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When Blake Taylor, a 17 year old, describes what it is like to have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he often gets it wrong. Yet, his misunderstandings constitute the remarkable value of his work. The memoir's achievement is as a window into the way an impulsive, hyperactive, intelligent, curious and economically advantaged young male with ADHD sees the world. Until now, no such memoir has been available. Stories of growing up ADHD exist (One Boy's Struggle: A Memoir: Surviving Life with Undiagnosed ADHD and The Little Monster: Growing Up with ADHD), but Taylor's is the first by a teen-aged author.
ADHD & Me claims to provide an accurate account of ADHD and its symptoms. Because much of the public discussion of ADHD includes erroneous assumptions about the condition, its diagnosis, and treatment (see The Myth of ADHD and Other Learning Disabilities: Parenting without Ritalin; The ADHD Fraud: How Psychiatry Makes 'Patients' of Normal Children; and Critical New Perspectives on ADHD) and because Taylor's mistakes can reinforce negative stereotypes of ADHD rather than dispel them, his mistakes as well as his insights need discussion.
The book is composed of fifteen chapters, each with the same structure: first, a personal, often painful or embarrassing story in which Taylor faces the consequences of a particular ADHD symptom (the symptom gives the chapter its title, and a subtitle identifies the lesson the story will tell, as well as the school year in which it took place); next, a "cause & effect" section describing either another story of how the symptom has impacted his life, a story about his efforts to overcome the symptom, or a description of the symptom's frequency and cause in the ADHD person; finally, each chapter ends with a numbered list of "solutions" -- tips and recommendations based on his experiences.
For an ADHD audience, this is a fine format; graphics, subheadings, numbered lists, and large-font excerpts in the margins enhance it. The book seems designed for a reader who is not a linear thinker, has trouble sustaining attention, is frequently distracted, especially when bored, and benefits from the external structuring of ideas. One can fruitfully read Taylor's chapters out of order, look at only the "solutions" sections, or flip through to find school years or lessons learned. Chapters are self-contained, and not in chronological order; the well-explained "solutions" are readable on their own, and Taylor's storytelling gifts make any excerpt engaging.
His main achievement is to show us how he sees the world. Taylor's account of the role ADHD plays in the events of his life differs from that of a parent, therapist, teacher, or ADHD expert. Given his age and untrained knowledge, his reflections on his decision-making processes and behaviors are well formed and await fuller development. In describing his perceived mistreatment at the hands of his first grade teacher, for example, Taylor alternates between admitting to certain behaviors, in this case, throwing a pen against the wall (a pen which explodes on contact and splashes both the wall and teacher with blue ink), admitting to not taking responsibility for them ("'Blake, what did you just do?' she asks sharply. I don't answer (120)," and insisting that the teacher unfairly assumes he is responsible for much classroom mischief.
Inconsistent, but not a failure. One of my favorite passages is Taylor's response to the teacher telling his parents that he threw multiple pens against the wall: "I am being punished for throwing many pens--not just one--and I didn't even hit anyone!" The passage captures a first grader's view of the world: 'I didn't do it, it's not my fault, she's the one who isn't being fair!' To work with an ADHD child on behavior control requires knowing that this is how the child will perceive things.
In the "cause and effect" section following this story, Taylor sharply describes how and why the adults around him responded as they did; in the "solutions" section he lists, "Be honest" as tip number two. Yet, his very unwillingness to shed his frustration at the teacher's slight, even at age 17, animates his story and gives it its value: we hear the voice of a child describing his world -- no small accomplishment for a writer. It powerfully reminds ADHD adults how much we might have forgotten about being in the earliest stages of understanding the impact of ADHD on our lives.
Nevertheless, several repeated claims need correction. Two of the most significant involve Taylor's assumption that his form of ADHD is ADHD. Citing a counselor and his mother as sources, he claims that hyperactivity is the norm among ADHD persons: "One Counselor, George Lynn describes ADHD kids as being 'like tigers in a zoo who may feel an enormous amount of energy, but may be distressingly unable to focus or control it (50).'" Earlier, his mother had commented that, were he a car, he'd be a "bright red Ferrari (167)." And, in a section devoted to the gifts of ADHD, "Great Energy" is ascribed to all ADHD people (172). Not so, unfortunately. There are three clinically recognized subtypes of ADHD -- predominantly hyperactive/impulsive (not inattentive), predominantly inattentive (not hyperactive/impulsive), and combined. In the predominantly inattentive sub-type, low-energy is the norm, and appearing 'spacey,' day-dreaming and 'tuning out' are far more common than perpetual motion. If this subtype were an animal, it would be the walrus or the sloth, not the tiger. Between one third and one half of people with ADHD meet the criteria for this non-hyperactive subtype.
Taylor's other major mistake is to include disobedience as a hallmark of the ADHD child. In the chapter on disobedience, he recounts having willfully and repeatedly disobeyed the rules of his sailing school. Caught and disciplined each time, he is undeterred -- and finally banned from the school. In the "cause & effect" section of the disobedience chapter, Taylor claims that people with ADHD "tend not to listen to or follow directions. You think the rules are for someone else. You think you can just do what you want to do, and the rules are just annoyances that are in your way and should be ignored (148)."
As much late twentieth century scholarship shows, however, attitudes toward authority and community norms are gendered. Young men are frequently socialized to challenge positions of authority, to stand out from the crowd by leading rather than following, while young women are more often brought up to obey, agree, and not cause trouble. Although such roles have recently loosened in the U. S., strict social roles prevail in other parts of the world. Thanks to the physiological fact that men tend to be hyperactive and impulsive with ADHD whereas women tend to be non-hyperactive and non-impulsive, different outcomes emerge from similar circumstances. When ADHD persons are distracted and misinterpret directions, their gender is likely to guide them into responding in different ways. A young man might be prompted to accomplish the task in new ways, with confidence and pride. For a young woman, however, failing to follow directions often results in guilt, shame, and a desire to be obedient at the next opportunity.
While we need to hear more from and about young women with ADHD, then, especially those with the inattentive subtype, anyone who wants to understand how an ADHD young man sees himself and his world should read Blake Taylor's book, an important and needed addition to the growing body of literature on ADHD.
© 2008 Maeve M. O'Donovan
Maeve O'Donovan is an assistant professor of philosophy at College of Notre Dame of Maryland.