This column is an opinion by Sandy Bourque, a radio and TV producer based in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
When I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in my early 50s, finally everything made sense. It was as if I had been looking at the front of the same statue all my life, and suddenly someone gave it a quarter-turn, revealing a side I’d never seen before. As I rewound the tape of my life, I recognized how my constant need for stimulation affected my life decisions, whenever boredom set in. But it also explained my strengths.
I couldn’t wait to tell friends and family the good news. But it was met with blank stares and condolences that left me baffled.
One friend said, “You don’t look like you have ADHD, you’re not fidgety and you’re not scattered.” Hurt by the dismissal, I told them, “Thanks for noticing, because it took me YEARS to develop the coping skills to look this normal.”
What is ‘normal’?
I stopped telling people I had ADHD. I obsessed about learning everything I could about it. But everywhere I looked I was bombarded with information about the deficits and weaknesses, how to fit in better, how to be more “normal.”
But I felt normal. I thought others weren’t normal. Didn’t everyone have a million ideas bouncing around in their head all the time? Didn’t they feel compelled to acknowledge and weigh every sight, sound, smell, touch, and even other people’s emotions? Didn’t certain sounds like a vacuum cleaner, a dog barking, or a beeping machine distract them to near madness?
My ADHD brain doesn’t think in a linear fashion, like most neurotypicals, it thinks panoramically. That’s what makes us creative, able to quickly connect the dots and see patterns others often don’t. It can leapfrog ahead and find endless possibilities, to the point of distraction. From our perspective, neurotypicals think and act too slowly, they like to plan and execute things in a frustrating step-by-step manner.
In my journey to better understand myself, I became an ADHD coach to help others sift through the mountain of misinformation and to help them focus on their strengths.
Some of my clients were tremendously successful, leveraging their curiosity, creativity and high energy to drive their careers, while others struggled to find their place in society. What everyone had in common though, were deep feelings of underachievement, despite reality, quite often, showing the opposite was the case. Along with those feelings came anxiety, from the shame and stigma of being labelled with a brain disorder.
A whole new understanding
The prevailing thought has been that ADHD is a deficiency; something that needs to be fixed or cured. But I wasn’t buying it. I turned to books, and what I discovered was a whole new understanding of it.
Experts such as Lara Honos-Webb, author of The Gift of ADHD, and Edward M. Hallowell, author of Delivered from Distraction, suggest that ADHD isn’t a liability, just a differently-wired brain that comes with a different set of strengths.
We are in a renaissance of learning about brain function. Today some experts believe that ADHD and other differently-wired brains such as those with autism, bipolar disorder and dyslexia, may simply be an extension of the range of our spectrum of what we consider normal.
In Thomas Armstrong’s book The Power of Neurodiversity, he says these diagnoses have only existed for about 80 years, but humanity has been around for millions of years. What if these brain variations may have been an evolutionary way for us to extend our species?
But the light bulbs really went off for me when I dug down deeper to find out there is evidence that autism goes back as far as 100,000 years, and that ADHD and bipolar disorder may have originated with the Neanderthals.
A shift in consciousness
It made me wonder… did famous nonconformists such as Mozart, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Einstein sit around asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be normal?”
Einstein is often talked about as being seen as both a genius and a man with quirks… a bit of an oddball… traits that line up with ADHD. Van Gogh, who’s brilliant innovative works still move us, had traits that line up with bipolar disorder. Today, Greta Thunberg openly acknowledges her autism and calls it her superpower.
Our understanding of neurodiversity is going mainstream. Traits once described as odd or weird are now being recast and seen as advantages. Technology companies actively recruit people with autism for their attention to detail and speciality skills. ADHDers, with their creativity, empathy and quick thinking, are our ER doctors, firefighters, TV producers, athletes, actors and musicians. Many bipolars, with their creative intensity, are our writers and artists. The list goes on.
Neurodiversity is certainly having its moment because more and more neurodivergents are finding their voice, connecting on social media and speaking out. Yet there remains resistance from some in the medical community and educational system to acknowledge the strengths and gifts of the neurodivergent, and not just see a laundry list of deficits. This new way of thinking challenges what we’ve believed in the past, but it also opens the door to an era that offers a more creative and exciting future for humanity.
All it requires is a shift in consciousness of what we think of as normal.
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