ADHD OUTDOO…Oh look a squirrel
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Being outdoors works for me. I love the sense of space and freedom, the open sky. Nature sounds are easier to process, the colours more vivid and visual shapes and lines more palatable. The sensations of being cold and the wind and rain tell me I am alive and if I need to be constantly moving it looks normal and no one questions it, in fact it is almost a requirement. I have undiagnosed ADHD, the NHS waiting time is 5 years for an adult assessment, I am a year in. This is significant as the longer a person lives with ADHD without diagnosis, the more they are at risk of more cumulative difficulties.
This is a blog I have wanted to write for a long time but it has been surprisingly tricky. Many of the children and young people we have worked with outdoors have ADHD or like me are waiting for assessment, some are still struggling to even be considered by professionals to see if they have enough traits that allow them to access an assessment. We never set out to build a provision for ADHDers, we set out to be as inclusive as possible generally, but it seems something about the outdoors does seem to work more than other environments for ADHD. I have been working outdoors now for over 15 years and have not got bored of it yet. A factor in this longevity maybe that many ADHDers are self-employed or run their own businesses, this for me has been a successful life hack certainly, but the outdoor journey has been a more sustained adventure than others I have embarked on.
What about the outdoors makes an ADHD life better or good for some? This has been a really tricky question to answer. I feel almost too close to it to answer, I have struggled to find the threads to pull on, in order to understand and communicate it well. Some of the reasons why the outdoors is a positive environment feel too obvious to write about so I asked one of our ADHD outdoor young people what they thought worked for them outdoors and they said ‘you just have more freedom’ as if it was obvious! I think freedom is the top benefit for an ADHDer outdoors.
An obvious thread to pull on is that nature seems to absorb many behaviours that would be amplified in a building or built environment. This is one explanation for some children and young people managing better outdoors or in nature than in a classroom. Nature is brilliant but not all outdoor environments are created equal and freedom is not necessarily a given. When we consider different settings and how they are organised, many frequently engaged with outdoor spaces are almost just the classroom, but outdoors. Curious School of the Wild work aims to consciously harmonise with what nature already does by also creating a low demand environment where responsive and engaging relationships are central with the human and more than human world, where there is choice, autonomy and freedom. Exploration of beneficial risk taking is encouraged and our most basic needs are met first before any learning takes place. In my experience these crucial elements for our work are not always available in all settings, many outdoor and natural environments are still highly managed, choreographed and outcomes are heavily planned and measured. We can’t categorically say that all outdoor environments are supportive of ADHD needs. When we consider that an ADHD brain may not engage in learning if they are distracted by social or authoritarian threat, or if the subject or activity on offer is so tight they can’t find a personal interest point or if despite the open space being available they are still physically restricted in what they can do in it or what their volume can be. Boredom to an ADHDer can hurt, like a physical pain. The discomfort of boredom in itself is enough to explain many difficult interactions seen in settings too restrictive to adapt and allow space for personal interest to germinate.
One of the reasons ADHD can be difficult to discuss is because in the same way that we understand that once you have met one autistic person/ one person with autism(depending on how you prefer to identify), you have still only met one person with autism/one autistic person, the same is true of ADHD. It is impossible to say what will be needed for a particular ADHD individual as their needs and interests will be individual. What interests them once may never become interesting again and the interest can shift quickly and within the hour. This can be disheartening for leaders and teachers who felt they had finally made a positive connection. This unpredictable shift in focus probably helped to create the ADHD trope used in film and media of a sudden distraction, as in the example of the title ‘oh look a squirrel’. This does actually happen to me, admittedly an after session debrief can be hard to focus on when I can see every tiny movement and flash of colour of the birds in the trees. This is a trope, however, precisely because it is shorthand to understand how ADHD affects an individual, but one of the difficulties with ADHD discussion is that it is often reduced down to being all about inattention when infact there are so many other challenges. It is difficult to find useful or relatable research that dives into the details of what it feels like to live with ADHD. One of the issues is that much of the research is about children as subjects and not adults or what adult challenges might look like. I only really see this presented on social media made by those with lived experience.
