First posted on this site on 5th October 2017
In the past couple of days I’ve written about the different subtypes of ADHD, the history of ADHD in medical literature and the diagnosis process for children and adults, so today I’d like to describe what goes on inside the brains of us ADHDers. Telling you about symptoms gives you some information about ADHD, but you could have googled that if you had wanted to. I really want to promote a deep awareness of the challenges faced by people with ADHD, and that all starts inside our heads…
In this post, I’m not going to reference the scientific or medical research that has been carried out into the workings of an ADHD brain- that is coming in a later blog about the causes of ADHD. This post is a self-reported commentary from me and some of my ADHD family, where we articulate our thought processes. I also want to talk about some common teaching strategies and how they can be used to support children.
Recently I read an article where someone described their mind like an internet browser with 45 different tabs open at once- something that I am totally guilty of every single day. Having all those tabs open isn’t great for your computer’s memory, so when I read that article I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for ADHD!
When I am asked to describe the way my mind works, I often use this analogy…
The well-known comic Michael McIntyre talks about having a ‘man drawer’ full of old batteries, drachma from holidays past, spare keys to unknown doors, an abundance of takeaway menus and a multitude of additional spare parts that don’t quite have another home… you get the picture.
Take that man drawer and contents out into your back garden to where your 8-year-old daughter has invited all of her friends over for a party. This already excitable gaggle of 8-year-olds have spent the last three hours drinking gallons of red bull, they have been pouring bags of sugar into their mouths- bags of sugar with added E numbers- whilst a crazed clown has been chasing them around the garden and giving out free puppies as One Direction (or whoever 8 year old girls like these days) play a private set- right there in your garden!
The youngsters screech and roar whilst moving en masse, like wildebeest towards the trampoline, screaming so loudly that seismologists around the globe are awoken by unexplained readings on their equipment.
Now… imagine walking over to that trampoline and emptying all of the contents of that man drawer onto it; the drachma, batteries, menus, spare keys and the rest of the contents- bouncing and springing and flying all over the place while the children scream louder and louder and louder…
THAT, is what it is like to be inside my head.
The contents of the drawer bouncing and flying about are my thoughts and the 8-year-olds high on sugar and screaming their heads off represent the way my brain regulates my thoughts i.e. it doesn’t- it just creates a constant, loud screaming noise ALL DAY.
As extreme and bizarre as that sounds- it wasn’t until my diagnosis aged 32 that I realised this was not normal!
Disclaimer: Obviously that scenario is full of health and safety hazards and ‘Me And My ADHD’ does NOT sanction or encourage anyone recreating this scenario as an experiment or for amusement- as it will most probably lead to serious injury (there’s always one)!
I realise that posting about my experiences on this blog can make it a very one-sided story and just like Autistic Spectrum Condition, ADHD is also a spectrum. So, when discussing this post with my lovely friends from my ADHD support group, I asked some of them if they could give me a word, sentence or paragraph about what is going on inside their minds at any given time- and if I could quote them anonymously. My lovely friends did not disappoint and shared the following glimpses of what goes on inside their minds;
“Chaotic, busy, constant movement from one idea to the next, fast moving. Can often get stuck in negative thought spirals. Immensely creative and regularly seeing the outcome, a number of stages ahead of others, which is great for pre-emptive intervention but horrendous for just getting things done… Oh and when all the noise becomes too overwhelming then I liken it to the white noise you hear in environments like indoor leisure centre swimming pools. I know that probably sounds a bit random but those are the moments when I am unable to focus or concentrate because of that noise. For reference when I am saying all the noise, I mean the constant ideas and thoughts in my head.” (Friend 1, 2017)
“Without meds I have a 100 radio stations, tuned in at once in my head. I cannot pick one out above the others, I am exhausted just trying to decide what is the important stream to listen to. With meds it gets down to one, the one I want to listen to.” (Friend 2, 2017)
