There’s only one cute, clever, advice-giving sign in my office. It breaks a rule we used in decorating the office, which was to feel simple and calming to patients. Preachy wall art can violate that sensibility, so we chose Ansel Adams photos to invite reflection without forcing conclusions.
But the rogue sign sits right behind my desk where visitors can’t help but see it. It reads,
“Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting.” I didn’t find the sign. It found me.
My wife, Chris, and I were visiting our friends and traveling buddies, Mark and Laurie. They’ve done some of the hardest parenting work there is, and being with them encourages me. Sometime, I’ll tell their story. It’s very hard and very beautiful.
They live in Breckenridge, Colorado, and we were enjoying the sunny mountain air on a gorgeous Spring day. The columbine were blooming, and the town had a warm, relaxed feel–a counterpoint to the crisp, cold vibe of ski season. We walked casually past tourist shops not really shopping, just hanging out and catching up.
I was talking with Laurie about her work with kids’ special education, when suddenly–literally mid-sentence–I interrupted myself, pointed to the store we were just walking past and announced, “We’re going in there.” We were walking past a store full of cute and clever signs and this one had somehow invaded my consciousness and seduced me while I was thinking about something else. The decision to buy it had formed before I even realized exactly what it said. It was a very ADD thing to do–an ultimate “Squirrel!!” moment.
The reason I admitted this kitschy sign into my Zen office space is that it is both affirming and instructive. Many of the symptoms of ADD/ADHD aren’t behaviors caused by ADHD brains, they are what people with ADHD brains do trying to appear normal.
If you don’t have ADHD, and that last sentence didn’t make sense, please follow me on this. Understanding this point is crucial to understanding people with ADHD.
Fidgeting, for example, improves attention. If you are lecturing and you force someone with ADHD to stop fidgeting, his attention worsens and retention drops. I’ve go a warm spot in my heart for teachers who provide stretchy frog toys and wiggle cushions to their students or who let them stand up to work.
Procrastination is similar. For “normal” folk it can reflect laziness and task avoidance, but for people with ADHD it’s a painful trade-off to get things done. Cultivate anxiety–one of the forms of psychic pain–and tasks will become urgent and compelling at the deadline. They will get done. (See Procrastination is Brilliant*)
Many of the 18 cores symptoms of ADHD used to diagnose it actually refer to a person giving extra-ordinary effort to tasks that “normal” people consider mildly or moderately effortful. These symptoms don’t describe someone who is lazy or has given up, but a person who is trying harder than average.
Has difficulty sustaining attention
Has difficulty with organization
Struggles to follow through on instructions
Has difficulty with organization
Difficulty waiting or taking turns
Has difficulty remaining seated
Difficulty engaging in activities quietly
When a child gives extra-ordinary effort to merely the preparation for learning, such as sitting still and getting organized, how much brain capacity is left for listening and learning? Might he not be exhausted after a school day full of extra work and little encouragement?
Fidgeting is an entirely reasonable compromise: enough movement to satisfy the internal motors, but not so much that it distracts other students. It’s certainly better than humming, playing air-guitars or desk-scooching. When sitting still is freaking hard, shouldn’t you get some props when you reduce it to fidgeting?
People with ADHD rarely get props for extraordinary efforts to appear normal. Students are often evaluated in terms of the standards they didn’t quite reach. “Good student, but needs to work on consistent effort.” “Could use more focus and less fidgeting.” “Not quite there with the organization.” When do they get praised for how much they’ve improved or how much they’ve struggled?
Laurie laughed when I showed her the sign. “We don’t have any ‘normal’ in the special ed classroom,” she mused. “If we can have fun learning together, that’s a really good day.”
Want your own cute and clever sign? Buy it here.