Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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If your child has ADD or ADHD, or you think they might, do you worry that it will affect their life and future in only negative ways? Distractibility, disorganization, hyperactivity, interrupting the teacher, not completing assignments, poor time management, underachievement – the list goes on.

I agree there are significant challenges associated with having ADHD, and certainly being the parent of a child with ADHD is not easy!

But today let’s look at the flip side of the coin – the positive aspects. I’ll use the term ADHD because our diagnostic manual (the DSM-5) groups all of these attention disorders under Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), allowing us to specify predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, or combined presentation subtypes.

Recently, research has been focused on uncovering the strengths associated with being wired differently. Dyslexics have trouble with sounds and language (housed in the brain’s left hemisphere), but they are often great at visual spatial thinking (housed in the right hemisphere). This may explain why we have so many successful dyslexic architects, engineers, and artists. Individuals with Asperger’s may have difficulty thinking at the “big picture” level (this requires a broad network of neural connections), but are better than most people at narrowing in on a specific topic. This may be why the Israeli army recruits people with Asperger’s into an elite intelligence unit dedicated to interpreting aerial and satellite photographs. They can see details that others can’t.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if your brain is weak in one area that another might pick up the slack? In her book The Autistic Brain,  Temple Grandin explains that some areas of her brain are smaller than normal, and others are larger. Dr. Grandin is brilliant at visualizing how things work, and she feels this is because the volume of axons (the pathway) projecting from the area of visual object information to her frontal and motor cortex is 10x larger than most people’s. Being different need not always be a bad thing.

Let’s look at the strengths associated with ADHD. The hunter/farmer hypothesis proposes that ADHD was an evolutionary advantage to nomadic hunter-gatherers who could both hyperfocus and were better able to sense and respond quickly to predators. It is only as agriculture developed and people became farmers that these behaviors – so useful hunting mammoths on the plains – became maladaptive in environments like the modern classroom. Maybe ADHD was an advantageous variation in human evolution. Could it still be?

In an article I wrote for CHADD a few years ago I touched on this topic: Looking for Silver Linings in the ADHD Playbook.

Here are the top ten benefits or “superpowers” associated with having ADHD in modern society:

  1. Creativity
  2. High energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, zest for life
  3. More sensitive/attuned to environment, 360-degree awareness
  4. Interpersonal intuition/emotional sensitivity (e.g. strong radar for other’s feelings)
  5. Entrepreneurial drive and talent, willingness to take risks
  6. Innovative, willing to explore, invent, think differently, fresh perspective, divergent thinking
  7. Holistic thinking coupled with ability to make quick thought connections
  8. Ability to multi-task
  9. Sense of humor
  10. Spontaneity

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

My favorite strength, and the one with the most evidence to support it, is creativity. Why would ADHD support enhanced creativity? Because weak ability to inhibit distraction and lapses in attention facilitate divergent thinking and the generation of random thoughts and ideas. Also a wider attentional span allows more elements and ideas to be combined, generating novel and original ideas. And the willingness to take risks is one of the core underpinnings of creativity. Researchers at UConn recently published a study about Engineering Students with ADHD, finding they possess “unparalleled creativity and risk-taking potential.”  They can draw on the kind of non-traditional divergent thinking essential for making radical technological breakthroughs – just the kind of thinking that moves society forward.

Forbes magazine describes ADHD as “the entrepreneurs superpower”. Sir Richard Branson, Ikea founder Ingar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neelman are exemplars. Success magazine reports that “some of the most successful entrepreneurs credit their attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder for their accomplishments.” Creative people in fields from acting to politics attribute their success to their ADHD (actors Justin Timberlake, Channing Tatum, and Ryan Gosling, swimmer Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time), political strategist James Carville, and others).

I’m a big believer in nurturing the strengths and interests of every child, not just trying to “fix” their weaknesses and make them be like everyone else. A strengths-based approach is especially important for students diagnosed with a disability. Yes, we need to help the child with ADHD get through school by addressing the challenges associated with their profile. But to help them fulfill their potential and become happy and productive members of society, we need to place an equal or perhaps even greater emphasis on helping them discover and celebrate their unique abilities.

Look for the ADHD “superpowers” in your child, and help them become the successful adult they have the potential to be!

If you’d like to talk with me about how to reinforce and develop the strengths of your child with ADHD, please e-mail me to plan a time to chat. I can be reached at: dm@drdevon.com.

Back in the last century and through the early 1900’s researchers operated under the assumption that intelligence was a uni-dimensional construct. You were either smart, or you weren’t. And how smart you were could be measured with one test resulting in one number: IQ.

