ADHD: A strength based approach
I recently attended a week long seminar on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) taught by Ed Hallowell M.D. Dr. Hallowell, a Harvard trained psychiatrist, has written 5 best-selling books on ADHD. In addition to being a world renown expert on the subject, he has ADHD himself. He understands this condition from the “inside out”. The seminar focus was on understanding the strengths and special abilities that individuals with ADHD bring to the table. “We want to help kids and adults with ADHD unwrap their gifts” he says. It’s a refreshing and affirming approach. I love it.
There were many adults at the workshop with ADHD themselves who shared their stories. One middle-aged man described his parochial school education. He was constantly told he was “lazy, unmotivated, stupid, and bad” by the headmaster. He was punished, made to sit in a corner, and even hit by his teachers. He was frequently shamed and humiliated in front of the other students. He grew up thinking he was a bad person, ashamed of himself, and a loser. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with ADHD that he learned that the many traits he exhibited—impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing or paying attention was part of a neurodevelopmental condition that he was born with.
Some individuals aren’t hyperactive, but are inattentive. They are often undiagnosed because the sit in the back of the classroom daydreaming, but not bothering anyone. Hyperactive kids, especially boys, are often diagnosed in the third grade when there are greater demands for paying attention and sitting still for longer periods of time.
Dr. Hallowell or “Ned” as he likes to be called, says that kids and adults with ADHD have “race car brains with bicycle brakes”. They have trouble putting dampers on their zany ideas, impulses, and boundless energy. They frequently are creative, original, and filled with vitality. They’re independent thinkers who have a unique perspective that’s “outside of the box”. They can be persistent, sensitive, and are often big-hearted and generous. He likes to think of these folks as having “sparkle” or a “secret sauce” that others don’t have. He feels that “with the right kind of guidance, these people can be hugely successful in their lives. They can learn how to direct their curiosity, creativity, and energy”. For the parents of kids with ADHD, this positive outlook is uplifting and hopeful. It’s easy for Moms and Dads to get fed up with their youngsters with ADHD who are always getting into trouble and doing things they’re told not to do. They worry that their kids won’t be successful or happy adults.
Ned sees ADHD as a set of “traits” rather than as a disorder. School can be torture for these children, whose minds and bodies don’t neatly fit into their small chairs or who feel hemmed in by boring or tedious schoolwork. They do well with novelty, motivation, and structure. Our educational system gets high marks on structure—but doesn’t do as well with novelty and motivation. Grades don’t always motivate students who are excited and curious about their interesting ideas!
Ned feels that it’s important for both kids and adults with ADHD to have a creative outlet, gets lots of physical exercise, and maintain solid, close connections with others. It’s especially important for adults to find the “right” job that fits their personality and disposition. Work needs to combine—“what you are really good at, what you love to do, and what someone will pay you to do”. This isn’t always easy.
Dr. Hallowell believes that for 75-80% of adults and kids, medication can be very helpful, but it can take awhile to find the right medication at the right dose. There are non-medication approaches on the horizon too. He is optimistic that “Neurofeedback” computer based programs, in the development and testing stages, will help strengthen the “attention muscle” in our brains. He foresees a future where these approaches will be increasingly effective.
Ultimately, Dr. Hallowell believes in the power of love and connection. It’s important to focus on the positive and not punish the ADHD kid (or adult) for having bicycle brakes. When adults can help these children find their passion that they are good at, youngsters with ADHD can blossom.