Difficulty finishing tasks
  • Forgetfulness
  • Losing track of objects
  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Challenges with organization and planning ahead

So, why exactly aren't these ADHD symptoms related to object permanence — and, if they're not, what are they a result of?

'Out of sight, out of mind' is not object permanence

People sometimes misuse the phrase 'out of sight, out of mind' and compare it to object permanence, which isn’t really correct. 'Out of sight, out of mind' means that you soon forget about people or things that aren’t present for a period of time.

People with ADHD do not have an impairment with object permanence. Even when tasks, items, or people are out of sight, we know that they still exist somewhere. We’re just less likely to maintain an active representation of it in our conscious awareness.

The use of the term object permanence - in the context of ADHD - implies a severe dysregulation in fundamental cognitive abilities in ADHDers… which is not the case. At all.

Object permanence is a developmental milestone – not an ADHD symptom 

Object permanence is a cognitive developmental milestone usually reached by infants between 9-12 months. It sets the foundation for the idea that the world exists outside of their own existence, which is an exciting milestone.

Object constancy 

The symptoms that are often mislabeled as 'object permanence issues'  can be more accurately described as difficulties with object constancy. Object constancy is the ability to maintain a positive emotional bond with something even when distance and conflicts intrude.

Oftentimes with ADHD, people forget to do a task if it’s not right in front of them. Because children and adults with ADHD can struggle with skills like working memory, they often encounter the following object constancy issues:

  • Forgetting to take medicine because it’s stored in a cabinet 
  • Seeing texts/emails and saying “I’ll respond later,” and forgetting to respond 
  • Putting important documents in “important places”, and missing deadlines anyway
  • Missing or showing up late to appointments because you forgot about it
  • Forgetting to pay bills because mail was “put aside” 
  • Expired groceries literally just chillin' in your fridge because you forgot they exist 
  • Buying clothes you already own, because they were stuffed in a drawer or back of your closet (Source: @truly_tish_adhd - Instagram)

So, when you forget an item or task because it’s no longer in front of you, “out of sight, out of mind” is a more accurate phrase, according to John Kruse, MD, PhD, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist.

He’s also coined a different term — “in sight, but no insight — for more common ADHD-induced cases, like those times when you’re not aware of an item that has actually remained in your immediate presence.

Too long; didn’t read

Object permanence is a developmental milestone – not an ADHD symptom. The term “object permanence” has been inappropriately used to describe deficits that are due to what is actually object constancy in neurodiverse brains, and it’s important to distinguish these differences.

Difficulties with object constancy can result in daily challenges like forgetting to take your meds, responding to messages, or paying the bills. 

Object permanence is a coined psychological term which refers to a developmental milestone, achieved when children learn material objects and people still exist when they’re no longer visible.

Stay tuned for tips on how to improve your own struggles with object constancy in a follow-up blog!

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