What you should know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

This is part 2 of a series about mental illnesses. Read the intro here.

My junior high industrial tech class started the same way every day. A voice on the intercom would interrupt our post lunch chatter as we were taking our seats and digging around for our notebooks. “Is Jack Smith in class today?” Jack would look stunned, like “Who me?” The voice would proceed to tell Jack to report to the office to take his medication. The class would chime in with comments like “Jack! Are you serious? AGAIN? Come on, how stupid could you get?” He would mumble something like, “Oh, yeah…forgot” as he shuffled out the door towards the nurse’s office.

I would thank God in that instant that I took sustained release tablets for my ADHD so I didn’t have to take pills at school. While I’d like to think I could have remembered to go to the office each day after lunch, I know that is not likely. I know because every week I would forget my band lesson, or my music book, or if I had my book, I wouldn’t have my trumpet. I know because I would stay up all night working on a beautiful collage for art class and I would leave it on the coffee table 9 times out of 10. I know because I set a record at my orthodontist for number of lost retainers. Countless discussions about “responsibility” and “planning ahead” and “think about where you last saw it” had no effect on my ability to remember, stay organized, or be prepared. It’s not that I couldn’t focus; it’s that I couldn’t focus on the thing that I was supposed to focus on.

No one really talked to me about what it meant to have ADHD. The only things I knew about it at the time was that the kids who had it were always getting in trouble. Before I was diagnosed, the only other person I knew for sure had ADHD was a kid in my grade who burned down a gym. The rest of the group who took medication after lunch was mostly boys who didn’t have a reputation for being bright, responsible, upstanding classmates. I thought the doctor who diagnosed me was mistaken. Yeah, maybe I missed the bus because I was braiding the sleeves of my shirts together in my closet, or drawing pictures in the condensation on the bathroom mirror, but I surely wasn’t an arsonist.

Over the years of dealing with myself and my sometimes-scattered brain, I have come up with a few tips.

Tips for dealing ADHD:

1. Contrary to popular advice- calendars, alarms, phones, fancy folders systems and notepads don’t work. You won’t have them when you need them or they will be too complicated to sustain. Go low tech and make up a song or rhyme of things to remember and sing it on your way out the door as a checklist.

2. If you need to remember to take care of something put a laundry basket on your bed until you take care of it. It doesn’t have to be a laundry basket, just do something wherever you are standing when the thought hits you: Put your ring on the wrong finger, flip a chair upside down, or unplug your tv. Anything that you will see and think… “What the ?? Oh yeah- I gotta pack my lunch.”

3. You can’t give up when things don’t go well. Persevere!

4. Don’t apply to jobs that say, “Impeccable organization skills and attention to details required.” Play to your strengths.

Tips for teachers/parents/friends of someone with ADHD:
1.As frustrating as it can be to live with someone who struggles with this, punishing someone with ADHD for having ADHD is ineffective and can be damaging.  

2. Let natural consequences teach the lessons.

3. Sustained release tablets for kids… see above story
4. Remember that ADHD has nothing to do with IQ

5. Use physical activities to engage the brain

6. Keep in mind that many people with ADHD are creative, fun, thoughtful, active, spontaneous, big picture people.

Fast forward 15 years, I am at work meeting with a teen girl. She just got in trouble because her grades weren’t reflective of her ability because she had so many missing assignments. “Let me guess, you did all of the assignments, but you forgot them or lost them or forgot to put your name on them.”

“Oh. Did my mom call you?”

“Um, Something like that…”

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