ADD: a reminder for parents what “Attention Deficit” really means

Parents of a student who has been diagnosed with “Attention Deficit,” commonly known as “ADD” and “ADHD,” get a reminder every hour of every day that by, “attention deficit,” ADD is more than some inability to focus.

Wikipedia defines “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD) as:

characterized by problems paying attention, excessive activity, or difficulty controlling behavior which is not appropriate for a person’s age.

The key words here are, “paying attention,” something that I am reminded of as I jumped up from my living room chair at the smell of my burning breakfast. My wife would remind me that I always burn the roast. I remind her that she should remind me when I put something on the stove.

A wise, wonderful person, my Belgian host-mother during my student exchange year to Tournai, Belgium, told me (in French), “Michael, you try to do too much at once.”

My own mother wouldn’t disagree, especially during those numerous emergency visits for another round of stitches needed because I wasn’t “paying attention” again.

Into my high school age and tired of me coming home late, she bought me one of the first digital watches and made me set the alarm clock before leaving the house. Most embarrassing to have it go off when I was with friends or a girlfriend, but it worked.

Suffice to say, I had trouble “paying attention”:

Paying attention means doing one thing at a time.
Paying attention means reading the instructions before starting.
Paying attention means finishing before moving on.
Paying attention means listening to the person talking and not wandering off to another thought or three.
Paying attention means keeping your clock straight.

Here’s time for a person not encumbered by attention deficit:clocks_croppedHere’s time for many of those with attention deficit:

A clock for people without attention deficit

“Attention deficit” means that time is all over the place. It just happened, it’s still happening, and it hasn’t happened yet — and it’s happening at the same time as everything else.

The blessing that is attention deficit means that you are not bound to that single clock or frame of mind.

My daughter, who inherited it from me, has a wonderful place she goes that we call “Gaby Land,” as her mind wanders, usually to happy thoughts or fixated on something that grabbed her attention. My own mental settings make me a constant mental wanderer — and has endowed me with the ability to see things a little differently from others.

My friend asked me for some help with his college-age son who was just diagnosed with ADD. He had done well at boarding school where everything was structured and delivered to him, but at college, truly on his own for the first time in his life, he struggled. Just following a regular every-other day class schedule was difficult, as was keeping tabs on his calendar and upcoming assignments.

I pointed out to my friend that he, too, was probably ADD. He looked at me, stunned, as he started thinking it through. I told him how I had self-diagnosed ADD as I was researching it for my academic support program, the A+ Club, and the way we were in college and the way we think and act makes more sense to me now. “Your amazing wit and always insightful ways of looking at things,” I told him, “are because you aren’t encumbered by the usual filters. It’s a blessing.”

A blessing — so long as you can manage it, which both my friend and I have done in our lives without ever knowing exactly what it was we were managing.  For me it was all-nighters at college, constantly running behind schedule and trying to catch up, but it has also meant an incredible ability to “hyper-focus” on that one thing I was doing over long periods of time. Yes, that hyper-focus came at the expense of other things, but I could produce!

My form of attention deficit means that, while I made an awful restaurant waiter (they have to manage multiple tasks at once rather than just bouncing between them as I did), I can bust out a major project like no other. Building a business, writing books, these were the results of my attention deficit, which when “paying attention” to one thing makes that one thing so clear.

The “Hyperactivity” in ADHD is an entirely different form of attention deficit from what I experienced growing up, so I can’t personally speak for that side of attention deficit. And, since ADD/ADHD is different for every person, so such effects and abilities as “hyper-focus” are not the same for all those with attention deficit. I certainly view my own case as rather mild, although I don’t know and my wife disagrees.

What I do know is that time works differently for me, and that is common for all of us with attention deficit. Our challenge, though, isn’t just learning how to manage our own workflow and responsibilities, but also how to manage those around us and help them to manage us.

So parents and teachers, as you approach a child who suffers from the “temporal disconnects” of attention deficit, be cognizant that that child’s clock is running differently from yours or the other students.

Scaffold it by reminding the child of time and tasks that need to be fit within it. Scaffolding means supporting not excusing, so hold the child accountable, but know that his or her internal clock and focus is working differently and can use a bridge to your expectations.

When we appreciate that the blessings of ADD outweigh the costs,  we not only come to manage them better but we see that struggle turn to magic.

– Michael