Is ADHD really just “Creative Kids Syndrome?”

NPR’s Morning Edition played a story yesterday about Pacific Lutheran University student Emily Algire. Algire was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, much to the confusion of her very organized mother.

The NPR spot reminded me of my August post wherein Sir Ken Robinson cites Gillian Lynn, who choreographed Cats and Phantom of the Opera. I didn’t elaborate on this story in that post — as it was getting long — so here it is in brief.

Gillian Lynn, who grew up in the 1930s in Kent, England, was suspected to have a learning disability by her school. The school wrote to her parents in order to state their suspicion. Lynn couldn’t concentrate. She fidgeted in school. “Now they’d say she had ADHD,” Robinson notes. “But this was the 1930s and ADHD hadn’t been invented, you know, at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.”

As a disclaimer, I’m compelled to say that the following isn’t intended to slight or make light of anyone’s personal struggle with ADHD. I’m not personally afflicted with said condition, and actually know very few people who are (in fact, I can’t name anyone off-hand). I’m by no means a doctor and have done extraordinarily little reading on this subject. Herein I’m merely theorizing as an outside observer.

However, I often wonder if ADHD isn’t something realized on account of our very rigid public education system. Yes, I said it: I’m not sure ADHD is real. That’s it. Those of you with passionately divergent opinions, let it out. Civilly, please, and with solid rhetoric. References to medical journals are great so long as they’re in plain English.

Even though I didn’t and don’t suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, I found the public school process to be a generally less than ideal manner of education. I’m an artist, a designer, a creative person. I work with my hands. Most K-12 classes are book and lecture-based affairs. You sit, you listen, you take notes and then you do your bookwork.

I know I didn’t and don’t have ADHD because I did fine in school despite being a hands-on learner. My grades hovered in-between A and B on the common scale. But I was most definitely bored. I was uninterested. At the same time, however, I was a self-starter. After I’d get home from sitting in classroom lectures for six hours I would — of my own volition — draw or make attempts at other kinds of art. I drew animals and eventually began drafting floor plans of houses (I have no recollection how I got into this, as it would still be three years or so before I took a formal drafting class.). I would sit for five or six straight hours creating. Tracing paper, t-square and compass in hand I devised Georgian mansions and modern vacation homes.

I took as many classes as I could in high school that lent themselves to the creative process, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I understand the need for math and English and history, but aren’t there better ways to teach it to people like me who thrive in a hands-on setting? How hard would it be to mix in more (or any) field trips to a history class or a simple engineering project as a math assignment at the high school, or even junior high level? Maybe we need different kinds of schools and different kinds of teachers for different kinds of learners. Maybe the system needs to better identify different kinds of learners — instead of lumping every kid into the same kind of classroom environment — and set students off on tracks that help them flourish instead of just get by. Once in a while I hear about this latter kind of track-based school, though it very much appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

My thought is that a lot of people diagnosed with ADHD simply learn differently than public education allows for in most instances. This was the case for Gillian Lynn. Lynn and her mother went to see a specialist. After the specialist outlined to the mother all of the problems the child was having in school, he told Lynn he needed to speak to her mother privately. The doctor and the mother left the room. As they left, the doc put some music on for the child.

The two watched Lynn from the other room. As soon as they’d left, the girl was on her feet moving to the music. After a few minutes the doctor turned to the mother and said

“Your daughter isn’t sick. She’s a dancer.”

“Take her to a dance school.” From what I can tell, Robinson is working on a book titled Epiphany for which he recently interviewed Lynn. She recounted to Robinson in an interview how wonderful it was to be in a room with a lot of other people like herself upon arriving at the dance school. “People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”

Robinson goes on to list Lynn’s achievements. She founded her own dance school, choreographed some of the most renowned musicals, became a millionaire. “Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”

Is it really so bad that some people just aren’t wired to sit through a lecture, let alone five or six consecutive lectures in a ordinary school day? Or is it just that, for the sake of ease, the public schools in America won’t tolerate anything outside of the status quo? What will it take to change the bureaucratic behemoth that is public education so that it teaches everyone equally well according to the pupil’s standards, not some government regulator’s standards?

Some people have to move to think. And that’s OK.

Photo from Wikipedia.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

11 Responses to Is ADHD really just “Creative Kids Syndrome?”

  1. Julie says:

    Great commentary. School for me was about the same as you. It was easy, and I was kinda bored.

    My native way of thinking and learning isn’t the way that it’s taught in school, either. Luckily I adapted. Over the last few years I’ve been discovering the ways I’d rather work.

  2. Tim J. says:

    As a “creative” who suffered through my public schooling, and the father of a diagnosed ADHD kid (and another who would probably be diagnosed as Attention Deficit, if we would allow it) I pretty much agree with everything you say here.

    My son was simply not cut out for a classroom. In grade school, his teachers made it clear he needed to be medicated and were impatient that we didn’t want to go that route right away. In the end I relented, but never felt right about it. I eventually home schooled him for a few years and he is (at 17) off any medication now (he’s a senior in a public high school).

