ADD or Attention-Driven Difference: The Edison Trait

Would you call this child’s thinking “deficient and disordered?”

If you were evaluating little Al, you might consider him a very troubled child. A bit hard of hearing due to scarlet fever and several ear infections, Al annoyed listeners with a loud, never-ending stream of questions. Before he reached the age of six, this highly active child accidentally burned down the family barn.

Then school started, and things really got difficult.

Al attended three different schools from the ages of 7 to 9. His teachers complained about him constantly. His inability to sit still, his lack of focus on their curriculum, and his talkativeness made him a target for their frustrations. Finally, when one of his principles said Al was “unteachable,” his mother pulled him out and schooled him herself. She encouraged his independent thinking, as well as his scientific and entrepreneurial tendencies. She even let him build a lab in the basement.

Because of his mother’s recognition that Al simply needed the right educational environment, we gained the light bulb, the telegraph, the stock ticker, the central power generating station, the phonograph, the flexible celluloid film and movie projector, the alkaline storage battery, and the microphone. Al, who was Thomas Alvin Edison, was proud of the fact that, of the over 1,000 inventions he contributed to our society, none were weapons.

If he were growing up today, Thomas Edison would almost certainly receive a diagnosis of ADHD, but can we honestly say his thinking was deficient or disordered? “Look,” he once said about his creative process, “I start here with the intention of going there in an experiment, say, to increase the speed of the Atlantic cable; but when I have arrived part way in my straight line, I meet with a phenomenon and it leads me off in another direction — to something totally unexpected.”

Does that sound like anyone you know? A child with this kind of intelligence and flexibility of interest can definitely succeed in our fast-paced, techno-rich world. However, these same traits can also bring conflict into our children’s lives, because the common school environment focuses on one repeating idea at a time, without going off on interesting tangents, and without getting out of your seat.

In his 2003 book, The Edison Gene, author Thom Hartmann continues to apply his own creative thinking to the subject of ADD/ADHD. He often recommends alternative schooling for children who have been given that diagnosis. “…A mismatch between school and child can mask the child’s considerable gifts for creativity and independent thinking,” Hartmann writes.

These gifts are not only masked in the eyes of parents and teachers who aren’t trained to bring out the best in ADD kids, but also in the eyes of the kids themselves. In the wrong educational environment, these kids begin to identify with masks labeled “underachiever, drop-out, apathetic, addicted.”

Edison didn’t succumb to those masks, because his mother was able to harness his gifts. Wouldn’t it be nice to harness your child’s attention, energy, independence, and intelligence so that s/he could thrive and contribute to the world, instead of constantly fighting trouble and low self-esteem?

A child with ADD, says Hartmann and other experts, does not suffer from disordered attention, so much as s/he suffers from the inability of “traditional” schools to meet the needs of a difference in attention. What’s needed, says Hartmann, is a model for understanding ADD that focuses on its gifts and does not make a child think s/he is diseased or brain damaged. A residential school that understands and specializes in meeting the needs of ADD/ADHD children can correct misconceptions and bring out the best in your own young Edison.