Your joke is bad, and you should feel bad.

by spastictactician

“Oh, hey!  A squirrel!”

Have a conversation that even tangentially involves Attention Deficit Disorder, and someone is almost certain to make a joke based on an apparent sufferer who interrupts himself with a silly, unrelated observation, consequently losing complete track of their original thought.

Please know that ADD isn’t that.  It is NOT the inability to maintain a train of thought, the inability to finish a task due to failure to stay on track or complete lack of focus.  No matter how many times you’ve heard the joke, it just isn’t true.

Let me assure you that I’m not about to tell you how people with ADD are being subjected to great harm due to this misunderstanding.  I’m not going to demand that you stop making the joke.  I don’t believe that it is particularly important that everybody gain a proper understanding of what ADD is, nor do I believe we need to start any sort of movement to improve awareness.

I only want to let you know that, when you say things like this, those of us with ADD tend to shake our heads sadly at you and wonder silently how you continue to choose to comment on something that you so clearly don’t understand.  It doesn’t take away from the marginal humour that you’ve managed.  If that’s what ADD was, the joke would be prescient.  If your aim is to cause brief, twitchy smiles amongst people who don’t really know what you’re talking about… be my guest.  Nobody is really the worse for it.

“Well, then, Mr. Patronizing Jerk,” I imagine you asking, “What in the hell is it, if it isn’t the whole “Oh, hey!  A squirrel!” thing?”  Fair warning:  The real thing doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to quick, lazy jokes.  For me, ADD involves a heavy, near constant internal monologue.  I talk to myself, coach, warn, coerce, motivate, keep track of and regulate myself.  The problem is that the internal voice doesn’t limit itself to observing the important things and keeping me up to date on them.  It has access to everything my senses can pick up, and it is unable to effectively filter what I need to know.

Here’s where the reality really differs from the joke:  When the internal moderator gets ahold of a new piece of information…Say, a squirrel that has just popped up in my peripheral vision, it doesn’t shut down whatever I was just doing to refocus on the squirrel.  My entire consciousness doesn’t just switch to the squirrel, leaving my previous tasks untended.  That is how babies, dogs and people on cocaine work, not people with ADD

When I’m hunkered down at my desk trying to create a lesson plan, I start out incredibly focused.  When that squirrel pops up, I certainly notice it, and my internal moderator announces it loudly.  I am, however, not a slave to the moderator.  I know what I’m here to do and I know that paying too much attention to the squirrel will prevent that.  I apply myself to my task.  The problem is, now that I know the squirrel is there, the part of my brain that doesn’t work well believes that I need to keep track of it.  I keep getting updates about the squirrel.  Where it is, what it is doing…  The only thing I can do to make sure I can finish my task is to not fight the squirrel updates but, instead, to dedicate a part of my consciousness (as small a part as possible) to the squirrel.  Partitioning focus is WAY easier than fighting to maintain a single track.

Now that I’ve split my attention two ways, and ensured that the split is as heavily weighted toward my task as possible, I can get on with the work.  Here comes the part that makes most ADD kids bad at school:  There are more than two things within range of my senses.  There is the task at hand, the squirrel, the ticking of the clock, the flickering of the fluorescent light, the question I had about the TV show I watched last night, the itchy spot behind my knee, the .faint beginnings of a food craving, the lingering smell of the fart I let squeak 5 minutes ago, the recognition that there is a word I’m going to want to use soon that I never remember how to spell, the thing I can feel behind my front teeth that might be a grain of pepper…

Partitioning is really quite easy when there are only two partitions.  Once you have a dozen or so, however, the resources applied to non-primary functions begin adding up.  When the internal dialogue begins cycling through so many different topics that, even at just a second or so each, you can only focus on your task once or twice a minute, you’re pretty much doomed to failure.

The way I’ve learned to cope with this recurring problem is by physically resetting myself, using strongly distracting breaks.  By interrupting the internal cycle, I get to start fresh with just two or three partitions.  Also, I tend to intentionally subject myself to big, full distractions while working.  As counterintuitive as this sounds, there actually is some logic here.  If I can fill the entirety of my aural spectrum with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, I’m almost sure to not hear any of the other 37 tiny little noises in the room.  I have essentially ensured only one partition from this particular sense.  I do the same for internal distractions by setting my mind to thinking about something interesting but unrelated to my task.  Often, naked ladies.  The mental image of the Samantha Fox poster from my friend Scott’s room cancels all the other trivial stuff that would otherwise horn in.  I now only have to control the amount of attention I pay to it.  Not giving Samantha enough attention leaves me open to other little distractions.  Too much attention, though, and I drift into a daydream that is almost certainly not going to help me get my lesson planned.

So.  The thing that sucks about ADD isn’t an inability to focus and maintain processes, it’s that sufferers focus on too many things and maintain loads of partitioned focus points.  It is too much focus, not too little.  We aren’t goldfish, wandering from thought to thought, never finishing anything as we get sidetracked by every damn squirrel that wanders by.  We are much more like a…. Why doesn’t he just pick up the damned acorn, already?