Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell’s name is well-known in the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) world. He is a child and adult psychiatrist who has both ADHD and dyslexia. As the author of the groundbreaking “Distraction” series, which began with “Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder,” and the founder of The Hallowell ADHD Centers in Boston MetroWest, New York City, San Francisco, Palo Alto and Seattle, he is a recognized authority in the learning disability field.
Seattleite Lesley Todaro, LMFT, teamed up with Hallowell to found the Hallowell Todaro ADHD Center, the first ADHD center in Seattle. The Hallowell Todaro Center provides ADHD-focused services and support, including diagnostic evaluations, ADHD coaching, therapy, medication management, parent coaching, psychoeducational evaluations and academic support services.
We sat down with Hallowell and asked him some questions about his approach to supporting people with ADHD.
What does the Hallowell Todaro ADHD Center offer families dealing with ADHD?
My whole approach with learning differences is strengths-based. I say to people that I don’t treat disabilities, I help people unwrap their gifts. Buried within these disabilities are tremendous strengths. My job is to root out those strengths and promote them. That shift makes a tremendous difference for the child or adult getting help. You don’t want to get your problems fixed — you want your talents identified. That’s the problem with the deficient-based model: It bypasses looking for strengths. You build a life on developed strengths, not remediated disabilities.
People have a lot of preconceived notions about ADHD. How would you describe it to people so they understand it better?
The most accurate analogy is this: You have a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. A person with ADHD has trouble controlling the power of the brain. I’m a brake specialist. Work with me so you can win races instead of sitting out at the curb.
What trends are you seeing in the ADHD field right now?
The main one is one I have been spearheading: to see ADHD not as a disability but as a trait composed of strengths and weaknesses. Experts are supposed to identify the strengths and move aside and deal with the problems as best we can.
Buried within these disabilities are tremendous strengths. My job is to root out those strengths and promote them. You build a life on developed strengths, not remediated disabilities.
What would you say to any parent of a child who is anxious because of any of their challenges related to ADHD?
You get the facts; the facts are very reassuring. My first rule is never worry alone. The more your child knows the facts, the more pleased they will be, rather than anxious. You can’t ease your child’s anxiety [about their issues] overnight — and you can’t do it with a pill. It’s a matter of educating and retraining how the child feels about themselves.
Nine to 10 percent of kids ages 3–17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. If it is so common, why is there such a stigma to having ADHD?
Stigma is rooted in ignorance, with ignorance being fear. It’s the idea that anyone who is different is bad. I believe the next big prejudice that is going to be dissolved is [against] gay people; and after that, people with different learning styles.
What about the idea that we over-diagnose ADHD in America, and that it exists less in some parts of the United State or in other countries?
It’s the same answer: ignorance. This ignorance is on the part of some doctors. You find some doctors who believe in it, or some doctors who diagnose it too readily. It’s a slipshod diagnosis driven by insurance. You have some doctors who say [they're] not going to diagnosis no matter what, or you have some doctors who say, “I am going to make my patients happy and diagnosis it.” Both are erroneous.
I think we will be seeing more centers for ADHD. The condition is common enough that it warrants it. If it were a rare condition, you’d go to the Mayo Clinic. Diagnosing ADHD is high-stakes. I have two self-made billionaires [with ADHD] who work for me. One of them says to me, “If only I had this diagnosis in college, I would have done so much better.” I tell him I think he has done pretty well. But absolutely, yes, an early diagnosis is good. If you give them the right kind of treatment, they change the world.
If you think your child has ADHD, why is it important to get an official diagnosis?
If you have strep throat, should you bother to get a diagnosis? The diagnosis dictates what you are going to do about it; if you have strep, you want antibiotics. Lots of kids and adults have trouble paying attention and organizing, but it doesn’t mean they have ADHD. But if they do, treatment can change their lives.
Why should adults who think they have ADHD pursue diagnosis?
The majority of adults are not diagnosed — 80 percent. People with undiagnosed ADHD have unexplained underachievement. They think it’s because [they are] lazy and lack discipline. A diagnosis of ADHD can change a person’s life dramatically.
What should you should say to your child about an ADHD diagnosis?
I say to them, “I have great news for you: You have an amazing brain; you’ve got a Ferrari for a brain. Do you know what a Ferrari is?” And they say, “Yes.” Then I say, “You have bicycle brakes — you have trouble controlling the power of your mind. But I’m a brake specialist, so I will help you learn how to apply the brakes.” It’s like Niagara Falls: Until you build a hydroelectric plant, the falls are just a lot of noise and mist. But if you build a hydroelectric plant, you can light up the state of New York with Niagara Falls. Parents have to have ongoing conversations with their child about ADHD. You want to talk to them about it often; it’s a rich and complex diagnosis. It’s not a fixed point. You grow into it.
Editor's note: This article was published several years ago and has been updated for 2023.