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accessibility Achievement Additional Needs and Disabilities ADHD Celebrities Inspirational People SEND Stigma

In at the Deep End: How ADHD Shaped the Success of Michael Phelps

Michael Fred Phelps is famous throughout the world for his legendary abilities whilst swimming. Phelps is, by far, the most successful Olympian of all time with 28 Olympic medals of which 23 are Gold. Phelps also has several world records relating to swimming and is the fastest human being alive in the water. Phelps has achieved this success for many reasons, not least being his own hard work and dedication, as well as having a body especially suited for high water mobility. But another factor that may have allowed Phelps to reach such success, much to the surprise of many, may be his ADHD. Phelps was diagnosed with the condition when he was a child, and some believe that this diagnosis played a role in making him such a world class athlete. In examining how ADHD has affected Phelps, we may learn to see Disability in a rather different light.

“I simply couldn’t sit still, because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time”

– Michael Phelps, from his book Beneath the Surface

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that causes many behaviours that are unusual in the rest of the population. Commonly observed behaviours include restlessness, short attention span, and difficulty focusing. Many people consider ADHD to be purely negative, but many people with the condition themselves see it quite differently. For instance, ADDA, an self-advocacy group run by people with the condition, argue that ADHD is worthy of being celebrated. Whilst living with ADHD may present challenges, ADDA argues that the condition can in fact have its advantages and should be better thought of as simply a different way of having a mind. This might sound strange at first, but in Michael Phelps there may be an incredible example of this idea in action.

Historically, ADHD was understood as an inability to focus but more modern research suggests that it may in fact be a lack of control on what the brain focuses on. This is why ADHD people often exhibit a trait called ‘Hyperfocus’, where they focus intensely and singly on one thing, often for hours at a time. The theory goes that ADHD people often have a far stronger ability to focus than so called ‘Neurotypicals’ (those without ADHD) do. The problems come when an ADHD person has to focus on one thing when around them are ten or twenty distractions to drag their attention from. Most people have the ability to forcefully draw themselves back to the object of their focus and resist distractions, but without this many ADHD people struggle to stick to one thing long enough to make meaningful progress. With that said, picture child Michael Phelps in a swimming pool. Whilst in a classroom he might struggle to sit and do his work because of all the distractions, in the pool, with nothing to focus on but the water, his mind can intensely focus for hours on end. This allows Phelps to practice far longer and maintain focus far longer than his neurotypical coevals. Becoming a world star athlete requires spending many hours of each day practicing, but it also requires being able to remain attentive to technique even after hours of practice. Its possible that it is because and not in spite of, Phelps’ Disability that he has been able to take on the entire world in his chosen sport, and definitively triumph.

Michael Phelps Video: ADHD and What I would tell my Younger Self

Video Description: Michael Phelps talks to the camera about what he would tell his younger self and what it was like growing up with ADHD. Video has closed captions.

About Theo!

“Hi! My name’s Theo Greiner and I work in the Web and Digital Services Team at Surrey County Council. I’m also on the Autism spectrum and use that experience to write articles on accessibility on behalf of the Council to get people thinking about Accessibility and Disability. I write in hopes of shifting people’s ideas about Disability towards ones that treat Disabled people with the respect and agency they deserve. I hope you enjoy them.”

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Additional Needs and Disabilities Autism Celebrities Inspirational People SEND

“I am not a typical autistic person – because there isn’t a typical autistic person.”

Chris was born in Southampton in 1961. His big interest in wildlife seemed to form before he was even able to speak. His parents say that he liked to crawl across their lawn looking for ladybirds and fish for tadpoles and mosquito larvae in an old baby’s bath set in the corner of the garden.

When he discovered a song thrushes’ nest just before his 12th birthday his interest in birds first began to grow. The Observer’s book of Birds Eggs became his Bible and Chris became a young egg thief. In 1974 he met a teacher at his school, John Buckley, who immediately redirected young Chris’ interest in egg collecting towards scientific examination instead.

Chris found nests, counted eggs and chicks and made maps of all their locations and within a couple of years he started his first proper scientific study – The Population and Breeding Density of Kestrels in the Lower Itchen Valley. This was written up in his last year at secondary school and he won the Prince Philip Zoology Prize a couple of years later. A bright young scientist and nerd in training he studied Kestrels, Shrews and Badgers in his teens and undergraduate days at the Zoology department of Southampton University.

As a young adult and postgraduate, he began taking still photographs and trained as a wildlife film cameraman. The photography continues with exhibitions and invitations to judge prestigious competitions, but the camerawork gave way to presenting. Chris began with the award winning ’Really Wild Show’ in 1986 and has been working ever since.

