Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are so-called “developmental disorders” that affect millions of children and adults globally. ADHD consists of an inability to maintain attention and impulsive behaviour. ASD involves difficult forming relationships, interacting with others and using language efficiently.
You can see simply from the countless variations of definitions of the “disorders” that they are portrayed in a negative or restricting light. The very term “disorder” epitomises this. Just look at the screenshot below from Google’s scholarly articles on ADHD and ASD – both are repeatedly conveyed as defects that need to be treated or prevented.
But this negative identity is outdated, inaccurate and pessimistic.
ADHD and ASD are, in fact, unique faculties that, though they do pose some difficulties, can be of great benefit to individuals and society. Rather than shortcomings that need to be cured, they should be treated as powers that should be harnessed.
I realised this after listening to London rapper Loyle Carner, who has ADHD. Carner is a strong advocate of the view that ADHD is a superpower (he was the first person I heard describe ADHD like this) and inspired my passion for elucidating the positive side of developmental “disorders”. He often speaks in interviews about growing up with ADHD, explaining that children with ADHD are expected to fail because they have limited attention. But Carner attributed much of his success to having ADHD and wants other young people to realise and harness this. In his attempts to debunk the ADHD myths, Carner has opened a cooking school designed for teenagers with ADHD.
Shortly after becoming aware of this, I found myself in an artificially set-up debate during a psychology seminar. The debate concerned the improvement of educational services for children with ASD in a fictitious society. But the debate quickly became very real when an opponent was insistent on “curing” ASD. My passionate side came out and I think I won the argument (I most definitely won).
Until we all become aware of the positive aspects of developmental “disorders” such as ASD and ADHD, our approaches to dealing with them will be ineffective or wasteful.
Some of the benefits of ADHD include greater perceptiveness and more creativity. Both children and adults with ADHD were shown to be more creative than controls. Notably, children with ADHD were found to be able to design a much more diverse array of toys than their peers. Given these benefits, people with ADHD may be better suited to some highly specialised jobs. Jobs that continuously present new environments or require perceptiveness and creativeness (e.g. photography, journalism) are ideal for those with ADHD.
People with ASD are also much more creative than people without it. They replace their lack of focus on social and verbal cues with greater visual processing, leading to better attention to detail and problem-solving skills. They also manage to identify more non-conventional uses for everyday objects than others. This innovativeness is something that should not be understated or ignored simply because of deficits in emotional or social processing, for example.
Given the benefits of ADHD and ASD – as well as other developmental superpowers – it seems strange that we still focus on preventing and curing them, rather than nurturing and harnessing them for the good of individuals and society. I am not saying that people with ADHD and ASD do not suffer and have no difficulties, but that we should not focus solely on them.
The right educational support and nudging would improve social and personal attitudes towards developmental superpowers, both improving the confidence and career paths of those who possess them. Programmes such as the cooking school set up by Loyle Carner do this well, allowing young people to realise their potential and find out how they can use their abilities. However, the focus cannot only be on those who have the superpowers, but on teachers, employers, the government and their peers. Social attitudes towards developmental “disorders” need to be changed in order for the powers to be utilised effectively.
Negative approaches to ADHD and ASD are outdated and inaccurate.
I would like to finish with a quote from Richard Friedman, professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, who sums up my view very nicely.
“In the right environment, these traits are not a disability, and can be a real asset.”
What do you think about the portrayal of ADHD and ASD? Leave a comment below and share with your friends – We’d love to hear from you!