    Our girl, the artist – though not hyperactive – is none the less in her own world much of the time, which seems to me a much saner and happier world than the one inhabited by many of her school mates. She doesn’t give a wet slap who is on television or in the fashion magazines. She likes what she likes and doesn’t care if that makes her any more or less popular with the right set at her school. Indeed, I think she is hardly aware of these currents of fashion and pop culture. It’s not that she is trying to be a nonconformist, it’s just that she truly doesn’t fit the mold, and that bothers her not at all.

  3. Ann says:

    Sigh, yes I’m creative and all that. I’m actually. I just wish I didn’t jump from passion to passion. I know some people do it and manage it quite well. But I don’t, I start, get bored or distracted and leave it, and never finish even if it’s something I’m passionate about. I just wish I could channel all my energy into actually doing something. Yippee! I’m tired of going late everywhere. I’m tired of missing important information because I was momentarily distracted by the ping of the radiator. I’m tired of people who go on that ADHD, maybe they are just creative people! It’s not just academics that’s affected. It affects my work, and my social relationships, just everything really. Ha! I’m even part of that ADHD group who are more likely than the general population to have eczema, allergies, and asthma. I’m not medicated if that’s what you are thinking, I wasn’t in school and I wish I had been. My life would have been very different. I just wish people could live my life for one frikking day instead of spouting forth on how they are not ADHD and don’t know anyone who is but perhaps it isn’t real….

  4. Tim J. says:

    Ann, I don’t have the hyperactive element, but I have suspected for a while that I am pretty solidly ADD. I have many of the same kinds of problems you describe. My mind wanders, I am undisciplined, highly distractable, I miss or forget important information, I do a lot of things at the last possible moment in a disorganized panic. I am in awe and am envious of people who seem always organized and on top of things.

    I’m not good at “juggling” a busy schedule or multi-tasking.

    BUT… I am also capable of DEEPLY concentrating for many unbroken hours and focusing on a piece of art in a way that many (I suppose) are not. It’s like deep sea diving. It takes me a while to get into that state, and it takes me a while to come out of it. Interruptions are hell. I can be quite thrown off and put out by a ringing phone or a knock at the door. Seriously, I am pretty mild mannered, but the closest I come to losing it and throwing a tantrum is when I’m interrupted while painting (not that I mean to be that way).

    So, okay, I get what you are saying, but my experience has been that some of the same personality quirks that are such a trial to me personally MAY be part of the whole package of being the *kind* of artist I am. It seems like a kind of trade off.

    I’m not AT ALL saying it’s this way for everyone.

  5. Sarah says:

    Paul- my school experience was just like yours. I was bored to tears and squirmed a lot in class, drawing the teacher rather than listening. Nonetheless, I was smart and got good grades. I didn’t have to work that hard, but I really put in the extra effort on creative projects. I am inclined to homeschool our daughter because of my school experience, but so many people think I’ll make her into a weirdo. With a mom like me, she is likely to be a weirdo anyway; why torchure her by making her sit in a classroom all day long?

    I love the story of the dancer. I’ve heard it before, but could hear it 100 more times. It’s inspiring!

  6. eucharisto says:

    I know I’m late to the discussion here, but thought I’d add my two cents anyway.

    My brother was homeschooled from K-9th grade. He is severely ADHD, and we’ve all known it from the get-go. I do agree that the school system we currently have is very problematic, especially in terms of learning paradigms, but my parents were very creative educators, allowing us kids to learn in whatever fashion best suited our needs, and my brother still tested off the chart ADHD/ODD. I believe strongly that it is a real and difficult mental condition, that is not rooted in any educational system. The educational system may heighten it for sure, but it doesn’t cause it.

  7. Patty says:

    I would LOVE to speak to Ann! You sound like my son. I did not know there was an ADHD group that was more prone to eczema, allergies, etc. My son is also very bright and creative. But, of course, all we hear about is the fact that he doesn’t pay attention. He is almost 9 years old. He gets “pulled out” for gifted class once a week, but that doesn’t help him pay attention to things he can already do (or doesn’t wan tto do) in the classroom. I just came from a parent visit where I could watch him in class and he was rarely watching the teacher. He was reading, drawing on his eraser, looking around, it was obvious he needed to get up and move around……..and I was wondering if I need to finally give into meds……and then I stumbled on this site. I really do not know what to do!! He gets very down on himself because he is always reprimanded about paying attention.

  8. Maria says:

    I love this story. It makes me sad that society today suppresses creativity and different learning styles.

  9. Julie Young says:

    Exactly! I copied the link of this article to post on my blog. I fully agree with you.

  10. Julie Young says:

    Exactly! I copied the link of this article to post on my blog. I fully agree with you. Something has to change with this school system.

  11. Gary says:

    I just personally think ADHD is caused by parents who can’t control their kids or never taught their kids self-control so to make up for it (because God forbid they did something wrong in raising their child) they shut the kids up with drugs. Teach self control. People do learn differently, but kids with ADHD aren’t all artists and musicians.

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