In the 1970’s a shift began away from the IQ construct. Gardener argued in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences that there were up to ten kinds of ability: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and moral. Sternberg proposed practical, creative, and analytical intelligences. Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence, or EQ. While these theories add considerably to our understanding of broader abilities and what it takes to be a happy and successful person, I’d like to focus in this blog on the kinds of mental abilities required to reason, solve problems, think abstractly, and comprehend complex ideas. What I’d call “intellectual abilities.”

Research has advanced to the point where we probably know more about the underlying cognitive and brain processes involved in mental abilities and intelligence than any other complex psychological construct. Click here for more information on this concept. The consensus is that the most useful and descriptive model of intelligences is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Model. This model has become so prevalent that nearly all modern IQ tests have been changed to incorporate the theory as their foundation.

I find the CHC model to be a very useful framework for understanding individual student’s ability profiles and how they impact learning –how they are intelligent.

The CHC model identifies over 80 different cognitive abilities. About 30-40 of these are important in school learning and achievement. The others, like “musical discrimination and judgment,” aren’t as directly related to academic achievement.

It is a fact that most of us have uneven profiles of strengths and weaknesses across these 30-40 abilities. Let me illustrate the concept. But instead of showing all 30-40 school-related abilities, I’ll illustrate the point with 11 of the more important ones (e.g. verbal reasoning, listening ability, inductive and deductive reasoning, aspects of memory,  processing speed).

The stereotype of a highly intelligent, gifted child is that they are good at everything. If they were, one would expect to see a profile like the graph below – all abilities would be in the highest ranges.

I rarely see a uniform profile like this, even among highly and profoundly gifted learners. Most gifted students are not equally gifted at everything. They may have some abilities in the average range and even some in the well below-average ranges.

The flip side of the gifted stereotype is the learning disabled stereotype. This stereotype holds that students with learning disabilities are bad at everything academic/intellectual. A student who is weak in all of the cognitive ability areas contributing to academic learning would be expected to have a flat profile with low scores in all areas.

I have never seen a student with learning disabilities with a flat profile like this. Students with learning disabilities, by definition, have areas of cognitive strength. They are not bad at everything. But when I ask students who are having difficulty at school what they think their profile looks like, many think it looks like the graph above. They’ve lost sight of their strengths (if they ever knew they had them). They tend to think they’re “bad at school” and maybe even “not too smart.”

In reality, very few people are good at everything or bad at everything. Most of us have uneven profiles with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others – more like the chart below. Terms like “gifted” and “learning disabled” are too vague to describe these variations. Gifted at what ability? How gifted in that specific ability area? Learning disabled at what? How learning disabled in that specific ability area?

From a practical standpoint what’s important is to understand where the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how to work with them. How they’re intelligent.

Recently I worked with a boy whose parents and teachers felt he was not achieving his potential in school, and wondered if he might have ADHD or a learning disability. Zack was a hard-working and motivated student who was engaged in class, diligently turned in his homework, and studied hard for tests. He tended to get great marks during the semester but couldn’t seem to break a “C” on tests and exams. My assessment ascertained that he didn’t have ADHD or a learning disability, and he had a nice solid IQ at the 90th percentile. But he had a surprising weakness in long-term auditory memory. This explained his underperformance – he wasn’t consolidating learning efficiently into long-term memory so he couldn’t efficiently retrieve what he had learned for tests and exams. The good news for Zack and his family was that this is quite fixable. One can get better at memorizing and storing information. We came up with a tutoring plan to build his ability utilizing his stronger visual memory and fluid reasoning.

An understanding of how the student is intelligent can be helpful to any child (like Zack, who it turned out was neither learning disabled nor gifted, but had an area of weakness that needed to be addressed). But it is especially important for twice-exceptional learners. The discrepancies between the twice-exceptional student’s strengths and weaknesses are more extreme than they are for most people. This unevenness of abilities causes considerable frustration. A 2E student may have very strong vocabulary and verbal reasoning, and excellent listening ability and fluid reasoning (inductive and deductive thinking), but their weaknesses in ability areas like phonetic coding and naming speed may severely inhibit their ability to read and demonstrate what they know in writing. In other words, they may be dyslexic. Or they may have extremely high quantitative reasoning and visual spatial ability yet be unable to reliably process information quickly and efficiently due to slow processing speed. An in-depth assessment of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is a very important step in figuring out how to help such students achieve their considerable potential.