His teacher saw a child who refused to stay seated. His doctor saw a child who needed medication. Any mother might have been tempted to lower her expectations for this child’s future.
Not Debbie Phelps. She knew her son, Michael, was gifted, ambitious and “always had a goal in mind.” Speaking from her experience as the mother of the Olympiad’s modern-day Poseidon — and from her lifelong experience as an educator — Phelps wants the stigma around ADHD to end.
“It’s time. It really is,” she says. Because, like Michael, “all kids with ADHD are gifted.” And like him, many in the first generation to be diagnosed are now adults, and successful ones too.
A Bad Rap
ADHD’s bad press begins with its name. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is “really a misnomer,” says Vivian Morgan, a Towson-based, licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in working with students and young adults with ADHD and anxiety. Although people with ADHD can have problems focusing, they also, ironically, can focus with laser-like intensity on projects they love.
Dr. Alison Pritchard, program director of the Neuropsychology Research Lab at Kennedy Krieger Institute, agrees. Far from being a “disorder of inattention,” Pritchard explains, “research shows that it’s more of a difficulty in allocating attention appropriately.” That means the people who stare out the windows in traditional classroom or office settings can also focus on their interests with enough intensity to, if they are Michael Phelps at least, shatter every record in international competition.
Phelps, executive director of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, is now in a unique position to speak to educators about teachers’ roles in dismantling old ideas about ADHD. Phelps spent the first 20 years of her career teaching in Harford County Public Schools and the second 20 in Baltimore County Public Schools as both a teacher and an administrator.
Educators, and society, need to view ADHD as more of a gift rather than a disorder, Phelps says. “Flip the coin over and look at all the positive things about it. There are so many.”
Energy and focus
Even with her years of experience as a teacher, Phelps says she didn’t identify Michael’s ADHD at first. He had seemingly infinite energy as a child and “was a very competitive athlete,” Phelps says. “He played lacrosse, he played baseball, he did cross country, he played soccer. I remember one night going to three different athletic events, and he was prepared for each one of them.”
While Michael’s physiology has been cited by sports analysts as a contributing factor to his success, Phelps says sweat contributed even more. “There were times in his training that he trained every day of the week,” Phelps remembers. “Every day of the week. Saturdays and Sundays. We didn’t have Christmas until we went to the pool. His thought process was if everyone else trains five days and I train seven days, look how much further I’m ahead of everybody else. It’s always being one step ahead, one step ahead when it comes to competition.”
Once Michael’s diagnosis was made, the disorder took shape in their lives as a problem, a battle over inattention that could only be won through chemistry. But, at around the same time, Michael was displaying an uncommon level of focus on the sports he played. The adults around him noticed.
“Bob [Bowman, Michael’s coach at North Baltimore Aquatic Club] probably saw it first,” says Phelps. Bowman “knew of Michael” coming into the NBAC, says Phelps, “because at the time, Michael was breaking national age-group records.”
Bowman also knew how to coach to Michael’s strengths and weaknesses, and he started with a plan. He laid out a timeline for Michael, guessing his protégé would first attend the Olympic trials in 2000, as a spectator. He predicted Michael would reach the Olympics in maybe 2004 or 2008, and the 2012 games would be Michael’s peak.
Phelps wasn’t convinced, saying, “I looked at that man. I mean — I was polite and I was kind and all — but I said, ‘Mr. Bowman, you’re crazy. I have an 11-year-old little boy who runs all over the place, who wants to play every sport in the world. He’s like, ‘Well, the first thing we need to talk about is to have a focus on one sport instead of four sports.’”
Bob’s timeline turned out to be, as Phelps says, “a little off.” Michael would win his first gold medal in 2004, not 2012. And not just one but six gold and two silver medals. In Beijing in 2008, he would win the most gold medals of any Olympian in history at any Olympic Games. Bowman was correct, however, in that 2012 wasn’t a shabby year for Michael’s swimming career: Michael brought home four gold and two silver medals from London. Like everybody else, Bowman did not possess a crystal ball with fortune-telling abilities, but his idea of honing Michael’s interests, of narrowing his focus to one sport, transformed the swimmer’s future.
This focus and drive, Phelps believes, lives in every person with ADHD.
“When children with ADHD have a passion and a love for what they’re doing, they can be very focused in on that. I talk to teachers about that: finding what makes a kid tick and what they’re passionate about.”
Toni, a Baltimore area mother, understands this completely. She has watched her son live these truths. He has a great voice, and as a kid, every time he tried out for a play, he got the lead. “He could sing, act, be funny, and he just had this high energy,” she says. When he was 14 years old, he was cast as Huck in a community production of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.”
“He was in every scene. He sang every song but one. He never got tired. His energy was just unbelievable,” she recalls.
And even though she jokingly claims her now adult son is “still looking for the Land’s End jacket he left at school” all those years ago, she says he had no problem at all memorizing pages of dialogue and songs for performances.
Now in his 20s, her son is following his dream to have a musical career. Listening to him sing today with passion, energy and resonance, she is proud of her son’s accomplishments, but even more so, she’s proud of his character.
Her son “will never excel at sitting in [his] seat,” she says. “But there are dozens of other traits and abilities that contribute to building a happy, fulfilled life,” and he has those in spades.
Toni says she’s come to realize something else through the years, “Maybe sitting is overrated.”
None of this surprises Pritchard. “Creativity is the most discussed ‘pro’ of ADHD,” she says. However, published medical research on the veracity of this claim is “very, very preliminary.” And although there hasn’t yet been any strong support in the literature to support the claim that people with ADHD are creative, it is true that “impulsivity — what’s sometimes called inhibitory control — helps you to engage in divergent thinking,” Pritchard says. “If you’re more impulsive, you’re coming up with more varied ways to solve a problem, which is a part of creativity.”
People with ADHD “think outside the box,” Phelps agrees. “I listened to Michael [recently] talk about his dream and what he wanted to do. He wanted to do something that no other person could do. I think that’s how [people with] ADHD think. They want be something really special. They want to do something, to make a difference.”