Your Brain Is a Ferrari

Positive ways to explain a child's ADHD diagnosis: Pointers for parents and professionals who want to emphasize strengths and build confidence in kids with attention deficit disorder.

Delivering the Diagnosis

In my 30-plus years of helping people of all ages who have ADHD, I have learned that the moment of delivering the ADHD diagnosis ranks among the most crucial. It can determine the arc of a person’s life. Done right, a diagnosis can be accurate without sacrificing hope or limiting growth.

In many doctors’ offices, diagnosing ADHD is the opposite. It comes with negative terms, and the mood is somber. As one parent told me, "I felt we were being told my child had cancer." Parents and the child listen, but they don’t hear the words. They sink into their chairs, as they feel their hopes diminish. "Your son has a deficit," they hear. "Your son has ADHD." "Your son has a disorder." They think, ADHD is very bad and I don't know if I can deal with this.

"At that moment," one mother said to me, "I saw my son’s hopes and dreams going up in a bonfire. The doctor didn’t mean for me to feel this way. He didn’t mean for Tommy to cry all the way home. But that was exactly the effect of his words on my son."

It shouldn’t be like that. It is time for those in the mental health game, especially those of us who diagnose and treat ADHD, dyslexia, and other issues of learning, to recognize how damaging the deficit-based model is to patients. It is time to replace it with the strength-based model, which doesn’t deny that ADHD carries potentially life-threatening risks and deficiencies — a Ferrari with faulty brakes is scary, no? — but also seeks out and identifies the talents, interests, and skills upon which the person can build a life of success and joy.

I say to people, "I am not in the business of treating disabilities. I am in the business of unwrapping gifts." That is not to say I regard ADHD as a gift. As defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), ADHD means trouble. But if you look past the troubling symptoms, you can usually find evidence of a child’s gifts.

It takes a lot of work to develop a person’s talents, especially one who has ADHD. But a strength-based approach fuels such development. One mom told me that, after she and her son visited with me, after I had described the power of her son’s brain, he bellowed on the ride home, "Look out, world, here I come!"


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