Translating ADHD for the Neurotypical

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Translating ADHD for the NeurotypicalHi, I’m Jama and I have ADHD. I also have a child with ADHD (officially diagnosed) and another that I strongly suspect has ADHD but it hasn’t yet caused enough of a problem to seek a diagnosis.

As I have begun to understand how many of my own behaviors are a result of ADHD, I have also started to see the behaviors in my children that are related to ADHD and how to deal with them. As difficult as it is for someone living with ADHD to understand other people with ADHD, I imagine it must be near-impossible for you neurotypical folks to figure out what in the world is happening inside our neurodivergent brains.

Before I get started, I want you to remember that as different as you are from other neurotypical people, those of us with ADHD have different struggles and coping mechanisms, as well. Just because something is hard for me, doesn’t mean that someone else with ADHD will have the same issue. In the same way, the methods I and/or my children use to deal with our daily struggles may not work for your child, but understanding the why of our seemingly bizarre behavior is a good first step. I am not a licensed mental health professional. I am just someone who has lived with ADHD and is now parenting children with ADHD, so I have significant life experience!

One of my big struggles — and I see this in my children too — is with starting a task. Once the task is started, I’m usually good to finish (unless it gets boring or I get interrupted, but that’s another point altogether). The problem is two-fold:

  1. I have to do the task in my head before I can physically do the task. I literally must mentally walk through every thing that must be done to get from point A to point B before I can start, otherwise I just freeze and can’t figure out what to do next.
  2. When I say I have to walk through EVERYTHING that must be done to complete the task, I mean literally everything. Here’s an example: imagine you have to go to the post office. It’s an annoying errand, but you probably think, eh, I’ll just swing by on my way home from dropping the kids at school. You toss the thing to be mailed into the car and on your way home from dropping the kids off at school, you stop at the post office. Done. I, however, have to walk through all the steps to get to the post office. I have to remember to get the package and put it in my car. Then I need to leave early enough that I have time to stop at the post office without being late for the next thing I have to do for the day. Then, I have to turn left instead of right to get to the post office and drive through that school zone, which slows me down even more. If I still have a kid with me, said kid will have to come into the post office with me. We have to have our masks with us. I need to make sure the kid with me is dressed appropriately. I’ll find a place to park, get the child out of the car, walk inside, and potentially have to stand in line. Then what if I start getting work messages while I’m in line? What if it’s really crowded? I’m not sure how much it’s going to cost to ship it. I’ll have to get my wallet out of my purse without dropping anything and there will probably be someone waiting in line behind me. I’ll have to talk to the clerk and be nice and I’ll have my mask on which makes it hard to communicate. I’ll probably say something weird. Then, I’ll finally have the package shipped and I have to turn left to get out of the post office and I can’t remember if there’s a traffic light there and that road is super busy that time of day. By this point I’m overwhelmed and anxious and it’s no longer worth the trouble…and that is why there are two packages in the back of my car that I’ve needed to drop at the post office since mid-February.

So when your child with ADHD says they CANNOT start their homework right now or you find them sitting in their room staring at the mess instead of cleaning it, this is why.

Sometimes we just need a moment to walk through all the steps so we can get started. Please leave us alone and let us do that. As an adult, I know when I need to ask for help (usually!). Your child might need a time limit. Something along the lines of, “Ok, why don’t you take five minutes to go over what you need to do and then I’ll check back in?” After five minutes, check in, and if your child still hasn’t figured out the steps or has reached the point where they are overwhelmed, help them break it down. Avoid belittling their struggle or minimizing the work; just break the task down into manageable chunks.

Next up is the need for quiet and stimming. If you’re not familiar with stimming, it is most often associated with those on the Autism spectrum. You may have seen kids flapping their hands, shaking their head, or rocking back and forth. This is a way to deal with anxiety that comes from being overwhelmed.

When I was in school in the ’80s, no one knew that what I did was “stimming;” in those days, I was being “disruptive” or “immature.” I sucked my thumb until I was seven, carried a soft piece of fabric with me (either a blanket, stuffed toy, or satin clothing) so I had something to rub, I wiggled my feet constantly, and eventually talked nonstop no matter who the teacher sat me next to. As I got older, I chewed gum all the time and/or had a rubber band around my wrist that I could fiddle with when I needed to wiggle, calm down, or distract myself from whatever boring task I had to complete. I also had to have TOTAL silence in order to concentrate (that one still applies).

Here’s how you can help: let us stim.

If your child is talking to himself, humming, tapping a foot, or being extra wiggly, he or she is likely trying to either focus or relieve anxiety (or both). If the behavior is damaging or disruptive (think head banging or scratching your dining room table), offer an alternative such as a fidget toy or allowing your child to stand up and move around. I have a standing desk with a balance board now so I don’t crawl out of my skin during Zoom meetings.

Whatever you do, don’t punish stimming behavior. Not allowing your child a harmless way of calming down (wiggling, tapping, etc.) sets them up for harmful methods of dealing with anxiety as they get older. I wasn’t allowed to stim, so I internalized all that anxiety. It did not turn out well.

Having ADHD is kind of a superpower when it’s well-managed. When we find something interesting, we can hyperfocus and do the most amazing work you’ve ever seen. We’re energetic and generally fun to be around, mostly because you never know what we’ll say (neither do we!). We are problem-solvers: one great thing about having to mentally walk through ALL the steps needed to complete a task is that we see all sides to all things all the time and can find solutions for just about any outcome. We just need you to help us decide which solution is best as we have a hard time making decisions.

Please make sure your child knows that ADHD doesn’t make them dumb, lazy, or ill-behaved. There are millions of adults out there like me who have thrived and become quite successful because — not in spite — of having ADHD. With the right support, your hyperactive little bundle of overwhelm can be an absolute rock star.

For more information on living with ADHD, check out the following sites:

Task Initiation

Stimming

8D Audio

ADHD Parenting

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