Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail
Olivia Lutfallah has heard every wrong-headed idea there is about ADHD since she was diagnosed with the condition at the age of seven: It’s something only boys have! Just get more sleep and it’ll go away! But the two assertions that make the 20-year-old University of Western Ontario student facepalm the hardest are that it’s caused by bad parenting and too much sugar.
ADHD is the most common mental-health disorder identified in children and it affects nearly 5 per cent of people of all ages. Yet despite its widespread prevalence, misconceptions about the condition abound.
That may help explain why Ms. Lutfallah’s videos about what it’s actually like to live with ADHD have turned her in to something of an overnight social-media celebrity, with more than 250,000 followers on TikTok, where some of her posts have been viewed more than a million times. Ms. Lutfallah’s videos, and others like them, are helping to destigmatize ADHD and educate people who misunderstand it, says Dr. Gurdeep Parhar, medical director of the Adult ADHD Centre in Burnaby, B.C.
Ms. Lutfallah’s ongoing project started in March when she was looking for a hobby to fill her spare time.
“I got off the phone with a friend who was asking me some questions about ADHD,” says the second year biology major. “And I thought, well, I’m good at talking about that. Maybe I could make some videos.”
Her first, in which she introduced herself and promised to show followers how someone with ADHD can “do better in school, finally keep your house clean and everything else,” got 66 likes. A week later, a video of Ms. Lufthallah in her sensory swing – think weighted blanket, but you hang in it – went viral. It now has more than 17 million views.
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“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the point where it feels normal to post something and be like, ‘Oh, five million people just saw that.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that,” she says.
Before she became a TikTok sensation, Ms. Lutfallah grew up in Windsor, Ont., and says her parents helped her to become comfortable with her ADHD.
“When I was first diagnosed my family was very adamant about making sure that I understood that I was just as capable [as everyone else],” she says.
And when she told her parents that she wished there was someone with ADHD that she could look up to, they were quick to oblige. “[They] printed off this page with like 25 celebrities that have disorders like OCD and dyslexia, all these things, and they were like, you can still be successful with these things.”
In her more than 150 TikTok videos and counting, plus a YouTube channel she launched in August that now has more than 120,000 subscribers, Ms. Lutfallah has explored just as many topics. They’ve included everything from the paralysis that can overtake her when faced with tasks, to how cleaning puts her in “hyperfixation mode,” to common myths around ADHD – all of them delivered with comic, confident charm.
She finds inspiration for her videos in several places. “A lot of times I look at my experiences. Like, what have I experienced? Or ideas come from the comments of other people’s experiences, or things I’ve seen online in terms of educational content, like research papers.”
Ms. Lutfallah is one of a handful of Canadians with ADHD who have huge online followings, including comedian Darcy Michael and Laura Poirier, all of whom Dr. Parhar praises for helping to destigmatize the condition.
“[Lutfallah] is able to do it in a very humorous, engaging, and realistic way, in a lot of the skits that she’s performing,” he says. “You often have to be careful about what’s on social media, because there can be inaccuracies, but the content is quite good and quite accurate. It’s serving a real purpose and making what may seem unknown known.”
The brevity of TikTok, where most videos are less than a minute long, make it an ideal medium for people with ADHD to connect with and learn from their peers, Dr. Parhar says. “It’s not lost on me that people who have ADHD may not sit down to watch a one-hour documentary on ADHD,” he says.
At school, Ms. Lutfallah is allowed to wear noise-cancelling earplugs and is allowed extra time during exams. But as busy as school can get, she has no plans on taking any breaks from her newfound hobby any time soon.
“I want to continue doing this for a really long time,” she says. “My hope is to be able to have a platform where people that are different can feel safe.”
But as much as she is doing it for others, Ms. Lutfallah is also doing it for her childhood self, that kid who was confused and looking for role models to help her make sense of life with ADHD.
“When I post something, or when I’m figuring out what I want to do, I always think, ‘What would a seven-year-old, just-diagnosed Olivia have wanted to see?’”
Once I suspected that my brain worked differently, getting tests and a diagnosis took time and money that I didn’t have, Gabrielle Drolet writes. There are ways we can make the journey easier for others
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Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail