Freshman publishes memoir of his life with ADHD
Two years after starting to write, his hope remains to humanize a misunderstood disorder
| 06 February 2008
Blake Taylor, who has struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) his entire life, has recently published a personal account of his life with the widespread neuro-developmental disorder.
ADHD & Me: What I Learned From Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table (New Harbinger, 2008) is the determined 18-year-old's attempt to give readers insight into what it's like, on a day-to-day basis, to have ADHD. He's also eager to combat the stereotype that the disorder is really just an excuse for unruly behavior or the result of bad parenting.
(Jeffery Kahn photo)
"I want to change the view that ADHD doesn't exist, or that it's solely a disability," says Taylor, a recent graduate of San Francisco's International High School whose chiseled good looks are offset by nervous tics.
Taylor controls his wandering mind with daily medication, near-obsessive scheduling, and nine hours of sleep a night. Without the drugs he takes to control ADHD's effects, his mind will jump from thought to thought like a remote control randomly flipping through TV channels.
His new book chronicles his turbulent journey: from life as a hyperactive 5-year-old who couldn't sit still or make friends, to an adolescent who impulsively set a fire at the dinner table, to a highly organized 18-year-old who studies hard, works out, plays piano, and enjoys an active social life.
"I get my papers in on time. I go clubbing. I go to the gym. I do sports," Taylor says. "I have a normal college life."
But to get to "normal," Taylor had to learn to harness the impulsiveness and soaring energy he was born with. His book uses personal anecdotes to humanize the disorder that affects at least 4 million young Americans and an untold number of adults, many of them never diagnosed.
His autobiographical debut has earned Taylor high praise from some of the nation's leading ADHD experts, including Berkeley psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw, who has led groundbreaking studies on boys and girls with ADHD.
"It's one thing to read about symptoms of various conditions in diagnostic guides or textbooks," Hinshaw says. "But it's an entirely different story when you hear firsthand how a person with a disorder really lives. Taylor's book humanizes ADHD and reveals, in clear, pointed prose, both daily struggles and the hope that emerges from well-delivered treatment."
Hinshaw says that although researchers are still a long way from making a clinical ADHD diagnosis on the basis of a brain scan, brain-imaging studies are indicating that, in people with ADHD, the key connectors between frontal lobes and deeper brain areas responsible for attention and motor control differ from those without the disorder.
In addition, he says, research suggests there is a strong genetic component: "It is now well-known that genes are highly related to ADHD. In fact, genes related to the neurotransmitter dopamine are the leading candidate genes for this condition. And although parenting does not cause ADHD, how parents respond to a child with ADHD may make a huge difference for ultimate outcomes."
Taylor's mother, Nadine Taylor-Barnes, is living proof of this. She always suspected her son was more hyperactive than the average toddler. When he was 5, she took him to her Vassar College reunion, and her best friend, who also had a son with ADHD, told her to get Blake checked out. "She took one look at him and said, 'Get him to a specialist and get him treated. Don't go through what I went through with my son,' " she recalls.
Taylor was first diagnosed with intermediate-to-high ADHD, at a time when a lot less was known about the condition. Other family members had resisted getting Blake diagnosed and were opposed to ADHD medication, so it was an uphill battle from the get-go, his mother says.
After reading Driven to Distraction, Edward Hallowell's book on how to cope with ADHD, Taylor-Barnes put together a comprehensive plan to channel her son's erratic energy and improve his academic and social skills. "I felt that if all his high energy could be channeled into academics, music, community service, and sports, a lot of positive things could come out of it," she says.
She also enrolled her son in a social-skills class. "When a child has ADHD, he or she is not able to read the nonverbal cues very well. You literally have to teach them how to pick up the phone and chat with a classmate," she says.
At first, Taylor recalls, his mother told him that the pills she gave him were vitamins, but he quickly figured out that they helped him concentrate. He started out on Dexedrine, moving on to Adderall and (later) other long-acting psycho-stimulant drugs.
Once, he recalls, he forgot to take his medication before an English exam, and paid the price: "I was trying to write about [Homer's] Odyssey. Then I started looking at pictures of World War I. Then I thought of skiing, and then about sailing, and by the end of the hour I didn't have much written."
Today, he says, his medication allows him to enter a "hyper-focused" state so he can concentrate on one task for as long as eight hours. Still, like more than 100 other Berkeley students with ADHD, he's registered with the campus's Disabled Students' Program, which enables him to request accommodation from instructors for more time (and other reasonable adjustments) to complete schoolwork and tests.
The idea to write a book came to Taylor in the winter of 2003, when he started writing high-school-application essays about challenges he had faced. As he dug deep inside himself, he realized that his story needed to be told so that other kids wouldn't needlessly suffer. Two years later, he started writing.
"I want the book to help other people my age recognize their ADHD and view it as a gift," he says.
Aside from being a published author at 18, Taylor speaks fluent French, and his charity work includes finding good homes for former racing greyhounds. (His family in Hillsborough has adopted three of them.) His plan at Berkeley is to major in molecular and cell biology and French, though there's more to it than that.
"I want to join a frat, do some research before I go to medical school, take the MCAT, get good grades, and make long-term friends," Taylor says, his boyish grin breaking through the frowns and tics. "I'm on the right track."
Instructors with students who have been diagnosed with ADHD may wish to consider several tips for teaching them that have been posted online by the Disabled Students' Program at dsp.berkeley.edu/TeachStudents WithDisab.html#9.