In his late 30s Chris suffered with Meniere’s disease which is a disorder of the inner ear that is described as having episodes of feeling like the world is spinning, ringing in the ears and hearing loss. In 2003, at the age of 42, he began seeing a therapist after the death of his dog. As his work with the therapist concluded in 2005, Packham was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, aged 44.

“For all autistic people it mustn’t any longer be about what we can’t do, it’s got to be about what we can do”

On 17 October 2017 Chris Packham released a documentary on BBC 2 about his life growing up and his Asperger’s, this program is called Asperger’s and me and can still be watched on BBC iPlayer. After receiving so many responses to the program he replied back to his fans and the messages he received with a letter that can be found and read on his website https://www.chrispackham.co.uk/news/aspergers-and-me-thank-you

“And that’s the message that I wanted to land to parents, friends, colleagues and a large number of isolated, unhappy, confused children, teenagers and adults. We don’t need a cure, there is nothing wrong with us – we are different. And that difference has enormous biological and social importance.”

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Celebrities Inspirational People Mental Health SEND

From genies to presidents: Robin Williams

“I want to help people be less afraid”

A wish written by Robin Williams in his Twelve Step book

Actor and comedian Robin McLaurin Williams was born on July 21, 1951, in Chicago, Illinois. When he was 16, his father retired from his job as a car salesman, and the family moved to the San Francisco area. Robin attended Claremont Men’s College and College of Marin before getting a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York City. There he befriended and became roommates with fellow actor Christopher Reeve. Robin later tried stand-up comedy in San Francisco and Los Angeles, developing a successful act. Williams eventually moved back to California, where he began appearing in comedy clubs in the early 1970s.

By the mid-1970s Williams was guest starring on several television shows. After guest appearances as the alien Mork on Happy Days, he was given his own show, Mork & Mindy (1978–82). The series offered Robin the opportunity to transfer the passion of his stand-up performances to the small screen and provided an outlet for his many comedic talents. Mork & Mindy proved a big success and was key in launching Williams’s film career.

A string of successful film roles for Williams followed over the years, showcasing his stellar comedic talents as well as his ability to take on serious work. His first major role came with Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), in which he portrayed the irreverent military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. The role earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination.

In the early 1990s he lent his talents to a number of successful family-oriented films, including Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), in which he played a divorced man who impersonates a female nanny in order to be close to his children, and the animated feature Aladdin (1992), in which he voiced the forever famous genie. He later portrayed Teddy Roosevelt in the comedy Night at the Museum (2006) and two sequels (2009, 2014). He provided voices for the animated films Happy Feet (2006) and Happy Feet Two (2011). Williams was side-lined with heart problems in early 2009, but he returned to work shortly thereafter.

A composite image of three different pictures of Robin Williams in a row. On the left, Robin Williams is shown in his Mrs. Doubtfire costume: an old white lady with grey hair pulled up into a bun, wearing large circular glasses, a white shirt and blue and white cardigan. She is holding a feather duster. In the middle Image, Robin Williams is shown back to back with his character from the animated movie Aladdin. The genie is blue, with pointy ears and a thin black beard and think black eye brows. On the right, Robin Williams is shown in his costume from Night at the Museum. He is dressed in a United States Veterans uniform, with a moustache and small circular glasses.

On August 11, 2014, the 63-year-old comedian had passed away in his California home. His publicist released this statement:

“Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

In a statement issued by his wife on August 13, she had said that her Robin had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which he had not disclosed publicly. Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system that progresses over time, affecting movement and speech. She also confirmed that the actor was battling depression and anxiety. Robin’s wife statement also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support following her husband’s suicide and touched on the legacy he left behind:

“Since his passing, all of us who loved Robin have found some solace in the tremendous outpouring of affection and admiration for him from the millions of people whose lives he touched. His greatest legacy, besides his three children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles.”

In November 2014, reports surfaced that prior to his death Williams was also suffering from Lewy body dementia, a type of progressive dementia often found in people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In December of that year, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the final film in the series, was released in which Williams reprised his role as Roosevelt.

Years after his death, Williams’s show business career and final days remained a captivating subject for fans. Dave Itzkoff’s Robin became a best-seller following its May 2018 publication, and two months later, HBO offered a character study of the comedian via footage of stand-up clips and interviews with family and friends in Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.

Robin Williams looking up he's wearing a black t-shirt and has a gold chain necklace around his neck. The background is black. Quote reads; No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. -Robin Williams

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health difficulties and/or suicidal intent or ideation, the following organisations may be able to help:

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Celebrities chronic illness Disability History Month Inspirational People SEND

Lady Gaga and her Fibromyalgia

Who is Lady Gaga?

