Hunters and Farmers: Why ADHDers Can Thrive at Summer Camp

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
January 2018

In examining the etiology behind the widely diagnosed Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), one school of thought, championed by Thom Hartmann, author of the Complete Guide to ADHD, speaks to the concept of “hunters and farmers in modern society.” This approach describes ADHDers as “leftover hunters,” positing that, from an evolutionary perspective, people were either hunters (heads on a swivel, looking for prey and seeking to not become prey) or farmers (methodically planting seeds and plowing fields).

And then there’s the present.

Hartmann says, “Certainly, most of society is set up to reward farmer-like behavior. Our schools are still based on an agricultural model of long summer vacations . . . from times past when the children were needed to bring in the crops.” Additionally, he points to the industrial revolution as furthering the challenge attention-deficit individuals face “outside the template by introducing mechanization using repetitive (farming) techniques,” suggesting it explains the “factory model of modern public schools” that may not well serve children who struggle with ADHD.

He also challenges the notion that being a farmer in today’s world is the best recipe for success (despite the fact that “the checkbook gets balanced, the grass is mowed regularly, and the bolt gets put on the screw at the factory day in and day out”), noting that it is often the hunters “who are the instruments of social change and leadership” (Hartmann, 2000).

Which brings me to my thesis: ADHDers (like me) can thrive at summer camp simply because we do well in inherently chaotic environments, as we are uniquely wired to sift through a constant barrage of stimuli, both incoming and outgoing.

What ADHD Looks and Feels Like

“ADHD is a long term that means essentially I have a chemical imbalance in my brain which makes my thinking slightly to the side of everyone else. My attention span is limited, I have hyperactive tendencies (never sitting still, fidgeting, always moving, and an internal engine that propels me forward at full speed) and can quite often have impulsive actions (I often say things before I have thought about them, or blurt out what I am feeling), and am really good at interrupting people, oh and I talk at a million miles an hour. What can I say? It’s a gift” (Wallace, 2017a).

That is the way at least one young person views his “disorder.”

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states, “ADHD is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Inattention means a person wanders off task, lacks persistence, has difficulty sustaining focus, and is disorganized; and these problems are not due to defiance or lack of comprehension.

Hyperactivity means a person seems to move about constantly, including in situations in which it is not appropriate; or excessively fidgets, taps, or talks. In adults, it may be extreme restlessness or wearing others out with constant activity.

Impulsivity means a person makes hasty actions that occur in the moment without first thinking about them and that may have high potential for harm; or a desire for immediate rewards or inability to delay gratification. An impulsive person may be socially intrusive and excessively interrupt others or make important decisions without considering the long-term consequences” (NIMH, 2016).

Ned Hallowell, MD, New York Times best-selling author and world-renowned ADHD expert, explains, “In my opinion, ADHD is a terrible term. As I see it, ADHD is neither a disorder, nor is there a deficit of attention. I see ADHD as a trait, not a disability. When it is managed properly, it can become a huge asset in one’s life” (Hallowell, 2017).

But a gift? “Sure,” says Hallowell.

He wrote in The Huffington Post, “Often these people are highly imaginative and intuitive. They have a ‘feel’ for things, a way of seeing right into the heart of matters while others have to reason their way along methodically. This is the person who can’t explain how he thought of the solution, where the idea for the story came from, why suddenly he produced such a painting, or how he knew the shortcut to the answer. All he can say is he just knew it, he could feel it. This is the man or woman who dreams up million-dollar deals in a catnap and pulls them off the next day. This is the child who, having been reprimanded for blurting something out, is then praised for having blurted out something brilliant. These are the people who learn and know and do and go by touch and feel.

“These people can feel a lot. In places where most of us are blind they can, if not see the light, at least feel the light, and they can produce answers apparently out of the dark” (Hallowell, 2012).

On his website, Hallowell says, “As I like to describe it, having ADHD is like having a powerful race car for a brain, but with bicycle brakes. Treating ADHD is like strengthening your brakes — so you start to win races in your life.

