Is ADHD Really a Superpower?

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When I was younger, my mom schlepped me from one public school building to another for testing and evaluations, in order to provide me with services she felt I needed. On one occasion, she brought me somewhere else – to a psychiatrist who tested my ability to focus.

I was diagnosed with ADD – attention deficit disorder, which explained my experiences in the classroom. These memories are a blur, but I remember that I lived for bathroom breaks, lunch, and art – in other words, for those times where you weren’t expected to stay focused.

ADD and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have since been recognized as one and the same, and are now both simply referred to as ADHD. In my experience, however, I was never hyperactive, so I prefer sticking to the original term – ADD. This term is often used casually to humorously describe inattentiveness that all people have on occasion. Someone might say, for example, “I couldn’t sit through that movie, I was so ADD.” But as common as this phenomenon is, ADD is no joking matter. I struggled with it through childhood and adulthood, and continue to deal with it every day.

I openly talk about my learning disability on my Instagram. I have a platform so that other people who struggle with it, or parents of ADD children, realize that they aren’t alone, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I tell my story on social media, and I’ll tell some of it here, to show how ADD can be channeled, and that the diagnosis even has upsides. (Note the word “diagnosis.” Treat ADD in whichever way works for you, but the first step is testing to avoid being mistakenly labeled “stupid” or something similar.)

My classmates in elementary school viewed me as dumb. My teachers viewed me as “the bright girl with great respect for teachers who needs to apply herself more.” My report card read all C’s – higher than what I deserved, because the teachers figured I might as well pass to the next grade and be someone else’s problem. By the time I completed 8th grade, I had zero confidence. Once a happy, bubbly little girl, I was buried by shame and a sense of failure. No high schools wanted me. Finally, one day, my mom told me that Bay Ridge Prep had accepted me into their bridge program. A high school wanted ME! It wasn’t what I wanted, but my parents knew that I would maintain my religious observance there, and they had no other choice, so that’s where they sent me.

This school picked me up, dusted me off, and showed me that I was good enough. With small classroom settings, and by catering to the individual needs of each student, I thrived. By tenth grade, I was moved out of the bridge program and into mainstream classes.

A big part of my success was medication, which I began taking already in elementary school. It’s not a solution for everyone, but amphetamine really works well for me. Many people frown upon medicating ADD kids, but in my view, denying medication to those whom it could help is akin to denying eyeglasses to a child who cannot see the board. I have a neurodevelopmental disorder, and scientists made a drug to help correct it. I have no shame.

Baruch Hashem, I was able to attend The Fashion Institute of Technology, and received good grades. I took advantage of the resources the school had to offer me. It had something it called the FIT-ABLE office for students like me, with its own quiet computer room, and a program whereby classmates could be paid to take notes for challenged students, among other things.

There were a few bumps moving into adulthood. It took me a while to realize I needed the medication for real life too, and not just for classes and exams. Once I figured that out, the game changed. I became a writer, and ultimately opened up my own photography business. I still take medication often, but I no longer need it every day, because I’m able to learn from the organizational skills I have built. I set reminders on my phone for important things, and I make lists and lists of things that must get done.

When I asked on my Instagram if anyone had a story to share, so many people reached out. But, alas, this is an article, not a book, so I could not bring them all. I present below how three community members describe their journeys living with, or having a child living with, ADD or ADHD.

Tunie A.

I would pay no attention in class, as I was busy doing other things like doodling or passing notes, which really upset my teachers. Only in 9th grade was I tested and diagnosed with ADHD.

My school pushed and pushed my mother to medicate me. She held off even testing me for a while, because she felt it was up to the school to figure out how to teach me instead of blaming me for not keeping up. Ultimately, I tried many different medications, one after another, but they made me feel awful. They would keep me up at night, mess with my mood, make me unable to eat, and nauseous. It was a real struggle. Finally, I decided it wasn’t for me.

What ultimately helped me was my school making a smaller class for me and other students like me. The class had only five students. When the teacher lectured, she wrote down what she was saying as she said it, which really helped me. In a normal class, if I was trying to write notes and missed something the teacher said, I would be so distracted, thinking about what I missed. This way, all the material was right there for me, making it much easier to keep up.

As an adult, ADHD is just something I live with, and now that I’m not in school, it’s much less debilitating.

Sarah R. 

My ADD is pretty severe, but I’m not hyperactive at all. If anything, I’m the opposite – I can sit still for hours. It’s my mind that can’t sit still. At my worst, I can be in the middle of a sentence and completely lose my train of thought. If someone is talking to me, one word can trigger me and set my mind thinking about something else entirely, leaving the other person and what they had to say behind, no longer on my radar.

My earliest classroom memory was in first grade, when the teacher tried solving the problems I was having by placing me in the back of the class, figuring that if I was isolated, with no one to talk to, I would focus more and not talk to and distract other kids. Little did she know that she was effectively putting me in Lala land. I would bring in small toys and allow my mind to wander, as it naturally did.