One of the best descriptions of the classic ADHD brain overload I have seen, presents many ADHDers as using brain brute strength to accomplish tasks that they do not really have the executive function skills to manage, a bit like keeping all the tabs open in order to save information rather than having an inbuilt system to save, file and recall when needed. Having too many files, apps and tabs open makes your device slow, glitchy and eventually crash. This brain overload can manifest in ‘ADHD overwhelm’, where a usually very active or fun person can appear to crash or switch off. I do personally apologise these days for ‘being off line’ when way too many situations have required me to use brute brain strength too much.
I always have tonnes of tabs open literally and figuratively. Another reason for this can be that an ADHDer has an out of sight out of mind problem. This can affect memory, bill paying, work deadlines and especially relationships. There is some discussion that ‘ADHD paralysis’- or what looks like procrastination, experienced as just waiting for the appointment at 4pm and not being able to do anything else all day-is actually a brain adaptation in case you forget or get distracted. ADHD paralysis can feel like your inner personal assistant just cleared all tasks and meetings in your day without your permission, until your appointment at 4pm. This can extend into other time frames too, it is hard for me to relax and take a holiday if a job breaks up my week. This may be seen in ADHDers outdoors, as a person not being able to focus on anything or make relationships that day as they are being picked up earlier than usual for an appointment or they have to go somewhere after the session or often seen when they know an exciting package or person might arrive at home when they are not there. My hack for this is to schedule anything vital that needs attention right at the start of the day, meetings too, as then I stand a chance of doing something useful with the rest of my day.
Nature and the outdoors may provide just the right level of stimuli for some people. There can be issues for both, too little as well as too much stimuli and this will vary for each individual on each day. Some people with ADHD find white noise helpful as it provides a certain amount of stimulus but not so much that it is distracting. Nature sounds may also provide this, there are lots of white noise nature you tube videos for rain, the sea, birds, the rumbling of thunder, the rustling of trees and leaves in the wind and tinkling rivers. Nature sounds may help to hit the sweet spot between no stimuli and too much. In behaviour terms in children, young people and even adults, this is what can look like poor impulse control. An understimulating environment can lead an ADHDer to create more stimulus to support focus. I have had comments, (sometimes quite hurtful) made about my behaviour in meetings when other adults assume I am not taking a topic seriously enough as I start to focus on and make comments about what is funny and humorous. Humour becomes the stimulation I need to stay in the room, it doesn’t mean I am flippant or don’t care but this is not read or received well by some other adults. As a leader my knowledge of this means I try to be as interesting as possible in voice, body language and content. Timing is important too, it is hard to focus for long periods of time on subjects with no intrinsic excitement, so I know as a leader I have to provide the excitement and interest, especially for ideas or conversation that are a bit dull. An interesting person and interesting style, can deliver dull content successfully. Changing routine or adding surprises can be enough to get an ADHDer back on board.
The style of some outdoor learning can mean that leaders have firm ideas about what is healthy behaviour to support or encourage. Some leaders have concerns about introducing elements of competition into sessions and an obsession with ‘child led’ can leave some children with not enough challenge, which is unfortunate, as one way to get an ADHDer to get involved and stay focused is to ‘gamify’ tasks. Accountability is helpful to support motivation for ADHDers and an effective tool can be healthy competition. There are lots of ways to use competition without losing group cooperation and you can compete with yourself too. One way I get stuff done is to challenge myself to get a task done before the end of a song-this sometimes works for domestic chores. My daughter pointed out that this is called an ‘arbitrary time measurement’, she saw it on some ADHD tik tok, I did this instinctively and never knew it was a thing until she said.
There can be a lot of shame involved with ADHD, this is not in the diagnostic criteria but is common as many of the challenges for a person with ADHD are viewed as moral failings. These moral failing are often accompanied with a high cost, emotionally and financially. Being late, forgetting a task or appointment, not paying a bill, getting a parking ticket, forgetting homework, doing an essay last minute, not staying in contact with a friend, not sending a card or gift on time or at all, interrupting in conversation, struggling to tidy mess, making a joke at the wrong moment, being too loud, saying what comes into you head unfiltered, having an over emotional or intense response, are all issues that are very common but generally socially frowned upon, they do not present as symptoms of a disability but as signs of bad character. I have also learned to just live with the 'ADHD tax', the extra cost associated with my executive functioning not being switched on.
