Stephen Tonti: ADHD As A Difference In Cognition, Not A Disorder at TEDxCMU (Transcript)

 

Here is the full transcript of ADHD coach Stephen Tonti’s TEDx Talk: ADHD As A Difference In Cognition, Not A Disorder at TEDxCMU conference.

 

Stephen Tonti – ADHD coach

Hi, my name is Stephen Tonti, and I’m a director, a writer, an actor, a drummer, a scuba diver, a soccer player, a camera operator, an airbrush artist, a physicist, a stargazer, a rock climber, a snowboarder, a model maker, a stage manager, a camp counselor, a PA, a DJ, a club president, a magician, and for a brief stint in May 2012, I was called upon to repair two stopwatches which had stopped working.

Who am I, you ask? My name is Stephen Tonti, and I have ADHD. ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and I was first diagnosed with ADHD not by a diagnostician, or a private practice, or a pediatrician, but by a second-grade teacher who was interviewing me for a spot at the school she was working at.

My family had just moved from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Dallas, Texas, and I was in a search for a new academic home. During this particular interview, this particular teacher received a message ahead of time from my first grade teacher back in New Orleans to check me for any signs of ADHD. Just as she reached the series of questions devised to evaluate whether a child between the ages of five and 17 is ADHD: Wham! I fell out of my chair. No, I didn’t slip.

And no, the chair didn’t crumble beneath me. Behind the teacher’s desk was this giant window, and through that window was a giant field, and on that field were what appeared to me at the time to be hundreds of thousands of kids my age. They were all playing with a great, inflatable, rainbow beach ball, and as they moved all around the field, all I could do was keep track of them. So I leaned a little bit to the left, and I leaned a little bit to the right, a little bit more to the left, a little bit more to the right before the disaster. I still maintain today that window was a trap, and I was setup.

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So I was rejected from Middle School because I was an eight-year-old boy who couldn’t sit still in his chair. There was this complex marshmallow-related incident between myself and some of the staff there, but anyway I ended up at the Episcopal School of Dallas. Over the next 11 years, I tried everything. When I say everything, I mean everything.

Extracurriculars: I tried computing, robotics, carpentry, canoeing, rock climbing, poetry club, logic club, poker club, comedy club, and camping. I went camping at least twice a year for four years. And the band – oh my god, I tried trumpet, saxophone, electric bass, piano, stand-up bass, guitar, acoustic – Did I mention I played sports? It was Texas. We played sports.

I tried all of them. And the drums I even took a short-lived stab at the heart. I played seven different instruments – “played” being a very generous term. When all of a sudden my theater – my school built a theater – and I thought, why not? So I started the shop building sets, then the sound booth, the light booth.

Then my teacher asked me to act, so I played Conrad in “Ordinary People.” I said, “Can I direct?” and she said, “Go for it!” So I directed “12 Angry Jurors” – because this is high school, people, and you can’t direct “12 Angry Men” with a drama school that has three boys and four girls – for the people doing math at home, that’s seven drama students for a show with 12 in it. Before I knew it, I was auditioning and interviewing in drama schools across the country, and that’s when Carnegie Mellon found me. And I love it here. I really do.

But moving on. So what?! I have ADHD, and ADHD is misunderstood as an inability to focus, but it’s much stranger than that. It’s not a lack of focus – period. It’s that I have a hard time selecting something and giving it my full attention. Something has to grab my attention, peak my curiosity, and then I can hyperfocus.

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This is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a bad thing because I have a hard time completing things that don’t excite me. We live in a world where you have to read your textbooks and pay your taxes. And yes, big textbooks with no pictures frighten me. And no one likes handling taxes – actually, some of you might like that.

But the upside is, when something does peak my curiosity, I become obsessed and I hyperfocus. I spend a lot of time with film. I can spend upwards of 12 hours in a row editing clips, sometimes until 6:30 in the morning. In the theater, when I have to put a show up, I’ll pull 15 hour days for weeks on end, and I enjoy that; I love that I can read a 500-page novel that I love much faster than a one-page article that I don’t care for.

It’s easier for me to see the big picture. As a director, I have to track 20 people with very different jobs from designers, to writers, to actors, and I find handling that much easier than finishing that one-page article, which I’m still working on. David Neeleman, the founder and CEO of JetBlue, who is also ADHD by the way, says, “I have a hard time doing the mundane things in life. I have an easier time planning a 20-aircraft fleet than I do paying my light bill.” Yeah.

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