“So, so many thoughts going through head throughout the day, completely random or because of external stimuli, makes me forget one thing and then moves me to another. Silence or at least better control would be so beautiful sometimes so I could focus on one thing or task. Trying to do a task and then not get distracted away from that task because something pops into your head randomly or because of an external stimuli that distracts you. AND then when you throw in for good measure my constant restlessness, my indecisiveness and my fluxation of moods it’s chronically annoying. Sometimes I just accept it and other times I want to cry. Just constant thoughts, they never ever stop. Total involuntary, I have no control. For me it’s like I’m constantly internally talking to myself and having various private chats with myself but they change quickly. AND then there is the daydreaming when I totally zone out and not even aware that it’s happening, just enjoying my thoughts. But the speed of the change of my thoughts is ridiculous, super-fast. Jumping from one thing to the next. Whatever weirdness jumps into my head. AND then when you add an external stimuli, then that interferes with the present thought and you start then thinking about something else, which can then make you think of something else. And then when emotions or moods interact then they can vary your thoughts from happiness to sadness in the matter of minutes, possibly even seconds. However, I am getting better with one-to-ones and work hard to concentrate but that depends how excited or bored I get. BUT in a multiple conversation it’s extremely difficult and at times impossible. Sorry I find this really difficult to explain. AND now my head feels like it’s going to implode writing this.” (Friend 3, 2017)
“Chaos” (Friend 4, 2017)
“Mental!… just came out the nut quacks… psychologist cancelled again because her trains late! I’d be booted out if I kept cancelling… think that’s the third time it’s happened now….no best pleased! So now I’m sitting in my van, just ate a Greggs pastie… in my head I’ve already jumped over the rooftops on a motorbike… fantasised about an orgy… hammered a passer by (I noticed him ogling a schoolgirl) had a gunfight n thot about my Great Grandparents…. that’s just a wee sample… was on a training course (theory) all day yesterday. I was the last one in as I got my dates wrong, last one to hand in exam paper n last one to leave the class! Got 29 out of 30 btw.” (Friend 5, 2017)
“All of the above but also I feel like I’m an alien dumped in a strange world looking in from the outside.” (Friend 6, 2017)
I completely identify with every single one of these descriptions.
So, what does this mean for our children in school? If your mind is constantly processing several, often wildly different thoughts at the same time, how can you possibly concentrate on school work?
In a later blog I’m going to talk more in depth about specific teaching strategies but for the purposes of this blog, I think it is important to remember that a lot of the strategies you already employ every day as a class teacher can be used to support children with ADHD- you do not have to learn anything new but could tweak the way you implement your strategies:
- If a child with ADHD is not listening to an instruction, gets distracted during an instruction or impulsively calls out about something completely random and unconnected- they are not wilfully ignoring you or being disobedient. Often their brain is buzzing, particularly if there are a lot of stimuli.
- While all teachers usually check for understanding after they have given an instruction, this is especially important for children with ADHD as they will probably catch bits and pieces of what you said, and the bits they did catch might have merged with some other thoughts (see my post from October 1st about Robert the Bruce taking his dog on a campervan holiday)!
- When you have checked for understanding and are satisfied the child knows what to do, as they sit down to begin the task you may find them slow to start, if they start at all. Sometimes just before we start a task we can become quite overwhelmed as the ideas, instructions (and distractions) buzz about our heads. Supporting them through the start of the task or providing an example or frame could help here.
- Amidst the task, the child may lose focus and concentration and may start to get chatty, move about a lot or fidget. This means they might need a brain or movement break, so ask them to do a quick task. I often ask children who need these breaks to fill up my water bottle at the fountain, empty the recycling bag, go a message, straighten the books in the class library or sharpen my pencil for me. These are short tasks lasting five minutes or less but it helps their brains refocus- though please bear in mind that they will probably need prompting to start the task again.
- If there are multi-step instructions, write each part out on the board for reference or if you are unable to do that, each part could be written on the child’s whiteboard to sit on their desk.
- Shoulder partners and/or face partners can be useful here.
I’d also like to reference my post from the 1st of October about excessive talking, if the child is too chatty, this could be a sign of anxiety or confusion about the task.
Hopefully you have found this helpful or interesting, please comment if you have any feedback and share the post with others who you think might find it useful!