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Finding the Hidden Strengths of ADHD

Author and teacher Kevin Roberts shows how the perceptual, interpersonal, and cognitive differences of those with ADHD can be translated into unique skills.

It takes strong powers of persuasion for me to convince ADHD folks that their condition has as many positives as it does negatives. Such an assertion flies in the face of the panoply of negative pronouncements they have endured, not to mention the consensus of the scientific community! Growing up in a world that constantly points out one's flaws makes it difficult to uncover one's gifts and potential.

I keep an eye out for success stories and have a folder in which I file articles about innovative ADHD individuals. I bring up noteworthy ADHDers like David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways, whose example shows how ADHD folks often excel as entrepreneurs. I go over my thesis that Oskar Schindler, made famous in Spielberg's film Schindler's List, had ADHD and needed the intensity of a world at war to bring out his inner genius and compassion. Many ADHDers do function well in intensity and crisis. Just as many have harped on them about their flaws and failures, I harp on my clients about their talents and future possibilities.

Constantly on the lookout for stories that highlight ADHD success, I started searching through Greek myths. I quickly noticed kindred spirits who embodied qualities that would surely resonate with many an ADHDer. To start with, we are adventurers, often ill at ease with domesticity. The world's mythologies are replete with such individuals. Like Jason setting off to find the Golden Fleece and Theseus battling the Minotaur, we embrace danger and long to test our powers in some grand undertaking. Those of us who might be called daydreamers achieve this spirit of adventure through fantasy and vivid journeys of the mind. Like Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth, life for us often feels like a prison that we long to flee. We have lofty ideas for escape, but like Icarus, we often get too close to the sun and quickly burn out. Life is a struggle.

As Atlas fought with the chief god Zeus, so we often find ourselves in trouble with authority figures and their uncompromising codes of behavior. In the same way that Atlas was condemned to hold up the sky to atone for his transgressions, those in authority over us often impose punishments to dissuade us from our "waywardness." I remember one num at my Catholic grade school telling me that I was being punished to help me "follow God's plan." If sitting still, keeping my mouth shut, and completing rote worksheet after rote worksheet were key elements of God's plan, I was destined to be a heretic.

Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt, is one deity, however, whose plan I think I could actually follow and one whom most ADHDers should surely venerate. Artemis draws her power from the wilds of nature; those who deal with us, of course, brand us as forces of nature, calling us tornadoes or perhaps even Tasmanian Devils. Furthermore, many of us ADHDers seem quite at home in the natural world, a fact confirmed by a recent scientific study. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that ADHD children demonstrated greater attention after a twenty-minute walk in a forest than after a similar walk in a downtown area or residential neighborhood. Scientists noted that ADHD children had a much easier time completing homework and studying after these nature walks.

Thom Hartmann has also written about the ADHD fondness for nature. He calls us hunters, those rare folks who constantly scan the environment (a trait negatively labeled as distractibility) and are able to go on the chase at a moment's notice (negatively labeled as impulsivity). When you walk through the woods with one of us ADHDers, you'll probably notice that we are often the first ones to spot the deer or bird in the distance. We love being outside, and we naturally and constantly shift our attention to ascertain what is going on around us.

Excerpted from Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD by Kevin Roberts. Hazelden, 2012.

Study on ADHD children and homework sessions is from Taylor, A., and Kuo, F. (2008). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.  Journal of Attention Disorder, 10, 1077.

Thom Hartmann's comments can be found in Hartmann, T. (1993). Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception. Nevada City, CA: Underwood Books.

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