“My brain is an overstuffed garbage can that the lid won’t stay on, and stuff is falling out all over the floor.”
This is how my son describes what it is like to have ADHD.
When he was diagnosed, I thought I understood ADHD. After all, I was a published academic researcher with a Ph.D. in pharmacology, who studied ADHD medications. But it turned out that my background as a scientist did not prepare me to handle the challenges of being a mom to a son who was diagnosed with the inattentive subtype of ADHD.
My son is not hyperactive. His Inattentive ADHD makes him distracted, disorganized, forgetful, and emotional.
Initially, ADHD was defined based on observations of hyperactive behavior in boys. In the famous 1846 children’s book Struwwelpeter, German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann describes 'Slovenly' or 'Shock-Headed' Peter, who has trouble listening, paying attention, sitting still, and keeping tidy:
The perception of a child with ADHD has changed little since then, and continues to be associated with stereotypical symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. However, there is more to ADHD than just hyperactive little boys. In fact, there are three subtypes of ADHD recognized by the American Psychiatric Association:
1. Hyperactive/impulsive subtype characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and fidgeting,
2. Inattentive subtype characterized by difficulty paying attention, being easily distracted, with little to no impulsivity or hyperactivity,
3. Combined subtype characterized by both hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention.
Easily recognizable are the combined and hyperactive subtypes of ADHD where the child’s behaviors are disruptive and affect others. In contrast, children with Inattentive ADHD fly under the radar at school and at home, with symptoms of inattention, forgetfulness, and disorganization. They are often labeled lazy or disrespectful.
Mainstream research studies suggest the inattentive subtype may be the most common in children and adolescents. In fact, the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The DSM-5) was modified in order to better identify the inattentive subtype.
Although Inattentive ADHD is gaining more recognition, it remains under-diagnosed, often delayed until adolescence, and under-represented in the literature. When searching for books to help my son, and me as a parent, I realized the current literature falls short.
So, how are kids able to learn they are not alone? That their symptoms can be overcome, that their creativity and stellar problem-solving abilities can make them ADHD superheroes? These are some of the questions my son and I addressed in our recently published book, Andrew’s Awesome Adventures with His ADHD Brain . Andrew, a middle schooler, tells his tale about struggling daily to stay focused and organized, make friends, and control his emotions while the large, imposing Inattentive ADHD elephant gets in the way and derails his brain.
However, the elephant is not always a menace. Sometimes he helps Andrew to be successful, when he is creative, hyper-focused, and confronts a challenge head on. Andrew takes readers on a journey from being A Disorganized Heaping Disaster (ADHD), to A Determined Hyperfocused Dreamer (ADHD) who is fearless, a creative thinker, and an awesome problem-solver.
When Andrew was a child, I loved his inquisitive mind and humorous antics, like eating cheese from the salad bar in the grocery store and gluing his thumb to the dining room table with super glue. Roald Dahl’s character Matilda sums up Andrew’s ADHD brain perfectly when she says, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.”
One important message in Andrew’s Awesome Adventures is to let kids know their ADHD does not have to limit them, but instead they can have limitless possibilities. It is no surprise that children with ADHD suffer from low self-esteem, as they are constantly singled out for what they have done wrong, and rarely celebrated for their innovative, creative minds.
For them, reading stories about characters with ADHD is critical to help them feel they are not alone in their struggles, and to let them know how incredibly talented and gifted they are. Children with ADHD truly are like the superheroes written about in so many books. They have to overcome adversity and realize their true potential.
Kristin Wilcox has a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Mississippi Medical Center and has spent over 20 years in academia as a behavioral pharmacologist studying drug abuse behavior and ADHD medications at Emory University and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She has authored several manuscripts published in peer reviewed scientific journals and presented her research at international scientific meetings. Her book Andrew’s Awesome Adventures with His ADHD Brain shares her son’s experiences with Inattentive-ADHD, and her insights on parenting an ADHD son. Dr. Wilcox serves on the executive board of the Inattentive ADHD Coalition, wanting to increase awareness and understanding of the inattentive subtype of ADHD in children and adults. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two sons.