Given the headlines of the last decade, attention-deficit disorders often seem like the diagnosis du jour for every child who ever wiggled or daydreamed through class. But real ADHD is no faddish syndrome. Distraction, says Blake, turned his brain into "a television with the channel changing uncontrollably."
Looking at Blake now -- a UC Berkeley Leadership Award-winning college freshman chatting amiably between classes, a fraternity rush party and a quick workout at the gym -- it's hard to imagine him as an impulsive, unintentional arsonist.
Of course, it took a while to get to this point.
Nadine Taylor-Barnes knew something was off when her son was just 3, and she found herself on the receiving end of every conceivable critical remark. Help arrived via a Vassar College classmate whose son had been recently diagnosed with ADHD. She took one look at Blake, then 5, at a Vassar reunion event and told Nadine, "Get him to a specialist and get him treated. Don't go through what I went through with my son."
Nadine never looked back. She called the pediatrician, then a specialist and laid a plan that would be tweaked innumerable times in the years to come. One of the first things she did, over the objections of some family members, was get her son on ADHD medication -- Dexedrine, then Adderall, now Strattera -- and start trying to channel that relentless energy into academics, music, sports and community service.
Funny thing is, the very solutions Blake's family concocted to deal with his extreme hyperactivity, disorganization, ADHD and an intellect that was off the charts ended up landing him an enviable college resume, laden with honors classes, foreign languages, community service, music and sports extracurriculars. Oh, and a newly published book -- "ADHD & Me: What I Learned From Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table,"
"I want to change the view that ADHD doesn't exist or that it's solely a disability," says Blake. "It's a gift."
The Hillsborough youth was applying to private high schools in San Francisco when the book idea first struck. He was writing the classic admissions essay -- describe a challenge you've faced -- when it occurred to him that his ADHD essay might become something more.
"I wanted to help a lot of other young folks and teens," he said. "Advise them on what worked for me."
The awful day he forgot his meds and spent an entire English exam period chasing thoughts about sailing, skiing and other distractions instead of Homer's "Odyssey"? That became a chapter on one of the primary symptoms of ADHD and how medication can help a patient focus.
The night he accidentally set fire to the kitchen table -- he lit a yogurt container on fire to see what would happen, then poured on alcohol-based eyeglass cleanser, which turned a small conflagration into a near-disaster -- led to a chapter on impulsivity, a classic ADHD symptom. Among his tips: Beware of boredom and fatigue, both of which affect self-control, and learn from your mistakes.
"I rarely make the same mistake twice," he writes. "I will, for example, never pour flammable liquid on a fire, shoot a crossbow near a painting, or launch a rocket near a tennis match."
It was ADHD experts and authors Edward Hallowell, who wrote "Driven to Distraction," and Walnut Creek ADHD expert Lara Honos-Webb, who penned "The Gift of ADHD," who gave the Taylors hope so many years ago. And it was Honos-Webb who wrote the foreword to Blake's book now.
"I think many times parents look at (a child's) behavior almost as an attempt to make them mad," she says. "When you see it from the inside, what you get is, it's the hard wiring. This is the way the world works for him. He's not trying to make anyone angry."
Blake's book, she says, is like seeing ADHD under a new lens.
"When you look at some of the behaviors, they're experiments gone wrong," says Honos-Webb. "Breaking things, fire starting, this drive to see what happens if I do this and this -- you see the gifts underlying it. Even the distractibility, the couldn't-focus-on-the-test, you see the creativity, the curiosity. And you realize that putting that into a multiple-choice test has its problems."
Blake is one of about 120 students involved in Cal's Disabled Students' ADHD program. Students with ADHD can arrange for additional exam time and other accommodations from their professors. But Blake's book has drawn other professorial attention too.
UC Berkeley psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw, a national ADHD expert known for his studies on boys and girls with ADHD, is considering using "ADHD & Me" in a future class. It's one thing to read clinical observations, he says, and quite another to hear a first-person account.
"Adding the personal really brings the issues home for students," he says. "It's amazing an 18-year-old wrote not just poignant and honest, but gripping material. He really talks about both the difficulties he had because of the symptoms (and) the hope that treatments can really bring."
And hope, says Honos-Webb, is a powerful thing.
"(Blake) was in a special ed class at one point," she says. "To go in 13 years from a special ed class to a published author, to me it's what can happen when you focus on the positives and you have a parent who's willing to go to bat and advocate for that child."
TIPS FROM A TEEN
It can be difficult being a teen with ADHD, says author Blake Taylor, age 18, but it helps if you can understand what makes you different, and use ADHD's gifts to your advantage. Among his tips: