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

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

Stephen Tonti at TEDxCMU

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.

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.

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.

So, another good thing about ADHD is because I felt compelled to try everything, I was able to explore all the possible career paths I might not have and might not have discovered what I truly want to do. So many teens and young adults are expected to focus on one or two fields of study and one or two hobbies, and hope and pray they like the ones they’ve chosen or that’ve been chosen for them.

My job is to tell other people stories, and I find it’s easier time doing that when I can draw from all of these other perspectives. It’s easier for me to see the world through the eyes of a drummer because I’ve tried that. It’s easier for me to see the world through the eyes of a graphic designer because I’ve tried that too.

ADHD is a difference in cognition, not simply a disorder. We’re attention different, not attention deficit. But because it’s treated and misunderstood as a disorder, it’s treated at something that needs fixing. So the idea seems to be that: we need to get rid of my ADHD, but there’s no getting rid of it. There’s just sedating it.

I was lucky. My high school teachers were hip, young progressives who were delighted to give me extra time, the additional attention, and the overall freedom to express myself the way that I felt necessary. So many other kids with ADHD aren’t as lucky. For example, my roommate Adam has been my roommate for four years.

He is an excellent actor in the school of drama and a brilliant thinker. We both grew up in Dallas, Texas, and we both have ADHD. Adam’s high school was different. Now even though he grew up only 15 minutes north of me, Adam’s high school had harsher penalties for falling out of a chair. When you’re a kid diagnosed with ADHD, your doctor administers a series of amphetamines, and everybody waits.

Because no one has a clue how you’ll react. You might get more calm. You might become depressed. You might lash out at the people around you. The difference between Adam and me is when a new medication may cause me to act out, my teachers immediately advise my doctors that I change my medication.

However, when Adam tried a new medication, his teachers wrote this in his report, “Adam is less motivated, less animated, and less involved in class activities, but at least, he’s quiet now.” We need a healthier understanding of people with ADHD, and it starts at home.

I had mother and father who supported every obsession. I distinctly recall my father asking one day, “Son, you’re only 14; what could you possibly want with an air compressor?” To which I responded, “I want to airbrush t-shirts and shorts to sell to my classmates and friends.”

All right then. And we would go out and get it. I would play with it and I’d obsess over it. During the summers, when I went off my medication and my body was wrecked with the effects of withdrawal, my mother sat by my side, literally coaxing the migraines out of me. With their support, I was able to explore, and my obsessions grew and multiplied, and I was able to maintain my sanity.

Schools need to develop a better attitude towards students with ADHD, as well. There’s plenty of examples out there. For instance, the Eagle Hill School, in Hardwick, Massachusetts. The Eagle Hill School believes that every student can learn. That learning differently requires teaching differently.

And that we must educate our kids, our students, to learn about learning in order to form new beliefs in a search for intellectual autonomy. Professors who act more as mentors, as opposed to disciplinarians, inspire me. When teachers level with me, I feel like I’m more in control; that there’s a dialogue regarding new ways of thinking and approaching a problem, focusing, completing tasks. We have to create and develop a healthier relationship with medication. I think that Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta should only be prescribed to someone who can physically handle the effects of these drugs and their withdrawal.

12 is far too young; 16 is still too young. There are so many alternatives to medication. Studies have shown that for some it’s just an added weight or pressure to help them focus. And these things exist.

There are weighted pads that help people feel more comfortable so they can complete tasks on time. For some people, it’s tics, like chewing pencils, so give them rubber coated pencils. We have to teach kids to teach themselves; it’s the best thing we can do for our kids. And lastly, our society has to embrace cognitive diversity. For example, Specialisterne, or The Specialist, is a Danish organization that trains people with autism and ADHD as consultants in IT and other more technically oriented tasked jobs.

We have to turn this joke around on those who believe that my disorder divides me from my more “normal peers”. Besides, who here at Carnegie Mellon really qualifies as normal, anyway? A great author, a masterful playwright and a sublime poet once wrote, any guesses to who I speak of? Shakespeare! Thou art correct! Shakespeare sonnet 121:

’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling but by others’ seeing.
For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad that I think good?
No, I am that I am; and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown,
Unless this general evil they maintain:
All men are bad and in their badness reign.

In sonnet 121 Shakespeare condemns hypocrisy.

He implores us not to let others’ false adulterate eyes condemn us for something that they believe us to be. He begs you not to let the selfish, negative comments of others hinder the just pleasures owed to you. A hierarchy of frailer spies have asked me to conform to society’s means I purpose the opposite, I purpose let society conform to me.

And I implore you to do the same. I’ll leave you with something that Robin Williams, a poster child for us in the ADHD community, once said, “We are all only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Thank you!

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