Celebrating neurodiversity and four slice toasters

Last week my 10-year old-son, Liam, set fire to the toaster. He was attempting to save time by buttering his bread before toasting it, despite being told on numerous occasions, that fat is flammable. Liam tripped the lights, set the toaster on fire and sent his mother into orbit. Again. Liam is neurodiverse.

After a five-year journey with school and the local health authority, Liam, was diagnosed with ADHD just a few months ago. So this month, when neuro diversity is at the fore front of our minds, in our house we’re discussing what this means. And to us it’s so important that it’s a positive experience from the outset.

As a neuro typical parent and self-confessed organiser, who seeks comfort in the routine and order of life, I’m somewhat bemused to find myself in the position of helping my son understand his condition. It’s a role I feel pressure to do well given I worry that I can’t completely empathise with how he is feeling or what is really going on inside his brain.

We set about carrying out our own research about the best way to approach this and have been somewhat surprised at the language used to describe ADHD, even those official sources that you might think would know better.

There seems to be a plethora of vernacular describing the symptoms of ADHD in a negative light; how the ‘excessive talking’ and constant movement are ‘challenges’ and ‘problems,’ with little focus on some of the myriad of positives. And let’s remind ourselves that both ‘D’s stand for ‘deficit’ and ‘disorder’.

Where is the spotlight on the more positive attributes – neuro diversity that ADHD brings to the table – the innovation, creativity, sociability and hyper-focus that allows the ADHD brain to flourish and produce such wonders of creativity and to challenge boundaries.

I certainly don’t want to offend anyone who might think I’m being naïve or downplaying the challenges that ADHD presents. I’ve witnessed this first-hand every day for a large part of Liam’s life; the chaos of routine tasks; the regular explanations I offer my neighbours as to why Liam is standing on the roof of the car (to get a better view of the sky) and why I’m on the headteacher’s Christmas Card list (a cliché but so true). And don’t forget the toaster….

But surely the jumping off point for a young person in beginning to understand how to fulfil their potential should be a far more positive experience. While it might be different for others, at the moment Liam wants to be and feel the same as other 10-year-olds. And his questions have been about his difference (how many children in the UK/my class have ADHD/is there a cure. For once, Alexa has come into her own.

So we’re boldly ploughing our own path – using the recommended literature but shifting our focus, spending most of our time discussing Liam’s super powers – something he is really engaging with; the myriad of new cardboard inventions that the family hamster has to make sure she gets plenty of exercise and didn’t get bored during lockdown; the comments I receive on play dates from other parents complementing me on such a caring child, particularly with their younger children (it’s a well-documented fact that while children with ADHD find it hard to retain relationships with their peers, they are fantastic with younger children) and Liam’s ability to hyperfocus – particularly at night when he is unable to sleep, sketching pictures of his favourite characters like a mad genius that he papers his wall with. Liam has aspirations for art college when he’s older and we’re in no doubt that he’ll get there.

We’re talking about connections in terms of strengths and weaknesses in our house; that despite the fact my brain is several decades older – both Liam and I walk into a room and forget what we have come in for and what we were going to say half-way through a sentence.

And this is because positive praise is so important to the ADHD brain. This is because dopamine – the chemical that helps stimulate the brain’s happy thoughts and integral to improved brain function (so the feeling most of us get naturally when you’re praised for a good job at work or complemented on a nice outfit) has to be artificially stimulated in an ADHD mind. This is done through constant positive praise to help reinforce self-esteem even during the most challenging days. This is why I reminded Liam that I’d secretly been after a four-slice toaster and that his innovation had just helped me get one a little quicker.

During one of the very first ADHD parenting classes we were told that ADHD has been around since the beginning of existence. While most of us were hanging around in caves, those neurodiverse members of the pack were going out hunting for food, inventing and taking risks in order to survive, progress and ultimately keeping evolution on track. Maybe the rest of us have merely been playing catch up.

So we should be doing more to shine a light on the benefits of the neurodiverse mind communicating in a language that is more positively framed. Whether we’re neurodiverse or neurotypical – truly understanding the positive benefits of diversity and how sometimes we need to adapt to move forward, enables us all to be a better version of ourselves.

Clare Carter

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