Friday, March 21, 2008

Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table

It wasn't the usual crowd that filled the seats in Kepler's Bookstore on February 25, 2008. The evening's audience consisted mainly of families from all over the Bay Area for whom this was their first Author's Talk. Such standing-room-only would have been expected for a Secretary of State, an NFL quarterback, or a Nobel Laureate--not for a local teenage boy.

But Blake Taylor's recently published memoirs of growing up with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has already touched the lives of thousands of families, with the promise of reaching several million more in the US alone who strive to cope with the realities and myths of this widely misunderstood condition.  So this audience came keenly interested in meeting a family role model (now a freshman and molecular biology major at Berkeley), with written questions and no deficit of attention to his advice.

An out-of-the-box thinker, Taylor has authored a book, ADHD & Me: What I Learned From Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table, that defies typical categorizations.  Really, it's three books in one:

*       a heartening coming-of-age story whose hero's unique perspective shines through an authentic stream of consciousness similar to Mark Haddon's A Curious Incident in the Night-Time;

*       a field journal of the first-hand scientific observations that normally elude pediatric psychiatrists who must normally speculate about the intentions and feelings locked up inside relatively un-communicative kids (e.g. "what was he thinking when he lashed out at his sibling?"); and

*       a self-help book for kids and their parents who strive to understand and cope with ADHD.

But unlike the recent swarm of What-You-Need-To-Know-About-ADHD publications, this is not a science or medical book, and Blake makes no pretense otherwise. Readers are clearly advised to direct medical questions to their doctors, as Blake reinforced during the Q&A session at Kepler's. A clear-thinking, humble scientist at heart, Blake understands that it's okay to lack answers.

This honest self-awareness is critical to Blake's success at overcoming his disability. Among his many tips, Blake encourages open communication about ADHD among families, friends and teachers. His personal anecdotes demonstrate how such disclosures have prevented misunderstandings around his behavior, his medicines, and his tics. As he grew comfortable telling people that he has ADHD, they warmed up to him faster, and helped him solve his problems. It even tempered the bullies who prey on odd kids.

Obviously, the book itself exposes highly personal information, and in this way Blake sets an example for his reader. But by the very existence of ADHD & Me, Blake sets an even more profound example. Here's a kid whom several teachers were ready to write off as incapable of meeting normal academic expectations--with illegible penmanship and an inability to complete simple everyday tasks without the aid of psychotropic meds. And yet he authored a highly celebrated book while still in high school. This fact conveys hope, even before the reader has cracked open the cover.

The book itself is a quick and easy read. Each of the 15 chapters corresponds to one aspect of growing up with ADHD: being distracted (his "mind is surfing channels, but someone else has the remote"); being impulsive (e.g. setting the table on fire); being disorganized; being hyperactive; having tics;  being unpopular; being bullied; being isolated; being misunderstood; being blamed; being rigid; being disobedient; being discriminated against; taking control; and last but far from least, being gifted. Each chapter includes a memory, lessons learned, and tips on making the most of life with ADHD. For example, Blake explains how he overcame his poor social skills by approaching friendship like a science-through observation, experimentation and planning, he learned to develop scripts and techniques that helped him socially.

For any family coping with this disability, Blake's stories strengthen the bond between reader and author by sharing all the quirks that often characterize ADHD kids, such as an obsession with Legos and Knex toys, the inability to sit through a meal, hypersensitivity to noises, bright lights and crowds, an impaired sense of the body's boundaries, the tics, poor penmanship, the perception of disrespect from "trying to defend yourself," and the mysteriously cancelled playdates.  Many readers will recognize their own stories unfolding in the pages.

The stories follow Blake's inner dialogue as he struggles to behave normally and as he slowly improves with treatment and therapy. And so they stand as direct evidence refuting the widespread and harmful myth that ADHD is a figment of our imaginations. Egged on by sensationalist media hounds like Rush Limbaugh (who calls ADHD "a hoax"), most Americans believe that the true epidemic is not a mental health condition, but the aggressive medication of kids with unnecessary psychotropics merely because they act like "rowdy boys." They believe that parents and teachers, too lazy or liberal to exact some good old fashioned discipline, resort to doping up the children on "kiddie cocaine."

As evident in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM of Mental Health Disorders, the scientific community was long ago compelled by the preponderance of evidence from behavioral studies, brain scans, clinical trials, etc. But unfortunately for Blake and others, a gap between real science and popular science always persists, and ADHD is no exception. That's why Blake's first grade teacher, rejecting Blake's diagnosis, tried to "fix him" through repeated detention and humiliating punishments (e.g. cleaning the toilets).

Blake clearly goes after other myths as well: that the mother is to blame for bad behavior; that kids shouldn't seek assistance from adults (or "snitch") when harassed by other kids; and that disadvantaged kids should be left alone to build character, rather than be "coddled" with aids and special accommodations. He refutes the common misperception that he didn't care about the other kids. Recalling his first day of pre-school, Blake describes how the noises, fluorescent lights and crowds overwhelmed his senses-how he sought refuge in the quiet corner, which the teachers misinterpreted as lack of interest in making friends. Sometimes adults condemned Blake as violent when he tried to defend himself from bullying.

