DETROIT – In a day camp for often smart but distracted kids, 11-year-old Ben Paxton has learned to see something positive in his diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Sure, many kids like him get antsy, procrastinate or lose their temper. But they also are often bright, creative and funny, says Ben, an avid video gamer, like many with ADHD, as well as a swimmer and all-A student at Novi Meadows School.
“People think we’re kind of stupid, but we’re really quite smart,” Ben explains. “We just have a hard time curbing our really big flaws.”
Part outdoor adventure, part ADHD social skills 101, this Training Your Dragons Camp in West Bloomfield, Mich., strives to build teamwork, leadership, goal-setting and coping skills in kids with ADHD – a diagnosis that can be befuddling, stressful, isolating and depressing.
The day camp tries to help kids understand that while their diagnosis may help define them in part, the way the color of your hair or the shape of your nose can, they have choices in their response to situations that bring out their worst traits, says Kevin Roberts, an ADHD coach from West Bloomfield who designed the camps with Drew Yanke, a psychotherapist in Birmingham, Mich.
Dragons camp helps boys face the dragons, or issues, that kids with the disorder face: impulsivity, anger, oppositional behaviors and poor organizational skills.
These campers are kids who forget their homework, insist on having the last word and who may pull all A’s but bring home report cards marked with negative comments about not followings directions, says Roberts, an ADHDer, as he calls himself and those with the diagnosis.
Roberts is the author of a new book, “Movers, Dreamers and Risk-Takers, Unlocking the Power of ADHD” (Hazelden). It summarizes Roberts’ own life growing up with ADHD in Redford as well as skills he’s acquired through a master’s degree program and 14 years of work as an ADHD coach for kids.
Roberts, 43, came to understand his own ADHD late. He wasn’t diagnosed with it until he was 26. Growing up in a household “bursting with clutter,” Roberts was “a little frustrated” with a mother who had outgoing, eccentric traits that matched her son’s.
Many people like him never get diagnosed, a controversy that has created a debate about whether the condition is growing or just being diagnosed more.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5.4 million children ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with the condition.
Without better understanding about why he faltered in elementary and middle school, Roberts struggled until his mother found tutors and other opportunities through church and youth groups to help a boy who didn’t fit into the usual round pegs.
“In middle school and in high school, I began to feel marginalized,” he says. “Other people experienced me as too intense and I missed social cues.” He’d interrupt them or “say things at the wrong time. I just came on too strong. You make it work as an adult, but as a teen it’s a liability.”
Bright, with an exceptional ear for foreign dialects and language – he speaks five proficiently – Roberts excelled at Detroit Catholic Central High in Novi, Mich., which he attended on a scholarship. There, he found a few master teachers who used punishments and rewards for the right and wrong behaviors, an approach that worked for him.
He got a bachelor’s of arts degree in linguistics and political science at the University of Michigan. He taught for three years at West Bloomfield’s Roeper School, and earned a master’s degree in ADHD studies from Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Yanke, a former toy salesman, comes to the camp with a psychotherapy degree from Wayne State University. He and his wife, Kimber Bishop-Yanke, have an active metro Detroit business, Girls and Boys Empowered and Kids Empowered, that offers children help with social skills, bullying and other issues through crafts, peer discussions, fitness and recreational activities.
Yanke, who is as animated and friendly as Roberts, says the camps try to help kids “understand what they are facing every day. A lot of these boys never have been challenged to ask, ’What distracts you? What do you need? Are you angry and impatient? Do you get in other people’s space? Do you argue?’”
The boys at the camps – girls are welcome but to date none have enrolled – are typically 7 to 14 years old. The cost is $350, and some financial help is available.
Keeping the boys on task is a challenge. Mac Willcock, 11, of Rochester Hills, one of the dozen boys at the West Bloomfield camp, is “very smart” and “always going,” says his mother, Lisa Willcock.
She and her son, who has attended the camp twice, are working on arguing less over what needs to get done. “He is more willing to do what he has to do if he has a say in it,” she says.
“ADHD kids don’t plan well in advance so if you give them time to do it, they delay,” she says. “It’s better to say it has to be done now.”
Katie Paxton, Ben’s mother, says the camps have taught her son to understand why he sometimes acts the way he does.
“The stories I hear on the ride home, I’ll say, ’Wait, why did you do that?’ Or, ’D o you understand how somebody else might feel?’ At least we’re planting the seed. He understands it intellectually, but in the heat of the moment it’s unclear what he’ll do and how it will end up.”
Ben says he is learning to “try to do the right thing, instead of going with my gut instinct.” He found the approach useful at school last year when kids bullied him.
He knows now to weigh his choices rather than going with the first emotion that comes to mind.
Ben has not mastered the same coping skills at home, however. He admits to arguing with his mom, playing video games too much, and having a very messy room.
Why the messy room and clutter?
“It’s just too organized,” he explains. “I’m just a bit of a slacker. Most kids with ADHD are slackers. I get my schoolwork done on time but if my mom tells me to clean my room, a week later she has to tell me again. I’d rather be doing something like swimming.”
He pauses. Then adds: “I’m working on it.”