Lady Gaga is an American singer-songwriter, record producer, actress, and businesswoman. As well as publishing multiple hit singles and albums, she also owns her own cosmetics brand (Haus Cosmetics) and founded a non-profit organization, the Born This Way Foundation. It focuses on the empowerment of young people, improving mental health, and preventing bullying.

She also has mental health difficulties, and fibromyalgia.

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic pain condition. It usually presents with widespread pain and chronic fatigue, but you can experience a wide variety of symptoms. Something a lot of people with fibromyalgia experience is cognitive and memory problems, which is referred to as ‘fibro fog’. At this time, there is no cure for fibromyalgia, although some medications and other therapies can help improve its symptoms.

Lady Gaga’s experience

She shows how this affects her in her documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two. She has needed to cancel tours and shows because of her health conditions. Shown below is an image of her receiving medical treatment for her chronic pain. It is taken from her documentary.

Lady Gaga is shown lying under a plastic sheet, wincing in pain. There are medically gloved hands - one holding an ultrasound machine and two administering a needle into her shoulder.

She speaks about her chronic pain a lot, to raise awareness about it. She manages her condition well, and something that contributes greatly to this is her access to the latest procedures and top-quality doctors. Even with this, she still experiences debilitating pain.

Lady Gag is shown from the hips up on stage. She is wearing all black. Her outfit is sleeveless so you can see her tattoos. One hand is holding a microphone to her moth and the other is outstretched.

Lady Gaga talks about her chronic pain:

“I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real. For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.”

“People need to be more compassionate. Chronic pain is no joke. And it’s every day waking up not knowing how you’re going to feel.”

“You will hear the pain in my voice and in some of the lyrics, but it always celebrates.”

“I’m a fighter. I use the word ‘suffer’ not only because trauma and chronic pain have changed my life, but because they are keeping me from living a normal life.”

“I hope that people watching it that do struggle with chronic pain know that they are not alone. […] see me dance and sing, to know I struggle with things like them and that I work through it and that it can be done.”

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Autism Celebrities Inspirational People SEND

Satoshi Tajiri: how autism inspired Pokémon

Satoshi Tajiri is Japanese and born August 28, 1965. He is the creator of Pokémon which became a huge global success and he has Autism.

When Satoshi Tajiri was a young boy, he loved to explore the outdoors and was really interested with insects. He loved to collect insects, looking for them in ponds, fields and forests, constantly trying to find new insects and coming up with different ways to catch insects such as beetles. He had such an interest in collecting and studying insects that he earned the nickname “Dr. Bug” among other children and friends.

In the late 1970s, the fields and ponds that Tajiri loved as a child were used to build apartment buildings and shopping centres. At this time, Tajiri’s passion for insects moved to video games and arcades. Because of his new obsession captured so much of his time and attention that he actually cut classes and wound up flunking high school.

His parents were concerned; they actually didn’t understand his obsession with games and thought he was a delinquent throwing his life away. He eventually took make-up classes and got his high school diploma, but he only did a two year stint at the Tokyo National College of Technology studying computer science and electronics.

In the early 1990s was when Tajiri first saw two children playing together with Game Boys using the Game Link Cable. He imagined insects crawling along the cable between the two systems. As he thought about the uses of the Game Link Cable, his idea for Pokémon grew, as he wanted to give modern children the chance to hunt for creatures as he did as a child.

He pitched the idea for Pokémon to Nintendo, and although they didn’t fully understand the concept of the game, he was given some initial funding anyway. Tajiri spent the next six years working on Pokémon. Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pikmin, and Donkey Kong, was assigned to help in the development of the initial versions of Pocket Monsters, Red and Green. While working on the game Tajiri came to admire Miyamoto as a mentor. As a tribute to Miyamoto and Tajiri, the main character of the original games and his rival have “Satoshi” and “Shigeru” among their default names.

After six years of development, Pokémon Red and Green Versions were completed. Although the Game Boy’s hardware was becoming outdated, the game still grew steadily in popularity because younger children could not afford brand-new console games so they turned to the inexpensive Game Boy games.

The success of Pokémon led to various manga adaptations, an anime, and more Pokémon games and spinoff games.

Satoshi has gone on record saying that he wanted the games to give children the same joy as he had during his bug collecting.  People with autism tend to take up collecting as a hobby, so Satoshi gave them and everyone else a gift that only he could create: a whole new thing to collect.

While Mr. Satoshi Tajiri has confirmed that he has ASD, he does not publicly talk about his condition and would rather remain away from the spotlight, focusing on work and on pursuing his own interests above fame and fortune.

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Celebration Celebrities Dyslexia Inspirational People SEND Work

Jamie Oliver: a chef with dyslexia

Who is Jamie Oliver?

