It’s 2001, and my child, who soared through elementary school, is suddenly failing high school. We agree to have him tested. The conclusion? It’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Back then, I knew as much as the next person: “ADHD is a mental illness in which sugar, bad parenting and too much TV turned boys into disruptive troublemakers.” I quickly discovered everything I knew was wrong.

Not just hyperactivity

The truth? ADHD affects both boys and girls. Some are restless and impulsive, but many simply struggle with focus and distractibility (ADHD vs. ADD). What’s more, it’s not literally a deficit of attention—it’s a problem with executive functions. So what does that mean?

In a large company the executives manage resources. They track progress, set priorities, organize and coordinate production. The ADHD brain is like a company with great workers but poor management.

“The New York Times pegs its heritability at 76 percent, which puts it second behind height.”

I learned that it’s not a shortage of willpower, but of neurotransmitters. Stimulant medications that increase the amount of these “messengers” have been used since 1937. I also learned that we can’t rely on medication alone—a holistic approach is crucial. Some kids grow out of ADHD, but two out of three still struggle with it in adulthood, so we need to teach good coping skills.

A personal discovery

But my biggest surprise was that ADHD is highly genetic. The New York Times pegs its heritability at 76 percent, which puts it second behind height. When my son was diagnosed, I read a list of adult symptoms, and it was a revelation: restless, impatient, talkative, poor listener, forgetful, easily distracted, often bored, scattered, overly-sensitive, lots on the go but not finished. “Oh my god,” I thought, “This is me.” I felt shock and relief.

It explained not only my failings, but also my strengths. Creative, a lateral thinker and able to hyper-focus when interested. It was no wonder that I’d written and performed 700 episodes of skit comedy, but never finished a single screenplay. 

Today, a dozen ADHD-friendly strategies keep me on track. My life is simpler and easier. My child is soaring. And I have a new career creating PBS documentaries and scores of videos about ADHD. Along the way I’ve learned that  everyone with ADHD has a unique mix of challenges. Personally, I’m glad I finally have an explanation. And I wish I’d known sooner. Understanding ADHD has given me a better understanding of both my weaknesses and my strengths.