ADHD & Story Sorcery
Three years ago I started working for Story Planet, a nonprofit that runs creative writing workshops in Toronto. The job entailed going into classrooms accompanied by a team of volunteers and a visual artist, and leading students through a collective writing process known as a Story Maker. Once our group-concocted-story arrived at a natural cliffhanger, students would write individual endings and draw a picture to go with it. The stories were often about ninjas or some permutation of ninjas: zombie-ninjas, shark-ninjas, princess-werewolf-ninjas and once, a centaur-ninja whose stealth, I suspected, was undermined by the clip clop of their hooves.
Initially, the job seemed overwhelmingly difficult: managing a rowdy group of kids throwing out disjointed ideas, and weaving these fifth-grade fancies into a coherent story. Despite the fact that I often have an immense amount of trouble paying attention when one solitary person addresses me, it quickly became clear that I had an aptitude for this Story Sorcery.
One reason it came naturally was that this kind of high intensity, anything goes type environment was similar to the environment of my ADHD mind, where thoughts flit around like over-caffeinated minnows and fragmented dialogues echo against my skull before dropping into the ocean of the unconscious. When talking to one person, the pace can be too slow, the number of perspectives too few. Having a dozen nine-year olds yell at me about ninjas and centaurs was just my speed.
Despite my own immense pleasure in leading Story Makers, it became clear that the children who benefited the most from the workshops were the ones who already worked with confidence and ease. What about the kids who hung back? The ones who disrupted the work; who tentatively offered ideas and then shut down when asked to elaborate? We encouraged volunteers to give them extra attention, but it was rarely enough to fully engage them.
My second year at Story Planet, we developed an extended program that encouraged students to develop stories inspired by their own lives. Our hope was to build a relationship with each student, including the kids who had a harder time with the process. The results were all over the map: some students eagerly embraced the challenge; some formed cliques that would write nothing but thinly veiled Pokémon fan-fiction; others flat out refused to do anything and ran around the classroom until their teachers intervened.
While I’d usually left Story Makers feeling energized and excited, I found that I was leaving the extended program sessions feeling like I’d been dragged through the dirt. Many students did not want to reflect on their lives, or else insisted that they couldn’t: they didn’t have any good ideas; nothing interesting had ever happened to them. In the period immediately following a student’s declaration of defeat, I began to notice a curious phenomenon: I’d completely space out for several seconds before effortfully summoning my focus back to the moment. I’d take a breath and assure the student that an idea would come as we chatted or doodled, and try with all my might to remain present.
These interactions caused me to reflect on my own painful experience of elementary school. I’d been a goofy kid with a big smile who loved to tell jokes, but I’d also had a fierce temper and struggled with schoolwork. From a young age I was ostracized and mocked by my classmates for frequent bursts of exhibitionist behaviour, leaving me with a deep-seated sense of not belonging. I recognized these traits in many students I worked with and we often ended up triggering each other’s ADHD symptoms, our mutual energies vibrating like a gong until we recovered ourselves.
More and more I practiced emanating calm and acceptance as students tentatively wrote a few sentences and then scribbled them out, drew pictures only to crumple them up in despair. “No problem,” I’d tell them, “Let’s take a break,” and then after a minute: “What do you feel like talking about today?” Maybe they’d want to talk about how they hated cleaning their room, maybe they’d want to talk about ninjas. In that case, I might gently suggest “let’s write a story about a ninja who hates cleaning their room!”
While this technique worked most of the time, I also encountered students who were immune. One boy in particular (I’ll call him Jordan), was usually brimming with energy and creativity at the beginning of a session, but would get worn down and overwhelmed quickly, often coming in from morning recess with tears in his eyes. If anything set him off, he would shut down completely. I’d saunter over, try and chat to him, “Hi Jordan, that’s a cool hat, I used to have one just like it.” He might raise his eyes enough to meet mine with a scornful look that said “Don’t try and trick me, I know you don’t care about me.” I knew the look well: it had been my go-to at his age.
On the day of the final session with Jordan’s class, I arrived early to speak to his teacher. I asked if Jordan was being treated for ADHD. “I’ve met with his parents about it,” his teacher told me, “but they refuse to acknowledge that anything’s wrong. They want him to figure it out on his own.” Over the next few weeks I thought about Jordan often, tearing up when I did. People with untreated ADHD are at a higher risk for addiction, unemployment, anxiety and depression. They often find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. I had fallen into a few of these traps myself and found it depressing to imagine what lay in wait for Jordan if he didn’t get the support he needed.
The truth is, people with ADHD can’t just “figure it out on their own”, and pressuring them to do so is completely counterproductive. In addition to options like medication and therapy, kids like Jordan need to be given the space to be who they are on their own terms and learn to work with their symptoms, rather than trying to “defeat” them. Imposing a neurotypical framework on a child with ADHD is like putting horseshoes on an unyielding centaur – it’ll only piss them off. My own default setting has been stuck on ‘frustrated and pissed off’ for most of my life, and only in exploring the roots of my ADHD symptoms have I been able to start to calm down. I’m grateful to be able to do this work, but often I can’t help wishing I’d had Story Planet as a kid: a chilled out, anything goes-type environment where ninja-centaurs run wild.