Art and ADHD: A Healthy Combination

16th October 2023

The Art of Embracing AD/HD
by Daniella Barroqueiro, Ed.D, Professor of Art Education, Illinois State University

When talking about AD/HD, it is common to focus on the "downside" of the disorder, the challenges, the frustration, how to "fix" a problem or a set of problems. Notice I refer to a downside, which implies that there is also an upside to having AD/HD. Intelligence, creativity, spontaneity and the ability to hyper-focus (yes, hyper-focus) are among the characteristics commonly found in people with ADD.

Unfortunately, these assets are often framed in the negative because the person's AD/HD is not working for them, but against them. Without a diagnosis, an awareness or knowledge of the disorder and the appropriate medications and/or behavior modifications, these assets are obscured by the liabilities of the condition.

For example:
Intelligence: "She is intelligent; her test scores are high, but she is not working to her potential. She is an underachiever."
Creativity: "He has a creative energy but never seems to complete anything, so he has little to show for it."
Spontaneity: "He is so spontaneous; he just flies by the seat of his pants. He doesn't seem to know how to plan ahead or follow a schedule."
Hyperfocus: "She is so obsessed with ___________ that she doesn't get any of her work done. (Fill in the blank.)"

As an art educator with AD/HD, I have been both a student with AD/HD and a teacher of students with AD/HD. I have heard some of these things said about me, and I have said some of these things about my students. In the public schools (and at the college level), the art room is often the one place where others with AD/HD feel at home. Of course, there are many students with ADD who have little interest in art making, but I believe there is something to be learned from the art education model.

The inherent subjectivity of the discipline allows for more flexibility in the way lessons are taught and in the way students interpret assignments. Even in teacher-directed projects there is often room (or at least there should be) for the self-expression of each individual student. Many lessons are necessarily restrictive in the sense that they focus on teaching a particular technique or deal with a specific subject or theme, but even in these types of lessons there are usually opportunities for students with AD/HD to attend to their particular interests or their idiosyncratic ways of working, which in turn helps them to stay focused on the task at hand. Strictly speaking, there is no one right or wrong way to paint or to sculpt something. (As I write these words I hear a list of contradictory thoughts disproving this statement, but this is an opinion piece and I am going to just go with it. I invite you to join me.)

The point is that when folks with AD/HD find (or create) an environment supportive to their needs, the AD/HD becomes a non-issue, and in some cases, an asset. The trick is to figure out how to find or create that environment. It is my belief when people with AD/HD have taken the time to learn about AD/HD in general and their own "custom brand" of AD/HD in particular, that is the first step. When they have begun the process of minimizing their liabilities, harnessing their creative energy and finding a productive outlet for their intelligence and hyper-focus, the possibilities are endless. The potential for success and the enjoyment of life is enormous!
Remember there are two sides to every coin. It is one thing to accept you have AD/HD, but it is another to embrace it. To those with AD/HD, I recommend flipping the coin and embracing what you find on the other side. I'll bet it looks a lot like intelligence, creativity, spontaneity and the ability to focus on things that matter not only to you, but also to the rest of the world.

Reprinted with permission from Professor Barroqueiro. This article originally appeared in ADDA eNews.