Nonetheless, ADHD & Me is ultimately upbeat. Blake's concluding message is that ADHD is a difference, not a disability. ADHD minds clearly present disadvantages that kids must learn to mitigate. But usually they also present gifts like intelligence, hyper-focus, passion, energy, creativity, an adventurous spirit, and love of nature. ADHD & Me reflects many of those gifts.

Blake's book is a good read for all. For kids with ADHD, it's a source of self-esteem and inspiration. For their families--including the lucky ones who met Blake at Kepler's--it's chock full of great advice. And for those who still dismiss ADHD kids as simply non-thinking derelicts, how can they refute Blake's testimony of his inner dialogue?

To them, Blake Taylor's story says: I write, therefore I think.

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  1. david lopez1:42 PM

    This is an unconventional way to reach out to you, but after reading through your blog this morning, it sounds like you might have an interest in mental health issues. You point out how Blake emphasizes that the importance of open communications with others helps empower people who struggle with ADHD. I wholeheartedly agree with that point of view, and would also point out that this is true for other areas of mental health as well.
    I am a psychiatrist by profession, and it is a fact that there is often a huge amount of negative stigma associated with mental health conditions. Oftentimes, because of this negative stigma as well as other factors, people who struggle with these conditions are isolated by their illness and have limited access to people who can help or support them.
    In order to help improve upon this unfortunate state of affairs in the worlds of mental health, I have recently started a company called Psychiatry Networks that provides mental health services online. In fact we are the first virtual clinic on the Internet that I know of, and we provide real time confidential clinical services using audio and video technology that connects clinicians and clients who are separated by large distances. Up here in North Dakota where I'm located and where large distances and poor medical access are huge issues, so far our services have been a pretty big hit. We're getting ready to formally launch our website,, in the next few months with the goal of providing these mental health services to anybody who has an Internet connection and who wants to access these services from the privacy of their own homes. Educational content about mental health conditions and other interactive features such as self diagnostic tests and the ability to create your own web pages and chat with other people who are wrestling with mental health issues will also be available at the website. We believe that by providing services that can be received in a discreet, confidential fashion online will lessen the negative stigma that I mentioned earlier and also improve access to greatly needed services. So there is help out there and more is coming...
    In case you are interested, I also sent some information about our company to the email address you had listed at the bottom of your blog page. We are a small company and a new company at this point, but with all the demand for our services we are needing to expand quite quickly, and I think someone such as yourself might be able to help (or know people that might be able to help) in that regard in terms of resources and business expertise. Thanks for the interesting blog. I will continue to make sure and follow it in the future.
    Dave Lopez

  2. De-stigmatization is one of the core take-aways, as Dave notes. Just like race dissolves under a realization of the genetic nature of our common humanity, the stigma associated with mental illness dissolves in understanding that these conditions are due to genetic predispositions combined with situational factors that cause changes in brain chemistry.

    Whether we are talking about ADHD, OCD, PTSD, magical thinking and it's relationship to dopamine, oxytocin, or some of the other remarkable discoveries about cognition, affect and neurochemistry, compassion and understanding are the required takeaways.

  3. Anonymous12:50 AM

    I recently got diagnosed with ADD at the age of 27 (almost 28). I was tested in high school but was borderline and never medicated. I decided to get tested again to see if i was misdiagnosed (to me ritalin was the magic pill). In my teens years I couldn't explain to others (in a clear manner) how I felt. It took me years to learn how to allow myself to communicate to others.
    And I have no problem sharing with others my experience and recent diagnosis. Ritalin is not a permanent solution but one that helps me modify my behavior and I will not need it forever.

  4. I grew up with ADHD and I fortunately never felt the stigma...among my peers at least.

    But, after high school, I tried to enlist in the Air Force, and it took 3 extra months because I was initially medically disqualified for having a "psychiatric diagnosis." I had to crawl around to different shrinks and convince them it was all a mistake so I could get a waiver.

    A few years ago while I was in college, I decided to get my pilot's license and again I couldn't initially pass the medical. In this country, if you have "active" ADD/ADHD you can't even legally fly a Cessna.

    So although now on paper I was officially "misdiagnosed," I have a label that will follow me forever.

    There go my (and millions of other young people's) dream of becoming an astronaut!

    Like the first poster in this thread, I also have a bit of an ulterior motive for posting. I have a startup that is essentially LifeLock for family disaster preparedness with a bit GPS and iPhone technology in the mix. How does a relatively unconnected person get in front of you?

  5. Anonymous1:08 PM

    Online virtual mental health clinics are old news. The first ones started in 1999 and one of the first was, which offered text and videoconferencing capabilities. It's still around, but online mental health services are not a big business.

    You may really want to research the industry you're promoting with your company before making claims about being the "first."

  6. Anonymous5:39 PM

    you may be interested in this:
    Truly an unfortunate name. where were the marketing people on this one?