History is filled with creative individuals who “thought outside the box.” Often ridiculed, labeled as troublemakers, or initially discounted as unintelligent, many went on to make huge contributions to society. And yet today many of those people would probably be said to have Attention Deficit and/or Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) which is characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Some professionals like Professor Fitzgerald, believe that attention deficit disorders may be the spark that underlies creative genius; giving people the ability to hyper-focus (concentrate single mindedly) on things they are interested in and enabling their creative talents to flourish: see Appendices. As he wrote:

People with ADHD have symptoms of inattentiveness, but they often have a capacity to hyper-focus on a narrow area that is of particular interest to them. Clearly ADHD is not a guarantee of genius, but the focused work-rate that it produces may enable creative genius to flourish.

One example he gives is that of the late Kurt Cobain, the former Nirvana songwriter, (who had been prescribed the anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin as a child) and yet was also known for his “amazing ability” to focus on writing music. That “hyperfocus” might be an advantage in some situations and yet all too often ADHD is seen as a disadvantage in life, as hinted at by its most characteristic traits. Even so, as Professor Fitzgerald points out, the hyperactivity and impulsiveness can lead to other positive benefits. As he tells us:

The same genes that are involved in ADHD can be associated with risk-taking behavior. While these urges can be problematic or even self-destructive – occasionally leading people into delinquency, addiction, or crime, they can lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs in the fields of the arts, science, and exploration.

He believes it’s possible to retrospectively identify ADHD traits in a list of historical figures and high achievers. That encompasses people as diverse as Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Clark Gable and even Che Guevara although interestingly, there are no women on his list.

While Professor Fitzgerald admits that there are potential pitfalls to diagnosing people solely on the historical evidence, he has identified several clues about each potential candidate to support his theory; many of them sharing a degree of recklessness as well as an insatiable appetite for stimulation.

Is he right? Without an in-depth study we shall never be certain but several of them certainly fit the pattern that Professor Fitzgerald describes. One such was the famous soldier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, a seemingly reckless adventurer whose insatiable appetite for new stimulation propelled his career to the heights; like many other similar characters.

While the clinical definition of ADHD only began in the mid-20th century, references to a similar condition have occurred repeatedly over the centuries. Thus Hippocrates, who lived around 350 BC, had some patients who had:

…quickened responses to sensory experience, but less tenaciousness because the soul moves on quickly to the next impression.”

He attributed such problems to an “overbalance of fire over water,” recommending that patients be treated with what is perhaps one of the first descriptions of a dietary intervention. It consisted of:

…barley rather than wheat bread, fish rather than meat, water drinks, and many natural and diverse physical activities.

Another writer suggested that Jesus’ disciple, Peter, who became the first Pope, might have had similar traits. The New Testament certainly portrays him as exceptionally loyal and devoted, and well as being overenthusiastic and impulsive as can be seen in two particular instances.

The first came when the disciples were on a boat in the midst of a storm when, despite the crashing waves, they saw Jesus walking toward them on the water. They were terrified because they thought he was a ghost but once He had reassured them Peter said “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water. And He said, Come.”

Peter immediately jumped in. And it’s here we get a glimpse of someone with a distractibility reminiscent of ADHD for, in only a moment or two, Peter started looking around at the turbulent lashing waves, at which point as I’m sure you know, he began to sink.

The second incident came in the Garden of Gethsemane when, as soon as the soldiers arrived to arrest Jesus, Peter swiftly drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the servants of the High Priest.

Nor is he alone in history for surely many of the heroes who have appeared throughout the ages – especially during wartime – seem to have similar characteristics; often jumping into action before the gravity of a situation has struck them.

As you might expect Shakespeare also introduced just such a man in one of his plays. Thus, in Henry IV we find a young nobleman named Harry Percy, nicknamed “Hotspur” by his enemies the Scots, because he was always ready to do battle.

He was a courageous young leader but, despite being honest and straightforward, he was also rightly known as an impetuous risk-taker with a “hot” temper; one who was incapable of strategy and tended to alienate his colleagues. A man whose own father tellingly commented that he was “… a wasp-stung and impatient fool …”

Hotspur it was who led the most serious of the rebellions against King Henry IV; until his shortcomings ultimately led to his downfall.

Fast forward a couple of centuries where, in Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, we find the hobbit, Peregrin Took (aka Pippin), who lives in a constant state of impatience.

A loyal and faithful friend to Frodo and others, Pippin is excessively curious, poking his nose into all sorts of potentially dangerous places, careless of the consequences.

Then there are animals like the incorrigible Mr. Toad in A. A. Milne’s story, Wind in the Willows. Toad is constantly chasing excitement; taking up new interests and then dropping them as soon as he spots the next new thing.

A Toad who drives his new motor car with such reckless abandon that he ends up with a twenty-year prison sentence, only to escape so that he can try to regain his ancestral home from the clutches of his jubilant enemies; the weasels.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gave us the fun-loving Michelangelo; who constantly misbehaved or said something inappropriate while also missing social cues.

Nor must I omit the fish. Finding Nemo introduces Dory, a pretty blue fish who is more hospitable, friendlier, and more sociable than any other fish in the ocean. A fish who’d just love to chat all day and tell you her life story, if only she could remember it… A fish who can’t even remember Nemo’s name.

Let’s get back to reality. In 1775, Melchior Adam Weikard, a prominent German physician, published Der Philosophische Arzt, a textbook that contained what was possibly the first ever description of “inattentive behaviors” in medical literature. It makes no mention of hyperfocus, but according to the English translation, Weikard stated that:

An inattentive person won’t remark anything but will be shallow everywhere. He studies his matters only superficially; his judgements are erroneous and he misconceives the worth of things because he does not spend enough time and patience to search a matter individually or by the piece with the adequate accuracy.

Such people only hear half of everything; they memorize or inform only half of it or do it in a messy manner. According to a proverb they generally know a little bit of all and nothing of the whole….

They are mostly reckless, often copious considering imprudent projects, but they are also most inconstant in execution. They treat everything in a light manner since they are not attentive enough to feel denigration or disadvantages.

According to Weikard, the recommended treatment was that the person should be separated from the noise or any other objects and, rather drastically, also said that he should be:

…kept solitary, in the dark, when he is too active. The easily agile fibers are to be fixated by rubbing, cold baths, steel powder, cinchona, mineral waters, horseback riding, and gymnastic exercises.

An extract from Autism Decoded – The Ciphers. For further details see: http://www.autismdecoded.com

Author's Bio: 

Stella Waterhouse is a second generation educator and autism awareness expert who has a particular interest in autism as wekk as the sensory differences that affect so many children with disorders like ADHD etc.

Stella is currently working on the second book in her series Autism Decoded - The Ciphers. Date of publication March 2019.