Ask Abbie: Youth with ADHD has hungry brain

Published 9:05 am Saturday, February 16, 2013

by Abbie Long

Question: My son was diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD, at age of 5.

Every medication we tried made him sick. He always seems distracted and won’t pay attention even when I’m talking to him.

He is now 16 and wants to go to college and play football, but his grades continue to fall despite his concerted effort. I keep trying to help him stay focused, but nothing seems to work.

Any ideas?

Answer: Disclaimer — I do not believe in labeling anyone as ADHD for labels inherently tend to limit and suffocate one’s self expectations and the expectations others have of him. I do however agree that certain individuals, myself included, exhibit various characteristics symptomatic of the “disorder.”

One day I received a call from a mother asking me to tutor her high-school age son. During our first session, despite having removed all distractions, I saw the issues his mother warned me about.

He was easily distracted, constantly fidgeted and displayed apparent disinterest. When I asked him to look at what we were working on, he would do so for a short period and then he went “lost in space” again. Like his mother, I too became frustrated with my ineffectiveness.

When the mother, her son and I discussed the session, I tried a different approach. I interrupted the mother, caught the son off guard, and asked him what he was thinking. At least I would finally know what had been demanding his attention for the last hour.

He told me he was trying to remember the details of a learning trick we were talking about. The mother’s response was exactly what I wanted to say, “I can’t believe it. I never thought to ask what he was thinking. He only appeared not interested in what I was saying when in fact he was paying attention after all.”

From that moment I began to question my belief that every students’ best learning environment should be without distraction. Could it be those who display symptoms of ADHD need distraction present to learn?

In an attempt to answer this, I looked for similarities among instinctual reactions, personal experiences and empirical findings.

Consider the hunger instinct. When a person feels hungry, it becomes very difficult for him to think about anything else. Only when his hunger is fed and the all-consuming pangs subside, can he concentrate on something else.

I then remembered how I could focus better on my homework with the TV on. In addition, many studies have shown the positive effects white or background noise has on the cognitive performance of a kid who displays ADHD as well as its negative effect on the performance of a child who does not.

I began to encourage rather than deter distractions during my tutoring sessions with ADHD systematic students. I did not correct fidgeting or looking away while I worked with them, and in some cases, I gave the student something like a ball to hold and toss while I taught.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. The kids answered more questions correctly amidst encouraged distraction than discouraged distraction.

I could give full support to my new Distractive Learning Technique, which aims to distract the overriding force within, whether it be hunger, fatigue or wandering thoughts, to increase one’s ability to focus on another task.

I do not promote DLT for a formal classroom due to its potentially disruptive effect on non-ADHD systematic students. DLT is appropriate for one-on-one personal coaching and any child who displays symptoms of ADHD and wants to succeed.

A lack of desire to succeed clearly signals the presence of a much larger issue that must first be addressed.

In addition to hiring a personal coach, also encourage your son to listen to music or have the TV on while studying at home.

Reassure him he does not have a “disorder,” but instead a superior intelligence that needs to be challenged by non-traditional methods of learning. Simply put, his brain is hungry!

Abbie Long is a Franklin native and advice columnist for The Tidewater News. Submit your questions to