A 'Peanut Butter And Jelly' Analogy Helps Explain What It's Like To Live With ADHD

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Cavan Images/Getty; @sayitslp/Twitter

Those of us who live in the neurotypical realm sometimes have difficulty understanding what it’s like for people whose brains and bodies operate differently than ours. Even if it’s our child or loved one who is struggling, we may be apt to make quick judgments, become easily frustrated, and basically feel like we just don’t get it.

Take ADHD for example, one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders out there — one is that is often diagnosed too late, and which commonly causes kids and their parents a whole lot of stress and heartache. The thing is, even when your child is properly diagnosed with ADHD and given a treatment plan, they may still face struggles on the daily, and you (and their teachers) might feel at a loss as to how to handle these challenges.

Well, one ADHD mama named Jana O’Connor is here to help. O’Connor, a Speech-Language Pathologist and mom to an 8- year-old son with ADHD, recently posted a thread on Twitter about the “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” analogy to illustrate what it’s like to live with ADHD.

And oh my goodness, it’s totally spot-on and a game-changer for anyone who parents an ADHD kiddo.

First, O’Connor spends some time describing the ways in which ADHD brains work differently than more neurotypical ones – and it all has to do with how the ADHD brain processes short term memories, or Working Memory (WM), as O’Connor refers to it. In a nutshell, when you have ADHD, you have trouble holding onto Nonverbal Working Memories.

According to O’Connor, Nonverbal Working Memory refers to “your ability to hold images in mind.” This includes the propensity to “see scenes from the past, pictures you saw, where you left your keys.” Finally, O’Connor says, Nonverbal Working Memory helps you picture and imagine future events.

Nonverbal Working Memory is something that just doesn’t work quite right in people with ADHD and executive functioning disorders. In other words, they can’t picture what the end result of a particular task is supposed to look like – and when you aren’t able to do that, it can be seriously difficult to complete the task.

When this isn’t something you personally struggle with, it can be really tough to understand what it must be like for someone who does.

“Because #neurotypicals just imagine what ‘done’ looks like, and work backwards from there to figure out what steps to take,” O’Connor explains. “Then backwards again to figure out what they need to get started. Then they know how to start.”

OK, so here comes the peanut butter and jelly sandwich analogy (you know you were wondering how that fit in!). O’Connor – who credits the analogy to Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen, co-directors of a private practice clinic specializing in executive functioning challenges – explains that when a neurotypical person sets out to prepare a PB&J, the first thing they do is picture the end result, or the sandwich itself. This is what helps them plan the whole process of making the sandwich.

But someone with ADHD simply can’t do this, so it becomes very hard for them to complete the task of preparing the sandwich.

O’Connor describes what it’s like for a neurotypical person to work on that sandwich, having had the end result in mind the whole time.

“What are the steps to achieve the ‘done’ image?” O’Connor asks. “Well, laying out the bread, spreading the peanut butter, spreading the jelly, putting the two sides together. BAM. What will I need to prepare to do those steps? Bread, peanut butter, jelly, knife. BAM.”

In other words, neurotypical folks can plan backwards, starting with the image of the completed sandwich and working from there. But ADHD folks just can’t do that.

And here’s where the most genius aspect of all of this comes into play. O’Connor has a simple and effective solution for dealing with the Nonverbal Working Memory deficit experienced by children or others with ADHD.

If they aren’t able to keep the end result in mind, explains O’Connor, well then you can do the work for them – by showing them a physical picture of what they are working towards.

O’Connor says that doing exactly this for her son has helped him perform everyday tasks that used to prove extremely difficult due to his ADHD. For example, check out her solution for her son’s morning routine:

“What does ‘ready for school’ look like? We took a photo of him ready with all his things. Now each morning I show him that and say “match the picture” and he’s ON IT. The photo helps him see the wholeness of what HE looks like in the future. He can see the done.”

This is absolutely amazing and makes total sense.

O’Connor says this practice has also helped her son deal with anxiety or fear of the unknown – because instead of him feeling like he has no idea what a new experience will be like, she can present him with a visual of that thing, and ease any fears.

She has also shared this technique with her kid’s teachers, with much success.

O’Connor also advises that simple check-lists, which are often enlisted for kids who struggle with ADHD, just aren’t enough – because it’s all about the image of what the end product is supposed to look like, and verbal or written cues don’t suffice.

Of course, it should be stressed that all kids are different– even among kids who share similar struggles and diagnoses — so this exact practice may not be the magic ticket for your kid. But my guess is that it could be helpful to many kids who have executive functioning challenges, probably even ones who have milder or undiagnosed challenges.

Either way, it’s an explanation that is super helpful to those of use who are neurotypical and have trouble getting into the mind of someone who is differently wired than we are. And we all know that when it comes to helping our children thrive and grow, a little compassion and understanding can go a long way.

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