'A weight off my shoulders" is how Monaghan-based artist and fashion designer Helen Steele describes the day six years ago when she was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Today is ADHD Awareness Day, which aims to highlight the positive aspects of the condition and its link with creativity and sport.
ADHD is a genetic condition that is caused by a balance of chemicals in the brain that is different to that of the average person. It affects an estimated 60,000 children in Ireland, with the majority diagnosed between the ages of five and seven.
This misunderstood psychiatric condition leads people to assume that a child’s hyperactive and erratic behaviour is down to bad parenting.
Research by HADD, the Irish support group for people living with ADHD, found that more than six in 10 parents of children with the condition feel it isn’t properly recognised by society. Some eight in 10 parents of children with ADHD feel judged by other parents.
But Steele is “quite proud to wear the ADHD label”.
“It’s who I am. I’m a positive person and I’m artistic. I’m quite driven. I think being hyperactive is useful, especially if you’re a mother.”
But growing up, Steele says she was misunderstood. “I was thought of as a messer. I would go into my own world at school, not concentrating and just scribbling and doodling in class. But it was a way of keeping me out of trouble.
“As a mother of toddlers and kids under 11, I was great fun. Right now I think I’m a really embarrassing mum to my 16 and 11-year -old girls.
“But I have an eight-year-old boy who really likes the fact that we can jump off bales of hay and chase after cows. I also play army with him, running wild in the fields. People just think I’m a bit mad.”
It was while having one of her daughters assessed for dyspraxia that Steele decided to look into what she suspected about herself."I was given a questionnaire and answered Yes to every single question such as not being able to concentrate and having difficulty with communication."
Compared to her youth, Steele says she has calmed down “a lot”.
“I still have the constant toe-tapping and twitching. I have the desire to run and I have appalling levels of attention unless it’s something I’m really interested in. Even at that, I have to go out regularly and take a walk around.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helped Steele. “It made me know what my triggers are and it made me realise that a good hour of exercise every day makes the world of difference to my head. Exercise helps me to focus on my work and it helps me with my memory.”
One of Steele’s ADHD triggers is lengthy business meetings. “It’s not good for me to be at meetings for too long. I start doodling even though I know it looks so unprofessional.” She now makes sure to go for a walk before a meeting.
Kate Carr Fanning (30), vice-chairwoman of HADD, is working on a doctorate in the school of education at Trinity College. Her thesis is on ADHD in Ireland.
Carr Fanning was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 17. "Back then the condition wasn't really understood in Ireland. I wasn't able to cope at school. I dropped out in fifth year. I went to the US to get a diagnosis, and I went back to school in South Illinois, where I did well."
For Carr Fanning, it was a revelation to be diagnosed and to find out the reason for all the problems she had been experiencing.
“One of the findings in my doctorate is that when there’s a breakdown in communication, often the student, the teacher and the parents will all have different explanations for what is going on. The fact that they’re not on the same page creates problems or exacerbates existing problems.”
Growing up, Carr Fanning says she had no idea what her strengths were. "I found out that I was hyper-focusing on things that really interested me. In the school in America I was taught basic study skills which I never had before. I went into psychology because it's what really interests me."
There aren’t enough educational supports in Ireland for ADHD, says Carr Fanning.
“That’s such a shame because it’s really such a manageable condition. Sometimes people with ADHD need to multi-task because they have split attention.
“I work with adolescents with the condition. You have to get used to letting them fiddle with stuff and not draw attention to them rocking in their seat.
“I’d often recommend that they sit on wobble chairs and have a mouse pad that they can tap on. It can help them to concentrate on learning tasks. There are so many different techniques that make such a difference.”