The Unique Brain

The link between ADHD and creativity is turning a problem into a gift.

Illustration by Neven Raja Samara

As soon as my son was able to walk he was a ball of perpetual motion. He literally could not sit still, and it was exhausting for my husband and me. Our friends would say, “You have to distract him and keep him busy.” When that didn’t work, we took him to his pediatrician, and the doctor told us, “If you put 50 kids in Candlestick Park,” — we were living in San Francisco at the time — “49 of them would be happy and one would be standing at the gate saying, ‘Let me out.’” Our son was that child looking to get out. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

ADHD was labeled a “mental disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association about thirty years ago, and since 1991, specialists have known that ADHD is linked to an underactive section of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex — the section that is a key developer of focus, concentration, and motivation, among other things. A lack of blood flow and oxygen to this area of the brain is what brings about the symptoms of the disorder, including impulsiveness, inattention to details, and defiance. The number of people in the world now diagnosed with some form of ADHD (hyperactivity is not always associated) ranges from five to 15 percent, and boys are twice as likely to have it as girls.

As my son got older I found that it was almost impossible to talk about ADHD without invoking negative connotations. In fact, it still is. There are ongoing debates about whether doctors and teachers are too quick to prescribe medications like Ritalin, a methylphenidate stimulant that helps activate the prefrontal cortex. Some even argue whether ADHD should be considered an official psychological disorder. Most everyone thinks that an ADHD diagnosis is a bad thing.

“Because the diagnosis comes out of a Western model of medicine, it’s going to be looked at as a problem,” says Dr. James Ochoa, the director of the Life Empowerment Center in Austin, Texas, and my son’s ADHD counselor for many years. “It’s just one more thing you have to move through.”

As the parent of an ADHD child I know it’s a challenge, but I can also say with confidence that ADHD is not a bad thing. In fact, I believe it can be a gift — specifically a creative gift.

The common perception of ADHD is that people with it can’t be directed and they can’t focus, but that’s not accurate. If you help someone with ADHD find an activity that interests him, he actually has a more focused commitment than individuals without the disorder. Professionals call this ability “hyper focusing.” The challenge for a parent with a child who has the diagnosis is to help him discover his interest.

“I believe the cure for ADHD is helping a child or adult find his sweet spot,” says Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Gift of ADHD. “It’s where your passion meets your purpose.”

Discovering my son’s “sweet spot” didn’t happen right away. We tried sports and various camps but they didn’t work. Then in the summer before he entered third grade he went to a writing camp. The requirements were two composition notebooks and a pen. The camp counselor encouraged the children to write through various activities. My son wrote an entire novel. We were amazed, as was his third grade teacher. He couldn’t even sit in a chair, but given something he loved to do and the right environment in which to do it, he was able to focus. His teacher encouraged me to test him for the gifted and talented program at his school. That program allowed him to explore creative areas he had never experienced.

The fact that my son ended up pursuing creative work wouldn’t be a surprise to many ADHD experts. There’s actually a profound link between ADHD and creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Edison all had symptoms related to attention deficit disorder.

In an oft-cited 1995 study called "The Coincidence of ADHD and Creativity," Dr. Bonnie Cramer of the University of Georgia compared the scientific data for people considered to be creative to the scientific data for people with ADHD. She found similarities in everything from brain structure to temperament and mood. Both creatives and those with ADHD are underwhelmed by repetitive tasks and “hyper aroused” by spontaneity. Neither does well in controlled or rigid environments. Both tend not to play by the rules, preferring instead to create their own structures. As it turns out, creative people and ADHDers both have a unique ability to take ideas and “make sense of them by organizing them into new perceptual relationships.” This is the essence of original thinking.

What’s even more interesting about this connection is the fact that creative thinking is in more demand around the world than at any other time in history. Authors like Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman, and Richard Florida have all pointed out that as business becomes more global and culturally complex, companies are in more need of inventiveness and empathy than they are of, say, rote number crunching.