“In my work as a psychiatrist who treats ADHD, I see myself not as a doctor who treats a disability, but rather as a doctor who helps people, adults and children alike, identify, develop, and celebrate their talents” (Hallowell, 2017).

That work includes providing how-to advice regarding some specific things:

  • Harness the power of ADHD.
  • Survive in an ultracompetitive, ultrafast, attention-deficit society while remaining sane.
  • Raise happy children.
  • Bring the best out of your employees.
  • In many important ways, that is our work as well. Why? Because many of our campers and counselors have ADHD.

ADHD in America

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The percent of children estimated to have ADHD has changed over time and can vary by how it is measured. The American Psychiatric Association states in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013) that 5 percent of children have ADHD. However, other studies in the US have estimated higher rates in community samples” (CDC, 2017).

But what do we know about camp-aged youth? Parent reports from 2011 and 2012 indicate ADHD among children ages four to 17 is more prevalent and steadily increasing.

Approximately 11 percent have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point.

ADHD diagnoses continued to rise, from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 and to 11 percent in 2011 and 2012.

Yet, how many receive treatment and in what form?

The CDC offers, “Treatment for ADHD can include behavior therapy and medication. For children six years of age and older, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends both behavior therapy and medication as good options, preferably both together. For young children (under six years of age) with ADHD, behavior therapy is recommended as the first line of treatment, before medication is tried.

“There are no comprehensive data on ADHD treatment from a single source. CDC uses parent report and healthcare claims data to understand treatment patterns.

“Parent report:

  • The percent of children four to 17 years of age taking ADHD medication increased from 4.8 percent in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2011.
  • More US children were receiving ADHD treatment in 2011 compared to 2007; however, as many as 17.5 percent of children with current ADHD were not receiving either medication for ADHD or mental health counseling in 2011.
  • Among children with special healthcare needs, nine out of 10 children with ADHD were receiving treatment. Of these children:
    • About four in ten (43 percent) were treated with medication alone — the most common single ADHD treatment.
    • About one in ten (13 percent) received behavioral therapy alone.
    • Less than one in three children with ADHD received both medication treatment and behavior therapy . . .” (CDC, 2017).

Notably, for children with ADHD and special healthcare needs, about one in ten did not receive any medication treatment or behavioral therapy.

Let’s Go Camping

Might summer camp offer significant gains for youth with ADHD? In a word, yes.

Melissa Orlov, a marriage consultant specializing in helping ADHD-affected couples rebalance their relationships, shares the story of Lori Stipp and her ADHD-diagnosed son, Nathan. Orlov says, “Lori Stipp, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, felt that her son Nathan . . . would benefit by getting away from home. Nathan, 14, had faced lots of social challenges in school, where other kids picked on him — a serious concern for his family. When one of Nathan’s classmates raved about a summer sea camp he had attended, Lori thought that her son might also enjoy it.”

On the outcomes for Nathan, she offers, “Camp might seem like fun and games to Nathan, but his mother knows that he has gained a stronger sense of identity while practicing his social skills. At home, he is more independent, taking on more responsibility.”

Similarly, Nathan’s mom reports, “Each summer, after Nathan comes back, we do a family reset. He’s been off at camp, gaining confidence, managing his own affairs, and figuring out how to keep track of his stuff. Each year, when he returns, we need to give him more autonomy.” She also says that her son’s dream is to someday return to his camp to work as a counselor (Orlov, 2017).

Adults with ADHD

Of course, ADHD diagnoses are not confined to youth. Adults, too, may struggle in ways similar to youth.

Keith Fox, in an essay for NewLifeOutlook
.com, describes himself this way: “I find my mind wanders all over the place, and I am very sequential when it comes to handling tasks or listening to instructions. I get overwhelmed very quickly, and I have been able to over focus as a way to get each step in a process completed, and it takes a lot of mental energy to do this. I am usually mentally exhausted when I finish the task at hand and eventually need a mental break.