Jamie Oliver is a British celebrity chef. He has his own restaurant chain, has sold more than 14.55 million books, and has a reported net worth of over £240 million. He also has dyslexia!
He struggled a lot at school – he was labelled as ‘special needs’ and was mocked by the other boys for being taken out of classes. He has always struggled with reading. Jamie did not finish reading his first novel until 2013: he was 38 years old.

“I’m not a good reader. I’ve always tried to read a book and given up after the first page.”

However, he does not think that dyslexia is a limitation. In fact, he has found his dyslexia to be a positive thing! 

“being dyslexic or having special needs is not an excuse or reason for you not to prosper.”

What does Jamie Oliver think of Dyslexia?

Here are some positive things that Jamie Oliver has said about his dyslexia:

  • “If I’m in a meeting I just see the problems differently and I obsess about things differently.”
  • “Some bits of work need to be sweated over and cried over and crafted. Because I’m dyslexic, sometimes, when it requires a load of stuff to be done, I just do it. It’s like I’m a massive ten-tonne boulder rolling down the hill.”
  • “I’ve never struggled – my brain works in quite a weird way and I often imagine how it tastes and put concepts together in my head. I can 85% smell it and almost taste it, I’m normally about right. I’ve found my dyslexia to be such a gift in the job.”
  • “I’m humbled and excited that MI5 employ dyslexics specifically. Dyslexics look at problem-solving in a totally different way. This is why dyslexia is a gift, not a problem.”
Jamie Oliver stands giving eye contact to the camera and offering a plate of food forward. Wearing a blue shirt, with his short hair brushed back, Jamie Oliver is seen in what looks like a home kitchen.
Taken from an interview with Jamie Oliver about Dyslexia on the Guardian Website: “those with dyslexia [are] lucky”.

Made by Dyslexia

In 2017, Jamie Oliver was interviewed by the charity ‘Made by Dyslexia’. You can watch this interview over on YouTube, or read the transcript below:

Jamie Oliver can be seen sitting on a stool in mid-conversation. He is wearning blue jeans and a dark blue shirt. His hair is ruffled. The background is a blurred out, large kitchen with big windows.
Screenshot taken from the #MadeByDyslexia interview with Jamie Oliver on YouTube

Jamie Oliver #madebydyslexia interview transcript:

I loved school. I really loved school. It was like a glorified youth club. I had nothing to offer at school – I didn’t learn much about myself at school, didn’t feel compelled to excel and put extra effort into any class at school. But I liked hanging out with my mates. I didn’t bunk off, cause I was happy, you know it’s almost like the one hardest ingredient of school is if the kid’s happy, you’ve got all the permissions to do everything else. I was really happy, but nothing else happened and there’s a bit of a weird one as well because when I was at school dyslexia wasn’t really- you were either almost blind or not dyslexic so I was just put in special needs, you know, you’ve got a thick kid, so you know.

But now my nephews kind of get a proper run down. They know so much more about the particular type of help they need, they get the assistance, they don’t necessarily get dragged out of class and put in a blimmin’ room at the top of the school, like a sort of dunce do you know what I mean? So it was a bit of a stigma when I was at school – didn’t bother me, because I was one of the bigger boys, but it I mean- it wasn’t great for self-esteem really.

They [the teachers] all said the same thing you know, lovely boy, you know- polite, respectable, you know I got on with teachers but you know that’s why I love the debate about education. You know who said education is what we say it is? Oh look, a couple of dudes from 500 years ago sort of set up the structure of it, English, Maths, Science, okay okay so if you’re not very good at black and white and sort of traditional academia, you’re thick? Therefore you have no value or?

So for me personally, I’ve always been passionate since leaving school about- well there’s different types of intelligence and everyone has the ability to do brilliant. And you know, school should really be about facilitating kids to find their sort of inner genius and their inner confidence, and help them with life skills, and just being good people whereas actually school is quite rigid.

Everything’s based on measurement and every child is different, every town, every school is different, every part of the country is different – so there’s no way of controlling it. It becomes more about culture than sort of hard measurements and you know- quite a few of- well there were only five people in my special needs class but three of them have done really well. I know people that left school with As As and As, but are really on just above minimum wage.

Personally I think my strength is just a complete obsession to any expression of empowering people and teaching people to cook. Whether that’s a book, the paper its on the photographer we use, sitting next to- you know, fifteen years later, the effort on design and how we lay out a page to try and empower Billy from Bognor to be able to achieve something that’s really affordable, that a king would be happy to eat. Ultimately that is what it comes down to for me. We’ve got a massive problem in this country with under-mentored, under-loved kids that don’t see that you could be good at something very simple, and turn it into a life’s work. That you enjoy, that makes you want to get out of bed with a spark in your eye.