A strengths-based approach to ADHD and dyslexia
In many educational and medical settings, common learning problems such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia are viewed from a deficits model. Under this approach, an expert makes a diagnosis by assessing a person’s behavior or thinking abilities. If the child has a deficit compared to typically developing individuals, he or she is given a diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability, for example. While there are some historical and scientific reasons for approaching learning differences in this way, many patient advocates are calling for a move toward a “strengths-based” approach to understanding these conditions.
Rethinking the Deficit Model of ADHD and Dyslexia
In recent years, the autism community has gained attention for a novel way of looking at autism spectrum disorders. Many individuals in the higher-functioning Asperger’s syndrome category embrace their diagnosis with pride. Calling themselves “Aspies,” these people say that they recognize their information processing differences but would not want to be “cured,” even if a successful treatment for autism spectrum disorders were available. Rather, the Aspies celebrate their learning differences and say that their different way of approaching the world has a lot to teach others.
More recently, scientists and education advocates have been calling for a move toward this strengths-based approach to other common learning differences that emerge in childhood. In particular, ADHD and dyslexia have emerged as two disorders that could be reconceptualized under a strengths-based model. Rather than focusing solely on the learning or processing deficits people with these diagnoses have, it is important to recognize some of their unique strengths. Reframing the conversation around strengths and weaknesses, rather than deficits alone, allows some of the benefits of ADHD and dyslexia to emerge.
Benefits of ADHD
People with ADHD often have several traits that set them apart from their peers. Some common benefits of ADHD include:
- Creativity: Fluctuating attention can lead to productive mind-wandering and random thoughts. Often, brilliant creative insights emerge from these times when the mind is doing its own thing. People with ADHD often generate new ideas and have novel ways of looking at problems. This makes them an asset in fields such as design, science and entrepreneurship. In fact, a recent initiative aims to better train and retain engineering students with ADHD, who are often prized for their creativity and risk-taking.
- Curiosity: Teachers and family members of people with ADHD often comment on their curiousity and desire to learn. Many individuals with ADHD say that they are multi-interested and passionate about many subject areas. This curiosity leads people with ADHD to learn from many subject areas and stay motivated to integrate new information in novel ways. This curiosity means that many people with ADHD are lifelong learners who develop expertise in numerous areas of study.
- Hyperfocus: For some people with ADHD, working on a problem they are passionate about yields hyperfocus. During periods of hyperfocus, people report that they work for hours with intense energy and relentless attention. This ability to focus intently on a problem at hand is an incredible advantage compared to neurotypical people. Thus, identifying an area of passion can yield enormous dividends for a person with ADHD.
- Energy: Educators sometimes bemoan the high energy of children with ADHD, but they can often turn their energetic impulses into constructive outlets. People with ADHD often enjoy fast-paced environments that involve doing a lot of different things. As a result, adults with ADHD frequently enjoy working as physicians, salespeople or police officers.
Benefits of Dyslexia
Like ADHD, dyslexia represents a different way of processing information. Although reading is an area of difficulty for people with dyslexia, scientific evidence suggests that they have many other areas of strength.
- Excellent spatial reasoning: Words may seem to swim on the page, but people with dyslexia often have superb visuospatial abilities. In a 2009 study, scientists at the University of East London found that adolescents with dyslexia were better at navigating and remembering a virtual environment than a nondyslexic comparison group. These visuospatial abilities make people with dyslexia highly suited to work in engineering, graphic and industrial design, construction and related professions.
- Narrative reasoning: Scientists have found that dyslexics often remember facts as stories or experiences rather than as abstract pieces of information. This “narrative reasoning” style may result in improved memory and better integration of contextual information.
- Empathy: Struggling to read causes many people with dyslexia to develop a strong sense of empathy. As a result of these early struggles (and the persistence needed to overcome them), people with dyslexia report that they are able to take others’ perspectives and relate to others on an emotional level.
- Critical thinking: Logical reasoning is another area of strength for people with dyslexia. They can often see holes in an argument, point out logical jumps, and use their critical thinking abilities to solve problems.
Living with ADHD and Dyslexia
At first, it may be difficult to adjust to a child's diagnosis of ADHD or dyslexia. However, it's incredibly important to realize that these are merely labels that come with unique styles of processing information that give other advantages. Famous authors Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled with dyslexia. Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Airlines, has ADHD but put his strengths of creativity and curiosity to work as an entrepreneur. Looking at these role models (and many, many others) and taking a strengths-based perspective gives people living with these diagnoses a better opportunity to understand their own unique strengths and contributions. If you or your child has been diagnosed with ADD or dyslexia, what strengths do you notice?