Toni Greenberg could say one thing with certainty about her son during his elementary school years: “Unless you put him under general anesthesia, he (was) going to jump out of his seat.”
Greenberg’s son Jake had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Since its appearance in the medical literature in the 1990s, ADHD has seen a “boom in prevalence,” says Dr. Alison Pritchard, program director at Kennedy Krieger’s Neuropsychology Research Lab. “The research suggests this is not due to more kids having it.” Instead, “it’s more related to better identification of it and changes in diagnostic criteria.” In addition, Pritchard says, “the demands that are placed on kids have changed. There are more and more schools where kids get one recess instead of two.”
Which means we’ve heard a lot in the past two decades about ADHD and its associated behaviors, which can lead to struggles in school, problems with self-esteem and a list of other tension-headache-inducing issues for kids and their parents. But is there an upside to having ADHD that we’ve overlooked? Some parents and medical professionals contend ADHD bestows gifts as well as challenges, and helped us identify a few “super powers” that kids with ADHD possess.
“Kids with ADHD kind of get a bad rap,” says Vivian Morgan, a Towson-based therapist who specializes in helping kids with ADHD. “They’re usually super-smart kids, but because they struggle with all those things that go with being a ‘good’ student, they’re usually underestimated. Once you can find something they really like, or a way to get them to harness the power of their brain, it can be a wonderful thing.”
Superpower #1: Energy, and Lots of It!
A burst of physical energy that’s unhelpful in math class is a boon to athletics.
Greenberg says Jake has “a great voice, and every time he tried out for a play, he got the lead. He could sing, act, be funny, and he just had this high energy.” When he was 14 years old, he was cast as Huck in a community production of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” “He was in every scene. He sang every song but one. He never got tired. His energy was just unbelievable,” Greenberg says.
Superpower #2: Hyper Focus
“ADHD is characterized as a disorder of inattention,” Pritchard says. “But research shows that it’s more of a difficulty in allocating attention appropriately.” Although people with ADHD can have problems focusing, they also, ironically, can focus with laser-like intensity on projects they love.
This is known as “hyper focus,” according to Morgan, and kids with ADHD can hyper-focus with ease. “The idea they have a deficit in attention is really a misnomer. It’s more a problem of regulating their attention to a desired task. Like getting your homework done or packing your bookbag.”
So even though Greenberg jokingly claims her son is “still looking for the Land’s End jacket he left at school” all those years ago, she says he had no problem at all memorizing pages of dialogue and songs for performances.
Another parent, Pam B., agrees. Her daughter Sarah was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, and she says that when Sarah is interested in a project, “she’s locked in, for four or five hours.”
Superpower #3: A Creative Mind
Sarah is “definitely an artist. She is a ridiculously outside-the-box thinker,” Pam says. “When she was little, we’d walk around Kohl’s, and she would collect beads and pins and things off the floor, and make little sculptures. You can tell she can think in 3D.”
Pritchard says: “Creativity is the most-discussed ‘pro’ of ADHD.” However, published medical research on the veracity of this claim is “very, very preliminary,” she says. And although there hasn’t yet been any strong findings in the literature to support the claim that kids with ADHD are creative, it is true that “impulsivity, what’s sometimes called inhibitory control, helps you to engage in divergent thinking,” Pritchard says. “If you’re more impulsive, you’re coming up with more varied ways to solve a problem, which is a part of creativity.”
Superpower #4: A Talent for Happiness
This impulsivity, or “lack of inhibition,” can also make kids with ADHD “very fun to be around, very funny, and very much in the moment,” Morgan says. People with ADHD “have this ability to really be present and really enjoy themselves. Being mindfully present in the moment is where happiness is, and kids with ADHD are there already.”
Five Ways to Nurture These Superpowers
Professionals and parents gave us advice on helping kids with ADHD leverage their power and use it, like any good superhero, for good instead of evil.
- Have their back.
Kids with ADHD absorb a lot of negative messages about their self-worth. “A lot of times, school and society are trying to fit your child into a pattern for success,” Morgan says. “This is understandable, but ADHD kids don’t fit in that pattern.” The first step in repairing or bolstering your child’s self-esteem may be as simple as “accepting your child the way they’re arriving,” Morgan says.
- Let them shine.
“The school setting plays to the weaknesses” of kids with ADHD, Pritchard says. Engage your kids in activities where they can really shine. “Let them be the star on soccer field. It’s so important for parents to encourage kids to be successful in the areas where they can and boost their self confidence in other areas of life,” she says.
- Movement trumps homework
“Parents and teachers might discuss setting a time limit on homework completion or modifying the workload somewhat to allow the student to spend a more reasonable amount of time on homework each evening,” Pritchard says. Morgan agrees,”If you’ve been sitting in school all day, it’s hard.”
- Help them find a mentor.
“There are people who will appreciate their differences,” says Greenberg, and as a parent, you can help your child find and build these relationships.
- Help them find an organizational system that works for them.
When Jake went to college, Greenberg bought him a desk blotter calendar. She told her son: “’I know you’re using your phone for your calendar, but sometimes it helps to just see it in front of you every time you sit down at your desk to work.”
Jake is now 24 years old and has fulfilled his dream of becoming a cantor in a synagogue. Listening to him sing at Beth Israel with passion, energy and resonance, Greenberg is proud of her son’s accomplishments, but even more so, she’s proud of his character. Jake “will never excel at sitting in [his] seat,” she says. “But there are dozens of other traits and abilities that contribute to building a happy, fulfilled life,” and Jake has those in spades.
Greenberg says she’s come to realize something else through the years: “Maybe sitting is overrated.”