Over the next few years, I floated on by. My teachers gave me C’s to keep me moving through the school system. I felt they knew I was smart, but something was off. Back then, learning disabilities weren’t so commonly discussed. So me and my very pronounced ADD flew under the radar.

When I was in high school, I started noticing that I was different. My parents dismissed it, and I can’t say why. It wasn’t until I was 29, after taking 7.5 years to complete a four-year bachelor degree program, that my parents woke up. They listened to some doctor on the radio who said that adults with undiagnosed ADHD can feel very unaccomplished, and it can cause debilitating issues. A lightbulb went off, and they told me I must get tested and find out once and for all.

I was diagnosed with ADD at 29 years old, and a psychiatrist prescribed Adderall. It took time to nail down the right dosage, but once we did, it changed me. Sometimes I wonder what I could have accomplished had I known sooner, but Hashem has a path for us all. I went from being disorganized, struggling, and even unkept, to being a productive, organized, responsible, and put-together adult. I am capable of so much more now, even on the days I choose not to medicate, because I have better coping skills. I suppose the lesson here is, better late than never! Oh –  and test your kids! It can only help!

Daniella H.

Ever since toddlerhood, Jacob was always a ball of energy, very hyperactive. As he attended school, the first real red flag I noticed was his difficulty making friends. He unfortunately lacks social skills, and doesn’t know how to initiate play or nurture friendships. Along with social difficulties, Jacob has emotional struggles, as well. He has a hard time regulating his emotions, lacks impulse control, and can get really close to other children’s faces, not understanding the boundaries of personal space. The teachers all say generally similar things – “He’s so bright, so smart, knows so many things, but socially…”

As a parent, this can be so frustrating. I’m a special education teacher myself, and so I understand it, but as a parent, it’s so hard to practically anticipate the negative in every call from a teacher. Just once it would be nice to get a call that was only focused on my child’s positive attributes. It can be heartbreaking enough for a parent knowing how much the child struggles to relate to his peers, so some comfort from teachers feels like the least they can do.

At the age of six, Jacob was tested and diagnosed with ADHD. When the psychiatrist first recommended medication, I was strongly opposed. I felt he was too young, and that we should give him some time. Now, two years later, having seen little to no progress, I reached the point of action.

I’m currently trying and considering trying several different strategies. He’s been in the same school since nursery, and I’m thinking that a change of environment would be beneficial, for many reasons. He’s interviewed with a smaller school that focuses on developing the whole child, not just academics. They haven’t made their decision yet, but I’m hoping they will accept him for next year. If that doesn’t work out, then I’m thinking of moving him to a different class. I have a meeting scheduled with the school to discuss possible solutions. I feel as though they can be doing more to support him. I’m not sure what that is or what it will look like, but I’m quite certain that more can be done, and I’m hoping we’ll figure out some sort of plan. Lastly, but certainly not least, I’m considering medication in conjunction with counseling. The medication may or may not work for him, but I’d like to give it a chance. Counseling will hopefully give him coping strategies to help catch himself before his anger level gets too high and we have to go through the emotional rollercoaster of calming him down, and to self soothe and regulate emotions before they get out of hand. Now that he’s a little older, I’m less afraid of medication and more hoping to help my child with whatever tools and resources are available to us.

In conclusion, I thought it would be helpful to mention some symptoms of ADD and ADHD in order to make people aware of what to look out for. Although ADHD manifests itself differently in different people, common symptoms include: impulsivity, disorganization, problems prioritizing, difficulty focusing, trouble multitasking, excessive activity or restlessness, poor planning, low frustration tolerance, and procrastination.

I should also point out the advantages of this condition. Personally, now that I’ve been managing my ADD appropriately, I think of it as less of a liability and more of a valuable asset. But it’s not just me. According to a recent article in Medical News Today.com, “Many people view the benefits of ADHD as ‘superpowers’ because they are additional skills that their neurotypical counterparts do not have. ADHD gifts people a unique perspective on the world that those without ADHD are unlikely to understand.” The article mentions numerous strong attributes that people with ADHD tend to display, such as the ability to hyper-focus, and resilience, developed through their having to overcome serious challenges in their youth. Creativity is also seen as a great advantage, because they approach tasks differently and become great problem solvers. They also tend to think unusually because of their different perspectives. Additionally, many folks with ADHD have great conversational skills. Other qualities often shared by ADHD patients include spontaneity, courage, and high energy.

I do not suffer from all the usual symptoms of ADHD, but I do identify with all the so-called ADHD “super powers.” Over time, I’ve grown to love these things about myself, and learning that they are “side effects,” if you will, of my condition has made me grateful for my ADD. I’m not downplaying the struggle, but rather just pointing out the bright side. Maybe having an alternative approach, not stressing too much over academics, thinking about the long-term benefits, and doing your best can really help transform ADHD from a liability into a precious asset.

If you’d like to continue this discussion with me, share a positive outcome of this article, such as a diagnosis, or offer any comments, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @friedaschwekyphoto or via email Frieda@sephardic.org.