“My mind wanders between great effort on concentration to unrestrained or undirected imaginations.

“I write more coherently than I talk, and I comment a lot because I have many opinions on things because my mind brings out so many ideas or issues during my unrestrained imaginings.

“A lot of people do not understand ADHD, and this causes problems. I get easily frustrated and irritated when someone or something breaks that concentration or keeps me from resting my mind between tasks.

“On the positive side, I can be both creative and logical, however, on the downside, I can be irritable and not a good listener when someone else is talking” (Fox, 2017).

Sound familiar?

Chances are, many of your camp staff will struggle with their own ADHD.

Aggie Chamlin — A Case in Point

Aggie Chamlin, 19, a longtime camper and 2017 counselor of eight-year-old girls, explains her experience with ADHD: “On a day-to-day basis my ADHD comes up a lot. It is always in the back of my mind. I often think to myself, ‘Ag, pay attention,’ ‘Ag you’re daydreaming,’ etc. During class, I often find something drifting. I have gotten better at catching myself so that I don’t miss what is being taught. Socially, my ADHD usually doesn’t cause an issue. When I do not take my meds, I am often more hyper and all over the place. Some people say I am more fun to be around, but others say I have too much energy.”

And what about camp?

Aggie explains, “At camp, I am always so outgoing, involved, and enthusiastic. Camp is the perfect place for a child (or adult) with ADHD. There is so much going on so I am rarely sitting and bored. Sensory input really helps me sometimes, which there is plenty of at camp, from art to pottery to yoga and beyond! Camp gives me a nice break from the rigor of school, where you have to sit still and engage fully in everything you do. At camp, we are able to just be and exist in a world of fun, love, and friendship.”

Aggie’s advice to other camp counselors across the land?

“Give every child a chance. Some can be difficult but there is someone inside who is having a hard time. For the most part, no child wants to be a bother so just don’t get frustrated quickly. Be resilient to some hard days but don’t give up on your campers. That is so important. Be there for them, try to understand how they work and operate. Be energetic, be excited, and most important, be a good role model!”

The ADHD End Game

Although there has been much debate lately over possible overdiagnosis of attention deficits and overmedication of those diagnosed — as well as discussion about newer, nonpharmacological solutions such as neurofeedback, the end game is helping each camper and staff member have a positive, successful summer at camp (Wallace, 2017b).

And, while it is difficult to list every strategy you may want to employ to that end, it is often helpful to try the following:

  • Break tasks and instructions into smaller parts.
  • Combine both written and verbal directions.
  • Give early warning before an activity.
  • Assist the child or counselors in organizing their things.
  • Prompt actions or activities.
  • Model appropriate social behavior.
  • Reinforce self-worth.
  • Be consistent, calm, and patient.

In this way, both hunters and farmers at camp can be worthy instruments of social change and leadership.

References

CDC. (2017). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

Fox, K. (2017). My story: Keith Fox. NewLifeOutlook. Retrieved from https://adhd.newlifeoutlook.com/story/keith-fox/

Hallowell, E. (2017). What is ADHD? Dr. Hallowell and the Hallowell Centers. Retrieved from drhallowell.com/add-adhd/

Hallowell, E. (2012, June 27). What’s it like to have ADHD? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from drhallowell.com/whats-it-like-to-have-adhd/

Hartmann, T. (2000). Thom Hartmann’s complete guide to ADHD. Nevada City, CA: Underwood Books.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2016, March). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml

Orlov, M. (2017). Let’s go camping. ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from additudemag.com/lets-go-camping/

Wallace, S. (2017a) An introduction to camp counseling. Summit Communications.

Wallace, S. (2017b, February 16). Brain on fire. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday
.com/blog/decisions-teens-make/201702/brain-fire


Photo courtesy of Drumlin Farm Camp / Mass Audubon, Lincoln, Massachusetts

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at the Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.

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