Audra McDonald, Creativity and ADHD

Would McDonald have been the same on ADHD medications?

Posted Jun 09, 2014

Last night, singer Audra Mcdonald made history when she won her sixth Tony Award for playing Billie Holiday. She was the only woman ever to earn that many Tony awards. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her parents for not medicating her when she was diagnosed with ADHD: "I want to thank my mom and dad up in heaven for disobeying the doctor's orders and not medicating their hyperactive daughter and finding out what she's into instead."

History is full of creative people who couldn't sit still in class and lived, thought, and dreamed "outside the box." Among well known figures who, along with McDonald, would have qualified for an ADHD diagnosis are Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, and Winston Churchill.

Erich Muller, a highly creative radio personality, was such a class clown that he was sentenced with more days of detention than there were days in the school year. The school he attended built a cubicle-like enclosure on top of his desk to keep his eyes from wandering. His teacher said he was "too creative." His pediatrician said he should be on Ritalin. Like Audra McDonald's parents, Muller's parents refused to medicate him.

David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue Airways, did not take drugs when he was diagnosed with ADHD. He says that his ADHD helps him think unconventionally, and he worries that if he took medication, he'd be like everyone else.

In America today, we are medicating creative kids who prefer to daydream in class instead of completing  boring worksheets. We are teaching them that focusing on the blackboard is more important than dreaming big dreams that might inspire new inventions. As a society we need to find different ways to help creative though disorganized children besides dampening their creative minds with Aderall, Ritalin, Strattera and worse. This is not meant to be a criticism of teachers. Today's teachers are doing an amazing job with the scarce resources allocated to education.

To be fair, most parents don't want to medicate their children, and many do so only after a long stuggle to find other solutions. A moving response to McDonald's acceptance speech appeared in Time magazine yesterday from a mother who felt that she had no choice but to drug her son. She reminds us that not all kids are "Audra-level awesome," and for her son medicine worked best to keep him in school.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-free approach for Troubled Kids and a forthcoming book on a new approach to ADHD, A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic.