Empowering the ADHD Community: Q&A with Jessica McCabe, an Arrillaga Speaker at Castilleja

Arrillaga speaker 2023 Jessica McCabe with Acting Head of School Kathy Layendecker and Castilleja students. (Also pictured: McCabe's service dog Chloe.)

By the time Jessica McCabe was 18 months old, she spoke in full sentences. By 3rd grade, she scored in the range of a high school students on standardized tests

However, she constantly lost things and had trouble focusing. Then, in middle school, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And at 32, McCabe hit a low point: she was broke, divorced, and living with her mom.

That’s when McCabe began to research her diagnosis and started a YouTube channel, How to ADHD. An ADHD advocate, McCabe now teaches others to, in her own words, “work with your brain, not against it.” She’s been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Today.com; her viral TEDx Talk has garnered 6 million views. 

Recently, McCabe came to speak to Castilleja students as the annual Arrillaga Speaker. This fund, started in 1989 in memory of Frances Arrillaga, mother of Laura Arrillaga-Andreesen ’88, brings speakers with valuable perspectives and life experiences to campus. McCabe’s visit represented and empowered the neurodivergent student community and, just as importantly, educated neurotypical students about neurodivergence.

We sat down with McCabe to ask her about her journey (interview edited for length).  

What can people do to support their peers and loved ones with ADHD? 
JM: Ask questions. There are a lot of assumptions that people make about people with ADHD, like "Oh, she’s flaky," or, "She doesn’t care. She’s not really trying."  If someone neurotypical shows up late, maybe they weren’t trying [to be on time]. People who don’t have ADHD often misunderstand the reasons why people with ADHD are doing those things. Instead of assuming, just ask. Like "Hey, what happened?" Maybe the person with ADHD actually got started two hours early because it was really important to them, and then they got distracted. You never know what was actually going on. The best thing people can do to support their peers with ADHD is just ask about their experience. And then believe us.
In your TEDx talk, you discuss how finding a community of others with ADHD felt very validating. How has that helped you on your own journey?
JM: [Before], it felt like everybody else seemed to have figured out how to organize themselves and manage their time, and I was the one person that hadn't figured it out. There was a lot of internalized ableism of "I should be able to do this, I’m smart, why can’t I?" Connecting with other people with ADHD did two things. One, it normalized the struggles and made me realize, well, this is normal when you have ADHD, so I didn’t feel alone. It was really normalizing. The other thing is it allowed [me] to see the positives in [myself] a little bit easier. I see how enthusiastic other people are or how excited they are to learn something new. It’s a lot of fun being around creative people. There’s a lot of energy and social justice. It makes it easier to appreciate these traits in yourself when you see them in a positive light in other people.

McCabe speaks to 6th graders at Castilleja's JCC campus

Can you recommend some positive, self-affirming messages people can embrace if they have been diagnosed with ADHD? 
JM: You’re going to feel however you feel. There can be a grieving process that happens when you get diagnosed because, suddenly, you’re having to filter all these experiences you had through a different lens. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling that, honestly. But then you kind of want to develop a positive relationship with your ADHD. Of all mental health conditions, it’s probably the most treatable. [Also], the divergent thinking that leads to our distractibility is also great for creativity, outside-the-box thinking, creative problem solving. A lot of these ADHD traits are two sides of the same coin, and there’s a lot you can do to flip that coin to the positive, as opposed to the negative. The same traits that lead to our impairments often lead to some pretty great strengths.

Jessica McCabe shares her journey and lessons about ADHD to empower the neurodivergent community and educate their peers