Did Ferdinand the Bull Have ADHD?
One of the most wonderful memories I have as a child is of my mother quietly snuggling up with me and reading Munro Leaf’s wonderful illustrated classic, Ferdinand the Bull. The story is heartwarming, about a young bull in Spain who prefers to smell the roses rather than kick and jump and jockey with the other bulls. Don’t even ask what happens when he is put in the bullfighter’s arena! The impression one gets from reading the book is that Ferdinand is a pacifist, and simply prefers to love than to fight. And while this may be the intended interpretation of the book, as I was watching a 6 year-old child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) play soccer the other day, it came to me that perhaps Ferdinand actually represents another group of easily-distracted folk who always seem to irk the circles around them by being stirred by delights that fancy them rather than focusing on what society needs and wants them to do — people with ADHD.
This little girl in her green soccer uniform was so sweet, standing quietly at the edge of the soccer field, singing to herself. At the beginning of the game she looked up into the sky and squinted her eyes, as if trying to visualize cotton candy animals in the clouds, clearly disinterested in the competition that was about to begin. Her father yelled encouragingly, “FOCUS sweetie! Keep your eye on the ball!” and when the whistle blew and the game started, he added, “RUN!!” As if she was a racehorse released by an opened gate, the child jolted after the ball. She ran hard to keep up with the other children, dedicated to getting at the ball, groping for it, clawing at it, but never actually reaching it. After just a few minutes, one could see she tired of the game and slowed her pace to a stop. The other kids were now on the other side of the field as this sweet child gazed into the distance, and appeared to be enjoying the freshly cut grass smell, breathing in deeply, calmly looking peaceful and free. Her eyes then picked up on something a few yards away from her; she seemed mesmerized as she slowly walked towards something that enchanted her. And then she stopped in the middle of the field, gently bent down and plucked a bright lone dandelion and brought it to her lips. She smiled –- and was in heaven! “RUN!” exploded someone from the bleachers, startling the child from her meditation, causing her to drop the fragile flower. She looked around hurriedly and scurried to where the other kids were, again trying to be part of the pack and perform.
ADHD can be a crippling disorder for many children and adults because it often interferes with one’s ability to fit into society’s structural expectations. Yet, there is something very beautiful about the internal lives of people with ADHD, that is particularly apparent if you observe them closely: When not interfered with and allowed to choose their own paths, they tend to have a keen ability to “smell the roses.” This ability is enhanced by their tendency to be distracted by what the rest of us see as unimportant or irrelevant stimuli. But is the smell of a rose irrelevant?
Should we be impervious to the simple joys of life, just because the game society is playing demands performance? Well – yes, and no.
I struggle with this question every time I treat someone with ADHD. You see, if you really stop and watch people challenged with ADHD, they have a wonderful inner life that is much more spontaneous, creative and passionate than your average person.
The problem with ADHD is that people who suffer from it have trouble tempering their own inattentiveness in social or work situations: When not alone, and when forced to work in groups, the spontaneity of ADHD can been seen as impulsivity, creativity as uncooperative, passionate as irresponsible and flighty. Often people with attentional disorders struggle with making transitions from task to task, a skill set expected more than ever in this fast-paced world we live in. ADHD is a disorder of the frontal lobe of the brain that results in a tendency to be hyper-focused on tasks one is passionate about, and more easily distracted from mundane, often necessary tasks. When pulled away from a task intensely focused on, patients with ADHD can become excessively frustrated and irritable. ADHD is often characterized by a tendency to fidget, pick, or move, which I believe is an unconscious way in which patients self-stimulate in order to maintain focus on a topic that is particularly tough or complex. This is often socially or academically unacceptable and leads to scolding and impatience from peers and supervisors.
People with ADHD, like most of us, also yearn to have friends and to succeed in life, but this requires them to live up to basic societal rules.
To succeed at work or in school, we all need to start and complete our homework before it is due, whether or not we like the subject. To succeed interpersonally, while it definitely helps to be good looking and charming, the bottom line is that we all need to be responsive and responsible to those who we want to call our family and friends.
So, as usual, balance is key. If I do decide to treat ADHD with medications or CBT, my goal is to manage the exaggerated fluctuations of attention that cause my patients to suffer occupationally or interpersonally; but I also strive to honor, and avoid disturbing, the beautiful contributions of ADHD – spontaneity, creativity, and a unique passion and tendency to smell the roses.