Spilling Out Of The Lines: In Celebration Of ADHD Awareness Month

By Mirella Ang (22A01C)

A pair of boys went to a park, smashed a beehive, got chased by bees, jumped into a reservoir, got caught in a whirlpool, and almost drowned. Luckily, they were saved by a passing policeman who threw them an oxygen tank. This was what my brother wrote for a primary school composition based on the picture of a cartoon beehive. 

His incredulous story’s origins aren’t all that incredulous. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder. 

Think autism, but a little crazier: several studies have identified overlapping traits that people with ADHD and autism possess. (However, autistic people hyperfixate on the little details; people with ADHD hyperfixate on every detail.) 

One key characteristic of ADHD is the inability to stay focused and on track with a task. Even, for example, telling a story or writing a composition: 

The ADHD Storytelling Chart. 
(Comic by Dani Donovan.)

Neurotypicals (essentially people with a “normal” brain) would probably find all the backtracking and irrelevant details quite frustrating to get through. But for an ADHD person, these seemingly minor details are imperative to tell the tale exactly as they imagined it. They live by the butterfly effect. Every single detail has to be mapped out accordingly, and they are all essential when it comes to telling the story right. 

Although neurotypicals (especially the poor teachers who have to sit through the arduously painful composition of an 11-year-old) probably think this hyperfixation on the irrelevant is a flaw, that simply isn’t true. Observing how everything could potentially be interconnected at some point is characteristic of ingenuity, according to Scientific American. 

Neuroatypical activism website Understood explains that impulsivity, another commonly associated symptom with the condition, essentially means less inner inhibition — meaning less of an “inner critic” that “silences the flow of ideas”. Open and unencumbered expression of thought, no matter how bizarre the said thought is, is something that most ADHD people are gifted with. In other words, creativity!

And creativity is crucial to our evolution as it has always been, says anthropologist Augustín Fuentes. Just think back to all the inventions that have made life better for us in the digital age. The lightbulb is one — the classic stereotypical symbol of inventiveness — not to mention that Edison himself was deemed the “poster boy for ADHD”. What about the invention of vaccines? Recording devices? The computer I’m typing this article out on? Perhaps they wouldn’t have come about without a creative mind. 

In RI, thanks to the A levels syllabus, very little room is left (perhaps even allowed) for creativity and different types of thinking. For science subjects, lab practicals are based on theories learnt in class and not purely on the scientific method of experimenting. In arts subjects, despite the age-old adage that “there is no right answer”, there is a right opinion and a right method of expression that we need to stick to in order to score. 

The syllabus doesn’t really encourage deviance — much less creativity. 

This really isn’t the fault of any educational institute. The skills taught — structured essays, PEEL, topic sentences, concrete evidence — are all necessary and important ones to have, especially in higher education. And given that the next step in our education pathway for most of us is university, it’s little wonder that RI and MOE place such utmost emphasis on the development of these skills. 

Explosions of wit and overwhelming disorder probably isn’t quite characteristic of seventeen and eighteen year-olds, either, even if they are neuroatypical. 

Being overly creative is what makes exams particularly difficult for people with ADHD. Much like my brother’s composition story, writing essays and keeping to a single point becomes incredibly tough. They cannot differentiate between what is precisely relevant, and what is merely a red herring. 

Even familiarising themselves with PEEL and topic sentences does nothing for actually executing them in real life. That’s why their exam scripts are often deemed “messy” with “unrelated tangents”. After all, people with ADHD have described their lives as “constantly doing side quests over the main story”. ADHD is a disorder, after all. 

It’s a disorder that brings with it pain. Sure, they’re creative and bright. Gifted, as a lot of people might say. But studies have found that 80% of ADHD-diagnosed people end up struggling with at least one other psychiatric condition in their lifetime. 

It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a circular hole: ADHD people try so hard to fit into what’s considered “normal”, like being able to churn out a coherent essay in an hour. It only serves to compound the feelings of worthlessness when they fail. 

This month is ADHD Awareness Month, and in celebration of the funny and the ugly, maybe it‘s time to take a more nuanced view of structure and disorder in schools. Primary school kids should be encouraged to think outside of the box. (In any case, they might lose their imagination as they grow older and become disillusioned with life outside fairy tales.) 

ADHD students (and perhaps, ADHD humans of all ages) should be given the chance to hone their innate creativity. Why should they be confined to what’s considered “normal development” when they simply are not? 

It’s particularly difficult to keep within the marked out lines of a rubric or what is considered “normal”. To reuse an overused saying, “they’re different, not less.” But maybe it’s time to actually accept that they’re different and let them spill outside the lines, instead of trying to stuff them back in.

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