Smile If You Have ADHD
What is attention deficit? And why is it so misunderstood? Help set the record straight, accept your diagnosis, and live well with these tips.
I have attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and I wouldn’t change it for the world. In fact, I’m working to change society’s understanding of ADHD.
You know me. I was that kid in elementary school, the little redhead who was sent to the hallway countless times for drumming on his desk. When I was ordered to be still in line, I hopped around with excitement. I blurted out my thoughts when I was told to raise my hand. It turns out that what got me in trouble in school was not so much a deficit.
Today, the same energy propels me across the country to meet with teachers, school administrators, students, and parents to dispel the myths of ADHD and other cognitive differences.
It took years, but I’ve learned that the problem is not me or my ADHD, but the system under which we live. During my school days, I didn’t fit into an environment that seemed determined to confine my energy. In fact, the system local:”denied me recess” — the one time I was able to freely express myself — as punishment for my classroom misbehavior. When I left the K-12 academic system, I blossomed.
To be proud of myself and my work — and to find fulfillment in life — I needed an environment that worked with my ADHD. Believe it or not, preschool and college provided that. I was able to direct my own play and study, and follow my passions in environments that tolerated and supported my differences. I can still see myself in elementary school, backpack unzipped, papers spilling everywhere, but my Lego universe was unbeatable.
Now the world values my energy and creativity in a new way, and I have built a support network to help in my areas of weakness. My paper-management skills haven’t evolved much, so my accountant earns his keep during tax time. That’s just fine, because it allows me to focus on book projects and public speaking.
The journey of understanding myself and my challenges required a personal transformation — from the defeated high-school student to the successful author and public speaker I am today. How did I do it? By peeling back layers of hurt and “failure,” I discovered the plenitude of possibilities in my adult life. Sitting still doesn’t matter now. In my world, it is the antithesis of success.
As I got to know myself and discern my limitations, I was able to change my outlook and take ownership of my future. After college, I knew better than to apply for a nine-to-five desk job!
I thought hard about what was “right” about me — not the deficiencies or pathologies that haunted me as a child. I embraced my positive attributes, and I started to have fun. I traveled the world, meeting other people who were labeled “cognitively different” and talking with them about their strengths. I saw ADHD as a gift — of enthusiasm, wit, and energy. I built a career based on what I loved doing. I gravitated toward people who embraced every bit of me — my humor as well as my tardiness.
So, cheers, everyone with ADHD! Be proud of the gifts ADHD affords you: a gusto for life, a capacity to dream large, the ability to set goals — and the energy to meet them. In being comfortable with yourself, you can change how the world perceives ADHD and recognizes its strengths.
As you stand out from the crowd — like the time you put your mind to it and ran an eight-minute-mile marathon or completed the Sunday crossword puzzle before your second cup of coffee.
Have a sense of humor about your ADHD: Toast yourself at dinner for not having misplaced your keys in the morning or for having remembered to take your debit card out of the ATM. Let yourself — and others — laugh to take the pressure off of being perfect.
By celebrating your small feats, you will be able to tackle bigger challenges. Even a simple change in language can transform your self-esteem and others’ perception of your accomplishments. Use “and” more than “but.”
For example, I could say, “I finished this article, but it was three weeks late.” That statement discounts my accomplishment, as if the final product were flawed. I prefer, “I finished this article, and it was three weeks late.” The second statement is equally true, and it doesn’t diminish all of the work I put into it. Next time, I can say, “I will be on time!”
Use this month — this year, every year — to share your pride over the gifts you have. The world’s appreciation of ADHD depends on your feeling good about yourself, so tell your friends, family — even the bagger at your local grocery store — all about your condition, especially if they know little about it.
Talk with Your Friends
Your friends may be your best support network. True friends won’t sweat your arriving 10 minutes late; they will accept your flaws —or not notice them — because they appreciate your personality, values, and world view. They can see the big picture.
Besides lending their advice and help, your friends celebrate your success because they know the challenges you had to overcome to achieve it. When you’re out having dinner with friends, tell them about how you found your car in the parking lot in under a half hour, and, at the same time, thought of a software program, algorithm and all, to find it even quicker next time.
Talk with Your Children
Your children look up to you and depend on you. They learn best by your example, so displaying your pride will foster self-confidence in them. Teach them that everyone’s brain works differently, and tell them how yours works.
Be open about your strengths and weaknesses; it will teach your children that adults face and overcome challenges. That knowledge will relieve their fear of failure and encourage them to take chances and to try new things.
You are the expert on your child, and, having lived with ADHD yourself, you are equipped to notice signs of it in him. If you see symptoms, start teaching him the strategies that have worked for you. Celebrate his accomplishments and nourish his creativity, passions, and strengths. Most of all, have patience!
Fortunately, these days, the world has a better understanding and acceptance of ADHD than when you were a child. Don’t assume that your child will face the same roadblocks that you did. He has a proud parent who understands his condition and can advocate for him, which is one of the best ways to show your love.
Talk with Your Siblings and Parents
If your parents or siblings never understood you or your ADHD, sit down and explain to them what the condition has meant to you. Forgive them if they teased or scolded you. If they still do it, ask them to stop!
Laugh about the times you repeatedly showed up at the library without your card. Most of all, share the secret of ADHD with them — that for each weakness or quirk, you have a strength that is worth nurturing and cherishing.
Finally, thank the family members who advocated for you, encouraged you, believed in you. Reach out to them this month — have them over for dinner, visit them, call them, or send a card, online or through the mail — to celebrate the love and support they gave you.
Talk with Your Boss — Maybe
Before you quit your job to join the circus, think about what’s going well at work. Make a list of the things you love about your job, and what you bring to it.
If you work in an office, tell the human resources department that you’d like to team up with them in making cognitive differences a component of the company’s diversity policy. It’s not just gender and race that make the office diverse; it’s including all learning styles in the mix.
Think carefully before talking with your boss about your ADHD. As ADHD expert Ned Hallowell, M.D., says: “It might be better to get your symptoms under control at home and see whether that solves the problems you may be having at work. Not everyone is positive, or knowledgeable, about ADHD, and you don’t want your boss thinking you are making excuses.”
However, if you’re doing well at the job and know that your boss values your contributions, you may want to suggest that you credit your exceptional performance last quarter not only to the fact that you came in early and stayed late, but also to fierce concentration and goal-setting skills, attributes of your so-called “disorder.”
Talk with Your Children’s Teachers
Put down this magazine right now and schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss his strengths. It is the beginning of the school year, and it’s important to get your child off to a good start.
There are many challenges ahead, and there will be many opportunities for the new adults in your child’s life to discover and talk about his weaknesses. Nip in the bud the tendency to focus only on those weaknesses. When you meet with your child’s teacher, tell him about your child’s strengths and the strategies you successfully employ at home to bolster them.
Tell the teacher why you are proud of your child, and identify one skill you would like your child to develop. Check in with the teacher several times during the year, and be proud of your child — together.
Finally, remember that “normal” is a big, fat lie! It’s a social construct that assumes that people who don’t have a standard-issue brain are broken. We are all different — in fact, our differences make us who we are! When you celebrate your strengths, you will encourage the world to reevaluate this so-called “deficit disorder.” Cheers to you and cheers to ADHD. Now, where are those champagne flutes?