Writing fiction about ADHD: 'I want children to see that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing'
Published on: 01 October 2019 Author: Alex Strick
October is ADHD Awareness Month. Here, author Victoria Williamson talks to Alex Strick about her new novel and the importance of really understanding and supporting young people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Victoria Williamson, author of the The Boy With the Butterfly Mind
How was the idea for The Boy with the Butterfly Mind first born?
A lot of the inspiration for my stories comes from the real-life experiences of children I have taught in primary schools. Many children are members of blended families, and some of them initially struggle with the transitions that a changing home life can bring about.
Some of these children share how they’re feeling with their class teacher, so I’ve heard a number of stories from children over the years of jealousies, power struggles, arguments, and ultimately acceptance, although nothing as extreme as Elin and Jamie’s story!
I wove these stories together into the tapestry of The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, which is a blend of many children’s real-life voices.
In what ways did your experience teaching impact on your writing and in particular your development of the character Jamie, who has ADHD?
I’ve also taught a number of children with additional support needs, including ADHD, so I felt it was really important for them to see a character with ADHD portrayed positively in a story that they could relate to.
I wanted this to be a story about hope, and for children to see that ADHD doesn’t have to be a negative thing. This is why it was important for me that Jamie’s voice in the story was the optimist one, acting as a foil to Elin’s more pessimistic voice. Despite other people’s negative assessment of him and his behaviour, Jamie continues to try to make friends, fit in, and win people over.
My aim was for the reader to empathise with children with ADHD and root for Jamie’s happy ending, for as he says himself:
‘I’d almost given up hope of being anything but the boy who can’t concentrate for more than half a second before his mind’s fluttering off somewhere else like a butterfly, but now I’m getting a chance to give my story an alternate ending. This time I’m going to make sure it’s a happy one.’
What other research or consultation did you to ensure the representation of an ADHD experience was as authentic as possible?
While I was researching my novel, I got in touch with Fiona McBride of Children 1st. She was inspired to join the charity 16 years ago when they were developing a service aimed at supporting primary school-aged children who were struggling in school, and were often labelled as challenging or anti-social. Fiona told me about the ways in which Children 1st support children with ADHD and their families, and I heard about some of the problems families and schools can face in managing young people’s behaviour if they don’t know the right strategies to help.
Children 1st work with families to help them to understand their child’s behaviour and to respond a manner which assures safety, understanding, and unconditional love. They help the young people understand their feelings and emotions and find constructive ways to express themselves, using methods such as mindfulness and guided imagery. They also work with schools to help them to better understand how children communicate, and how teachers’ responses can impact either positively or negatively on the child, helping schools work towards improvements which can support children’s educational attainment.
This information helped me set up the family and school dynamics in the novel, where Jamie’s initial problems stem from a lack of support, and his improvements in behaviour, and ultimately in happiness, come from receiving the help and understanding that he needs to thrive. It also inspired me to pledge to donate 20% of my author royalties for the book to Children 1st.
What was the principal message you’d like readers to take away about ADHD from Jamie’s character?
To many people, children with ADHD might seem as if they are just misbehaving, but these children find it very difficult to control their behaviour. They know what they are doing is wrong, but often they struggle to stop themselves.
Jamie says of his ADHD:
‘They think I’m being bad on purpose. They’ve got no idea how hard it is for me to stay focused long enough to get easy things done, like putting on my school uniform or brushing my teeth after breakfast. My mind goes off in twenty-five directions at once and I’m always left behind. It would be nice to have an ordinary brain that wasn’t always fluttering off when I needed to use it.’
I’d like readers to understand ADHD from Jamie’s point of view, and to focus on his many strengths and lovable nature, rather than his flaws. Hopefully this will help them to empathise more with people who have ADHD in real life.
Both lead characters in their own way are striving to "fix" something in their lives. I loved the way the book reminds us that our perceived notions of normality, perfection and fairy-tale endings are flawed.
Elin comes to an understanding that Jamie’s ADHD is a part of who he is, and not something that needs to be fixed. This understanding helps Elin realise that she’s not so different from him as she first believed, and they’ve actually got a lot in common.
Jamie also comes to understand that his ADHD is a part of him that doesn’t need to be "fixed", and Elin’s acceptance of him is the final hurdle he overcomes to help him accept himself the way he is.
‘Life with me is never going to be perfect, but I’m doing my best. I know now I’m not broken, and I don’t need fixed. I might be different, and seem a bit weird at first, like jam and cream and peanut butter all mixed up together. But everyone loves my Sandwich Man Specials when they’re willing to give them a try. And maybe, if people give me a chance, they’ll find they like me just as much too.’
Can you tell us about the character of Paige and your reasons for including her?
Paige is the "quiet" character in the book who everybody ignores. Elin dislikes her intensely, as Paige is the one person in school less popular than Elin herself, and she’s afraid that Paige’s repeated attempts to befriend her will ruin any chance she has of making it into the popular crowd. As the story unfolds, we get to see Paige’s hidden strengths, and Elin finally learns the lesson from Paige’s example and that she doesn’t have to be perfect; all she has to be is kind.
Can you share any plans or ideas you have, particularly where inclusivity is concerned?
One thing I find annoying about children’s fiction is that characters with a disability or additional support need of some sort are often represented in the "helper" or sidekick role, if they’re represented at all. The book I’m currently working on features a cast of four main characters who solve a mystery and save the day. Two are deaf, one has Down’s Syndrome, and the other has Cerebral Palsy.
This is the version of The Famous Five or The Three Investigators that we need in literature to ensure that children all have a chance to see themselves in a heroic role.
This kind of representation in literature is vital, as these stories help children to see a full range of life possibilities for themselves and others, ultimately helping to create a more inclusive society.