Problems and Gifts of ADHD

Story 1: During my first year of teaching (about 50 years ago), I had a student (I’ll call him Oscar) in my fifth grade class who was very unhappy about having to sit all alone. Oscar was a cute boy and looked at lot like the little boy in the picture. The boy in the picture isn’t of anyone I know, but he does remind me of Oscar, a boy who seemed very sad because he didn’t intend to upset other people, but he just couldn’t stop himself.The other students sat in pairs with two desks together so they could work Blond boy with sad expression. His ADHD behavior means he has no friends.together.

But, when I could find someone willing to sit next to Oscar, it rarely lasted more than a day. Oscar would repeatedly jab his pencil into the chest of his new friend… but he didn’t seem to realize he was doing it.

Oscar also broke his pencil points 30-40 times a day. He walked to the sharpener, tapping students on their head as he walked past. Again, he seemed unaware of what he was doing.

This was before the use of the term ADHD was used. I had heard of hyperactivity and realized Oscar was hyperactive. I didn’t want to punish him for something he couldn’t help but I had no idea how to change his behavior.

Now boys like Oscar can take medications that help reduce hyperactivity. Today, Oscar would be able to control his behavior, he’d have friends, and he’d be able to focus better on classwork.

Story 2: Near the end of my teaching career, I had a student I will call  Arthur. Arthur was a bright student and in my physics class. He came to me at the beginning of the year and explained that he was hyperactive. He took Ritalin in the morning and again after lunch. In my class, just before lunch, he would have the most problems.

I asked what I could do to help. Arthur suggested two things and I approved. He got to class early and ran back and forth across the back of the class. Then, whenever he had problems sitting still, he had my full permission to get up and walk back and forth quickly in back of the class.

I was impressed that, even with ADHD, he maintained a full schedule of college prep classes and did well. Any attention problems he had, were under control. I just wish my little Oscar back in my fifth grade class could have had the same chance.

Both of these true stories involved boys who were extremely hyperactive. I admired Arthur’s self advocacy, the facts that he told me about the problem ahead of time and that he knew what he needed.

I would assume that, when he got to college, he would schedule classes for times when he had the least difficulty sitting still. He might have scheduled physical education classes just before his second dose of Ritalin.

I would also like to think that when Arthur graduated from college, he would have found a job where his energy was an asset and not a problem.

ADHD and the brain

Some research indicates that the ADHD brain is completely normal but immature. My fifth grader would have trouble sitting still much like a second grader. My senior would have been somewhat like a freshman. This wasn’t my experience. My senior was definitely not acting like a freshman. He was like all my other physics students but he was also extremely hyperactive.

Other research says  distractibility seems due to problems in the pre-frontal lobe of the neocortex. This area is tied to planning and problem solving. Hyperactivity is different. Instead of being related to the structure of the brain, it seems tied to brain chemistry. It appears to involve low levels of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter. Because of this, the brain needs extra stimulation. The usual meds are stimulants, reducing the need for extra stimulation. Students with both attention problems and hyperactivity apparently have both problems.

The Arrowsmith School in Toronto, uses special exercises for dyslexia and similar problems. They report that in some cases, ADHD problems have been reduced at the same time. I hope future research will lead to better methods to change brains in this area.

Problems and Gifts of ADHD

For this information, I rely of information in “Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and other Brain Differences”  by Thomas Armstrong. He goes into much greater detail. He begins with three characteristic problems and then sees these characteristics from a different perspective.

It is interesting that students feel strongly about this approach, both for and against it. Some complain loudly that ADHD is NOT a gift. If it were a gift they wouldn’t need to take meds. They would make better grades and feel better about themselves. This is a problem they have to deal with.

Other students like the idea that, in addition to the problems cause by their condition, there are also gifts they can use. This attitude seems more common with students who recognize they are more creative or have more energy than many of their classmates.

Certainly, no one is claiming you don’t have problems. But, instead of focusing just on your problem or weaknesses, you should also consider your strengths. This is especially important when those strengths can be used to help you deal with the problems.

Three problems and three related gifts or strengths

The first problem is impulsive behavior. The student acts without stopping to think. From another perspective, this is quality is seen as spontaneity. This person can make quick decisions and react quickly when needed. Such people are highly valued in areas like the police and fire departments or emergency medical technicians. They need to be able to act quickly without taking time to think about what to do.

The second problem is distractibility or the inability to pay attention.  There seem to be three levels of paying attention. ADHD students are excellent at two of these.

A. They can get so excited about an activity that they can focus on it for hours. This is often called Hyper Focus. If you can get excited about some of your college subjects, you are likely to do well in those areas.

B. In other situations, students actually have the ability to pay attention to many things at the same time… what the teacher is saying, what the students around them are doing, what they see and hear from the hallway or outside the window. The teacher calls this a lack of attention. But this same ability makes these students excellent at brainstorming and at thinking outside the box. They can be exceptionally creative. They can apply their gifts in this area to start and run their own business, as long as they can assign to more routine or boring tasks to someone else. This person can be aware of what is going on in every part of the business.

C. The kind of paying attention that ADHD students have most problems with is paying attention to what the teacher is saying, focusing on boring worksheets and similar classroom activities. We could say that the real problem is not with the student but with an educational system that expects students to sit quietly at the desk and do boring tasks over and over. Breaking study time into short periods with many breaks could be helpful

The third problem experienced with the ADHD students, is Hyperactivity. Outside the classroom, this can be seen as having a high level of energy, important in many areas of work.

Thomas Armstrong ends his chapter on ADHD with this encouraging statement. p.51

In a new world of neurodiversity, people with ADHD may discover that their greatest improvements in mental health come about not so much through drugs but through changing the ecology of their outer surroundings to match the brisk and ebullient nature of their joyful hyperactive brains.

The next page is about  using ADHD gifts to succeed in college:  ADHD College

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