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“…But I Bet I Can Make You Smile.”

“As a child with undiagnosed ADHD, I had faced social fear and repudiation countless times before — and I’d learned that falling short of others’ expectations was not really a good reason to abandon your dreams. So I ignored Mrs. Wilkes’ hard outer shell and looked right up at her. I asked if she was sad and bored, too. Then I proceeded to ask why she was so scary and angry looking.”

Boy holding a frisbee

If I have an ADHD gift, it’s this: I can always get even the most stern and serious people to smile.

At my old church, there was a choir matriarch who led the singers down the aisle every Sunday. The building was silent as she made her approach, shooting the evil eye at anyone who misbehaved — adult or child. Let’s call her Mrs. Wilkes.

All the kids feared Mrs. Wilkes because she always looked so mean and judge-y, like an old Victorian teacher. In other words, next level British judge-y. She had a face that said “I’m barely tolerating you,” she rarely smiled, and she routinely silenced a room just by walking into it. Like Captain Hook and Mrs. Hannigan, she definitely did not like noisy children.

Enter me, aged 10. My little brother and I were on a bell-ringing outing organized by my mum. For those unfamiliar with the tradition, this meant we toured six little villages so that the adults could ring bells for an hour at each destination while we were told to “be on your best behavior and don’t run off.”

Restricted to idyllic churchyards without phones or iPads, we largely passed the time playing Frisbee in the summer sun. It was a really great time looking back, but we weren’t very “Church of England” discreet — or quiet.

[Click to Read: What Your Child Would Tell You About ADHD If They Had the Words]

As we turned graves into goal posts and loudly debated scoring in the game we had just made up, Mrs. Wilkes was not amused. So she did what Mrs. Wilkes did best.

She corrected us with a sharp and masterful “Excuse me,” the correct execution of which will see most victims silenced for days. It’s literally how the British declare war – it’s a vicious weapon that they should certainly teach to our special forces.

The birds stopped chirping. The bees stopped buzzing. Time and traffic froze for miles. The old ladies who tagged along on the trip became faint and started packing their picnic just in case they were next. Even the sun hid.

My brother promptly vanished, too. But there I stood, all alone, holding the Frisbee red-handed in the crosshairs and totally oblivious to the tension that was triggering mild PTSD in all of the neurotypical people around me. I was done for.

[Read: “What It Feels Like Living with Undiagnosed ADHD”]

I was terrified as she loomed over me in her pressed, white-collared shirt, dark green cardigan and dark blue pleated skirt, blocking out all light. But as a child with undiagnosed ADHD, I had faced social fear and repudiation countless times before — and I’d learned that falling short of others’ expectations was not really a good reason to abandon your dreams.

I wanted to keep playing and I wanted to know why she wouldn’t let us. So I talked to her and I was honest with her, probably a bit too honest. I ignored that hard outer shell and looked right up at her. I asked if she was sad and bored, too. Then I proceeded to ask why she was so scary and angry looking — ADHD impulsivity on full display, my parents utterly mortified.

Then something beautiful happened. The crisp lines of her face slowly cracked like the shifting of tectonic plates and she smiled for the first time in what may have been 10 years.

Five minutes later, I had her playing catch and keeping score for us.

After that day, Mrs. Wilkes always gave me a secret little wink as she fulfilled her very serious role of leading the choir down the cold gloomy church aisle.

The grown-ups still avoided her when she was looking mean, but she taught me that the tougher the exterior, the softer the interior that person may be working to protect. Scary-looking people sometimes look that way because they’re guarding against threats and danger. It turns out friendly and bouncy ADHD people pose no danger to them at all. We may be a perfect match in a fair few ways, come to think of it.

Later in life, I found out that my approach does not work for bouncers. But, otherwise, that instinct to be direct, friendly, and polite to people who are clearly not outwardly welcoming has rarely failed me. No matter how admonishing the person may appear, I know that if I could crack Mrs. Wilkes at age 10 then I have nothing to fear from anyone.

How to Make Friends: Next Steps


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Updated on April 16, 2021

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