Dale S. Brown
Jane sat quietly in her office. Everyone was gone. She could hear
the traffic going by her window and the low hum of the computer.
She was writing a request to her boss to allow her to have flexible
hours, so she could have some quiet time to work alone. With her
attention deficit disorder, working during the bustling noisy normal
business hours, with the constant interruptions, was difficult,
more difficult she suspected, than for the other professionals in
She worked more efficiently in silence. When the others were gone
she could concentrate better and pace around the office when she
needed to think. She didn't have so many interruptions and could
drop some of the intense self-consciousness that was necessary for
her to maintain good office deportment. For example, she could concentrate
and not worry about someone's interrupting her and causing her to
look extremely startled.
Since starting the job, she had been putting in sixty hours a
week in order to handle her workload and was afraid the lack of
sleep was exacerbating her perceptual problems. She had decided
to write a memorandum explaining this to her boss.
It was a difficult job to do. Normally she felt herself to be
a skilled self-advocate. But there were so many important points
she needed to make in this memo - for example, her problem getting
to work on time.
She stopped writing to collect her thoughts. She remembered that
the Chief Executive Officer had talked about teamwork. Like most
people who grew up with differences, the word "teamwork"
brought back memories, such as being the last one to be chosen for
a team, or having everyone on the team yelling at her for doing
something wrong. But now sitting quietly in her office, she suddenly
felt as if she wanted to be part of the team.
Here at work, she realized, she had already been chosen as a team
member just by being hired. Now it was a question of showing team
membership by her actions, such as coming in on time, filling out
forms correctly, and thinking of the needs of the corporation as
she did each assignment. She realized that she really wanted to
be a part of the company even though it took such effort to arrive
on time and to follow the multitude of rules, many of which involved
her areas of disability. Thoughtfully, she put the memorandum to
her boss aside.
Jane was feeling the powerful human urge to conform and be a part
of a group of people. Although her learning disabilities had caused
her to violate some of the corporate cultural mores, by making every
effort to fit where she could, she became a more effective worker.
People were more likely to help her. And organizations are more
efficient when everyone works together smoothly and easily.
Jane is like many people with attention deficit disorder, however,
in finding that conformity can be challenging and difficult. There
are several reasons for this. Some of them are:
Perceptual problems make it difficult to determine the "hidden
rules." For example, Jane was one of the few professionals
who arrived "exactly" at 8:00 a.m., her company's starting
time. Most everyone else came in between 7:45 and 8:15. However,
Jane had not noticed this and was struggling to obey the company
The attention deficit disorder itself can make conforming to
certain demands difficult. For example, not only did Jane have
difficulty working when the office was crowded, but she was also
hyperactive, which meant that co-workers often commented on her
being "away from her desk." She hadn't been able to
"sit still" as a student, and as an adult, she looked
for any possible excuse to walk around the office.
Some people with ADD who also have learning disabilities read
or write at a low-grade level. Unless they are clever at hiding
this, they can appear to be different. Whether it's a child being
laughed at for walking funny or an adult filling out a form incorrectly
for the "sixty-eighth time," these disabilities do not
"show," so it is assumed that the person is purposely
behaving in this way.
The emotional price of involuntary non-conformity is high. Too
often, children are taught rules such as sitting still and coming
to school on time in a punitive rather than positive way. Many
became angry at constant unfairness and have somehow linked conformity
in their minds with avoiding punishment rather than as a positive
achievement. Also, many successful people with attention deficit
disorder become proud of their differences, which can be helpful.
"I am different," they decide, "and people should
accept me as I am." This is correct. But under the conditions
of their lives, they can lose sight of the good feeling that comes
from being part of a group.
Overcoming the emotions that result from being hurt for failing
to conform as well as the physiological effects of ADD can be a
challenge. As a matter of fact, in some cases, it is simply impossible.
Nevertheless, the effort can reap rewards such as friendship, promotions
at work, and effectiveness in social change. Here are some ideas;
First, ask yourself how much your disability is affecting your
ability to conform to hidden or written "rule." You are
the only one who knows whether doing what "everyone else is
doing" is impossible, stressful, or easy.
Based on the answers to this question, decide what you are willing
to do to fit in. For example, Charles had a loud voice and an unusual
speech rhythm. People thought he was arrogant when he spoke. He
certainly did not want to give this impression, so he chose to work
on his tone of voice. Since he had trouble hearing himself speak
in situations with high background noise, it wasn't easy, but after
several years he succeeded. It is important to choose to "fit
in," rather than feeling as if you are giving in to an oppressive
system. You do not have to give in. You can choose to keep behaviors
that irritate others and accept or even fight the consequences.
You can also choose to change.
After you have made your decision, begin to manage your decision
begin to manage yourself to achieve your goal. I have found the
concept of self-management to be more effective than self-discipline
because self-discipline can lead to self-punishment and compulsion.
As a self-manager, you treat yourself as a good manager would treat
you - as a valuable resource. That means treating yourself as you
should have been treated when growing up, not how you were treated.
Don't yell at yourself when you don't succeed. Treat yourself gently.
Here are the techniques that Jane used when she set the goal of
getting to work on time:
She used affirmations and self-talk. With this technique, she
made a statement to herself about the change she wanted to make
as if it were already true. This imprinted the new idea firmly
in her unconscious as well as the conscious mind. Jane told herself,
"I easily arrive at work on time." She would imagine
her office clock saying 8:00 as she proudly strode in. Visualization
of desired behavior also helps to "reprogram" the mind.
She felt proud of herself every time she arrived at work on time.
For awhile, she had been feeling ashamed of having problems in
the first place and/or for giving in to the company's rules. She
came to understand that by arriving on time, she was showing her
superiors and co-workers that she could be trusted. Many people
have a need for predictability from others.
She organized her grooming routines to do everything she could
She gave up most of her evening social activities to insure
Jane's self-management plan worked well, but she decided the price
was too high. She was working a sixty-hour week, and she found herself
surviving as she had in high school - all work and no play. Her
learning disabilities were getting worse under the pressure. She
picked up the memorandum a month after she put it down. She hoped
she could be a member of the team, but be permitted to get to work
at flexible hours. She hoped that she had shown team membership
in other ways and that her employer, who knew about her learning
disabilities, would be helpful. She was confident that her productivity
would make it worthwhile.
The challenge of conformity is a major one. A more important issue
for those with attention deficit disorder is developing our strengths
so that the demands for "fitting in" are lessened. It
is inefficient to work so hard at overcoming our handicaps that
we lack energy to do what we do best. We should march to the beat
of a different drummer. But we need at least to hear the drummer
to whom others march.
Updated from "Newsbriefs," Mar.-Apr. 1988