On a positive note many ADHD traits work brilliantly outdoors - top of my list is playfulness. ADHD adults are fortunate in that they seem to hang on to their play, they know how to engage playfully and often do not have the self-consciousness that would prevent them joining in role play, singing a song, risking a physical challenge knowing they may fall in public, getting things wrong and making it up as they go along. Creativity is another big bonus, one of the best things about me is my idea generating machine of a brain. Thinking of ideas is easy which means that finding solutions to problems can also be easy. This means that seeing why things don’t function well can also be easy (but not everyone wants that information!) ADHD brains can work like a web, one word can set off on a new tangential pathway, we are amazing at mind maps, association and non-linear thinking, this means that although we appear to have no order, we can somehow see patterns that others do not. Enjoying novelty means that we can be great in a crisis and tolerant of the unexpected and unpredictable, we can adapt to last minute change with not too much stress and for some this may even provide a more focused interaction. This works well with weather and changes in physical landscapes and the changing needs of working with people outdoors. The trait that leads to ‘oh look a squirrel’ distraction also means that lots of things will be noticed by an ADHDer that wouldn’t be seen/felt usually, this can help when working with groups outdoors in a big physical space if there is more awareness of what is happening everywhere. My daughter describes me as being able to have a birds eye view of the place and the people in it, this is a bit like keeping all of the tabs open on your device, it is not an effective way to manage information in some scenarios, but really, REALLY useful in others. Being able to take beneficial risks is another observation my daughter had of my outdoor practice, she observes that I am able to allow some risk taking in sessions as I understand the need for it. Risk taking is associated with ADHD but providing children and young people with supported beneficial risk taking can really help them to scratch that itch in a safer environment. And last but not least-hyper focus is the zone an ADHDer can get in if only the switch is flicked, an unpredictable, intense period of work or attention that can lead to forgetting to eat or go to the toilet. The attention issue in ADHD is not all about inattention it’s about unpredictable or out of control attention variability, too little and also at times too much. ADHDers will often have a special interest (like my soup hyper fixation brilliantly illustrated by this video my friend Michael James sent me), an area where they are very knowledgeable, they will also have filed away somewhere 100 other special interests that they have forgotten about.
This is by no means a definitive list of ADHD traits that you will see outdoors but the beginning of a conversation. There needs to be more awareness so that can lead to better research and studies to help understand what the links are between ADHD and the benefits of the outdoors. There is not much academic research written about ADHD beyond attention and focus difficulties, you may need to be happy to go off the path and get side tracked into social media ADHD land. There is some research to confirm that there is a relationship between nature and improvement of ADHD symptoms in children and young people, although there seems to be some suggestion that family income has an influence over the quality of nature that surrounds a person and therefore the impact on ADHD symptoms. This reinforces the absolute necessity to support, protect and use local nature spaces right where people live, especially as there is some work to suggest that ADHD symptoms are thought to be worse in built environments, besides being a perfect example of how intersectionality works to prevent access to the outdoors.
It is quite possible that you know a person with ADHD who does not match anything I have described here and as stated earlier the experience for every ADHDer will be different and even for themselves continually change in different places, times, seasons and with different people. There is in fact something known as ‘situational variability’ where the same ADHD person can behave or feel differently in new or different situations, there may be little opportunity to heavily characterise a person as they will be so changeable and seemingly inconsistent. ADHDers can be consistently inconsistent.
Finally, the best research I found (although could not fully access as not all research is shared democratically) explored the subjective views of children with ADHD and asked what gave them ‘really good lives’. The study states that nature was referenced directly in 85% of the stories shared. The results from the children’s stories boiled down to ‘doing things, outdoors, with others’ gave these children with ADHD ‘really good lives’. This is just the best news. My heart did a little leap of joy when I read that and my ADHD brain did some little happy noises, squealing and squeaking. We aim to support inclusive and good outdoor lives in our CIC work and I can 100% report that doing things outdoors with others has also given me, as (a currently undiagnosed) ADHD individual, a ‘really good life’.
P.S. The earlier you read the more mistakes and omissions there will be as the motivation to correct only arrives after publishing!