Blake Taylor has fulfilled every Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder stereotype in the book: fire starter, exam flunker, head jerker, trespasser, perennial disrupter, classroom scapegoat, congenital mess. At age three, he crawled onto a T. Rex display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, setting off all the alarms. Three years later he threw a pen in his first-grade classroom, angering the vengeful "Ms. Perril" who later dispatched him to mop a urine-soaked school bathroom. Throughout elementary school he developed unusual tics: twirling in third grade, hammering his chest in fifth grade, jerking his neck in sixth grade, repeating the number "101" in seventh grade. But by eleventh grade Taylor had turned things around. He started waking up early on Saturdays to dutifully type up his manuscript. By twelfth grade, the Word document that housed his novel was nearly book-length. Within a year, the eighteen-year-old ADHD sufferer was already a best-selling author.
Taylor is currently double majoring in French and molecular cell biology at UC Berkeley. His new book ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table — a combination memoir and self-help book that Taylor wrote during his high school summer vacations — ranks number 36 on Amazon.com, after roughly six weeks on the market. (Taylor said he didn't know what that meant at first, but decided it must be pretty good.) The former pen-thrower has developed a cult of adoration on campus, where his book has already landed on one psychology class syllabus. Taylor wants to be a neurosurgeon.
Given our understanding of ADHD as a hyperactivity disorder — the kind of thing that would cause ninth-grade Taylor to pour eyeglass cleanser on a small kitchen fire and nearly burn his house down — the idea of a real-life Blake Taylor is enough to produce cognitive dissonance. And granted, the young author is not without his detractors. He said that during his first call-in radio interview with a station in Maryland, he was "ambushed" by a host and guest lecturer who both claimed ADHD was a myth that drug companies had devised in order to sell products. "They called me from Maryland at 4:45 in the morning," Taylor said. "I was expecting an interview, but I unknowingly walked into a trap where it basically was a debate." The author has heard such arguments before, and is well aware of the stigma against people with ADHD. His book is filled with anecdotes about teachers who looked askance when he threw a marker or failed an English final because he forgot to take his medication, and of kids who ostracized him for body spasms that he couldn't control. Having spent the bulk of his life trying to curb his symptoms (first with Ritalin and Aderol, then the non-stimulant Strattera), he now wants to recast the disorder as a "gift."
In fact, Taylor is part of a burgeoning group of researchers and psychologists who argue that not only is ADHD a trait shared by many adult professionals — including trial lawyers, surgeons, and reporters, said Taylor's mother Nadine Taylor-Barnes — it's also a way to get extra mileage in a fast-paced, technological world. Taylor-Barnes claims that all that excess energy can be a salutary thing when you know how to channel it properly. She has heard of ADHD kids concentrating for four or five hours on a Lego project and completing the whole thing in one sitting, even if it's geared for a more advanced age. She said her son's ability to recall events is just like a camcorder. Walnut Creek psychiatrist Lara Honos-Webb — another self-diagnosed ADHD sufferer whose book The Gift of ADHD: How to Turn Your Child's Problems Into Strengths presents ADHD as a mark of creative thinking and the ability to "hyperfocus" — adds that since most jobs require us to juggle multiple e-mail accounts or use a BlackBerry to perform twenty different tasks at once, it can help to have an attention deficit disorder — and with it, a divagating mind. "The current culture may create what looks like ADHD symptoms," Webb said, "but it also creates a culture where people with ADHD may be able to succeed more."
Each chapter in Taylor's book begins with an anecdote about some ADHD-related tribulation (like being distracted during a tenth-grade English final, or fleeing a sixth-grade dance for fear he couldn't control his jerky body movements), followed by a few expository paragraphs to diagnose the problem, and a bullet point list of solutions. Taylor had to learn how to be more organized than the average person. In middle school he started taking notes with six different-colored highlighters, and filed everything in hanging folders. At Cal he gets 50 percent extra time on tests, and he's allowed to take exams in a quieter venue than the other students. He uses a tablet PC so that no teacher will ever have to read his slovenly handwriting. He still goes to the gym every day to release extra energy. Interviewed on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he already has a battle plan laid out for the rest of the day: chemistry lab, work out at the gym, eat dinner, get to bed around 10 p.m. to get his eight-to-nine-hour regimen of sleep. He had a radio interview the next day at 6:35 a.m.
Sitting in Berkeley's Au Coquelet Cafe in his pinstriped suit and light blue tie, Taylor looked like a dead ringer for Doogie Howser, the precocious teenage doctor who graced ABC television network in the late '80s. He and his mother had just come from an interview with KTVU Fox News. Taylor's crew cut was sculpted into a perfect vertical cowlick. He ordered a chicken salad and apologized when some croutons spilled off his plate. He spoke in a flat NPR broadcaster tone, keeping his agate-blue eyes trained across the table. In ADHD & Me Taylor recalls how his mother put him in etiquette classes so he would learn how to shake hands, dance with girls, and stand at a buffet table. Initially, the idea was to keep Taylor from being too unpopular at school. But the etiquette lessons have also helped him deal with sudden popularity.
Taylor wrote the first chapter of ADHD & Me in eighth grade, as part of his application for the French American School in San Francisco. After just six weeks, it's already in its third print run. Local bookstores keep selling out. Taylor gets three or four Facebook messages a week from kids with ADHD or parents who read the book and say they can empathize. The young author could probably take a long sabbatical from Cal and just kick it, if he wanted to.
Except that Taylor's mother chafes at the suggestion. "No," she said. "Don't give him any ideas. He has a ways to go."
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