Fighting through fog is what it feels like to be held back by Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. For me, the road ahead is never completely clear; it’s always shrouded enough to make my journey very difficult. I have driven this road for fifty-four years. Just seven months ago, I found out why my trip has been so challenging: I was diagnosed as having ADHD.
Many people with numerous degrees have identified, scrutinized and digitized ADD and ADHD until the information positively oozes off the shelves of bookstores. It’s hot! It’s now! It’s — something I would not wish upon my worst enemy. It captured me when I was little, held me back from reaching my potential in school and the workplace, ruined relationships, enabled me to reach a new depth of depression and led me to self-medicate.
If I could describe what it was like growing up with ADHD and not knowing I had it, I would be the most eloquent of speakers. If I could express the feelings I had as an elementary school student, I would fill volumes with sadness. If I could show you a picture of me during high school, you might detect a frightened, lonely and confused child— paralyzed with fear and hiding behind a forced smile and darting eyes. Teachers and principals thought me a class clown, a distraction and a disappointment to my parents. My parents agreed. Some of the most vivid memories I have are of my parents speaking phrases such as, “Tom, what are you, stupid?” “You’re just like that retarded kid, so and so.” “If you aren’t going to try, we give up.” “Don’t you get tired of failing?”
I was tested and had an IQ of 140. Yet, it took every bit of effort I could muster and threats from my parents for me to maintain a grade average of C. This continued through high school. In fact, I was nearing a D average when the fear of not getting into college helped me focus enough to bring my grades back to a C level. With some influence from the principal of my school, I got in. For me, college lasted only two semesters. I quit. I was again lost, overwhelmed and spinning inside.
Spinning is an interesting word to describe my ADHD mind. It never stops spinning. At times, it spins so fast I have to stop what I am doing and just watch. I imagine I’m looking inside of my head, and I see a picture very similar to a spinning galaxy in space. The only difference is that the galaxy in my mind spins much faster. I see thousands of colored dots in a pattern, all turning the same direction. I am so hypnotized by this picture that I hear nothing but the whir of the thoughts flying randomly within my brain. If I am lucky, one of these thoughts will be the one I need at the moment.
Imagine that you are sitting in a sixth- grade classroom. The teacher is introducing a new chapter in your social studies book. She begins to read. “The ancient Egyptians” is all you hear because a passing car catches your eye. It’s the same color as your Dad’s car. It reminds you of the trip you took the day he brought his car home. A “breaking-in” drive he had called it. Somehow, you manage to hear a few more of the teacher’s words, “…pyramids as burial…” This prompts you to recall the memory of a movie you saw with pyramids, King Tut and thieves. You imagine all the tunnels inside one of the mammoth structures. You see yourself trapped and hear the blocks sliding as they block the exit. Again, you hear the teacher’s voice, “…took hundreds of years…,” and you see a calendar with pages flying off into space. Space brings the image of the solar system spinning and asteroids just missing each other. “…Paying attention?” You realize the teacher is talking to you. In fact, she is standing right beside you and the class is snickering. Your mind is snapped cruelly and suddenly back to the classroom. You hadn’t realized you’d been so far away.
We ADDers do not think as you do. We can’t process information the way you do. We need special handling from special people in order to learn the same basic things you learn. The biggest problem the ADD child has is this: he or she cannot be taught in the conventional manner. Normally, we will excel in one subject. Mine was music; another’s might be writing. We are very creative people. I was in the school band for eight years and played first- chair clarinet. My band teacher had hopes I could attend Julliard School of Music. That prospect frightened me. I knew I could not handle something so prestigious, something so wonderful, something of which I had dreamed. That’s very sad, isn’t it?
Having been diagnosed with ADHD just seven months ago, I am still in the process of sorting out my feelings. The first feeling is grief. I grieve over loosing all the “could-have-beens” and all the “should-have-beens.” What would my life have been like if I had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child and had received the help I needed in the classroom? I could have been anything I desired.
Next, I feel anger— anger at the school for not knowing about ADD/ADHD back then, when I needed them to know. I’m also angry at my parents for treating me the way they did and angriest at the teachers who teased and tormented me by labeling me “different.” When I could not answer a math problem in class, I was sent to the closet to spend the rest of the class time. If I didn’t know the answer to a pop quiz in geography, I was brought to the front of the class, and the whole class spoke the answer to me. Can you imagine how I felt? Can you?
So, I appeal to those of you who are teachers. Between two and five percent of the students you teach have undiagnosed ADD/ADHD! As teachers, you know the important role you play in children’s lives. You spend more time with some children than many of their parents do. You are their first line of defense against the damages of ADD and ADHD. In order to help, you have to know which child is affected. Teachers have to become adept at spotting the children who might have these special conditions.
Students with ADD and ADHD appear to be daydreamers. You will see us staring into space, tuned out to you and the lesson. We may snap back and join in, but chances are, we will be answering the question that was asked before we tuned out. We may leave for a few seconds, or we may be gone a few minutes. We have no way of knowing that we are about to tune out. Let me repeat that. We have no signs of an impending departure. Thus, we are powerless to stop it.
Many times, written and oral instructions are not clear to those of us who have ADD and ADHD. An instruction that seems simple to understand to you may contain a confusing phrase. The instructions may have too much information for us to absorb and file away. We need to have each step of a job explained in detail. We are hard to teach from a book, but we learn quickly from hands-on teaching.
I cannot stress enough the need to identify children with ADD and ADHD— and the earlier the better. You and I know the schools can’t afford to test each child, and diagnosis is a time- consuming task. I think all you can do is keep your eyes open for these children. The obvious ADHD child, the one who can’t sit still, runs around the room, interrupts constantly and irritates you to no end, is the very one who needs help the most. Usually, a child this hyperactive needs medication.
The others, the ones that are harder to spot, also need help. After giving a reading assignment to your students, watch for the one who keeps looking toward the window or stares at the board. He or she may even be staring at you, but not seeing you. Pay attention as your students turn pages. You may find the child who turns only one page for a long time. Checking homework offers another chance to suspect ADD and ADHD. Patterns of uncompleted work or work with a group of correct answers followed by a string of wrong ones often indicate ADD or ADHD. You should also suspect any student who, when called upon, answers a question that was asked a few minutes ago.
And always be on the lookout for the child who isolates himself from the hurt others cause. Notice the loner who has the intelligence to succeed but doesn’t seem to put out the effort. There’s also the quiet, shy one who would rather not be called on in class and has few friends. These are your possible ADDers. Please, try and find us.
If you find one of us, what should you do? Parental contact is first and foremost. Working with the parents, you may find clues to the way the child operates. Question them about their child’s attention swings, daydreaming and irritation with changes in routine. Try to help the child with individual attention. Once you are convinced of the existence of ADD or ADHD, inform school administrators.
Please, try and find us.
Editor’s Note: Experts estimate that 10 to 33 percent of children with ADD also have learning disabilities. While frequently coexisting, the two disorders cause different problems for children. ADD primarily affects the behavior of the child — causing inattention and impulsivity — while learning disabilities primarily affect the child’s ability to learn — mainly in processing information.