And why that’s important
When I was six, my teacher called my mom to tell her, “Your daughter has the worst case of ADD I have seen in 40 years of teaching.”
She showed my mom a collection of half-finished spelling tests, during which I got bored and started drawing. My school notebook was full of scribbles by three weeks into the school year.
Not only was I ADHD-Primarily Inattentive. I was, and still am, chaotically ADHD-Primarily Inattentive.
And it has sucked. I struggled throughout grade school and high school before finding my footing in college. I got distracted by odd side-projects and came up with my own ways of doing math. I distinctly remember a teacher being surprised when she worked with me 1x1 and realized I was “bright.”
I’ve lost jobs. I’ve had emotional breakdowns when trying to choose a reusable bottle in the grocery store. There are many unread messages in my inboxes from friends and family.
No matter how much various interests distracted me, I always returned to writing.
I had read about Da Vinci having ADHD before, but never really noticed until I read this quote and saw myself in it. And I’m sure several other ADHDers will think the same.
Before researching Da Vinci’s ADHD, I rested on the opinion that “we shouldn’t emphasize ADHD or Autistic historical figures because romanticization is dangerous.” Da Vinci changed my mind.
Vasari says of the child Leonardo, “He would have been very proficient in his early lessons, if he had not been so volatile and flexible; for he was always setting himself to learn a multitude of things, most of which were shortly abandoned. When he began the study of arithmetic, he made, within a few months, such remarkable progress that he could baffle his master with the questions and problems that he raised… All the time, through all his other enterprises, Leonardo never ceased drawing…”
Da Vinci is “shrouded in mystery,” so to speak. His journals are full of backward writing, coded language, and inventions. He’s been the subject of alien documentaries and mystery books/movies. He’s your personal code-decipherer in Assassin’s Creed 2. Biographical articles describe him as a scattered genius.
But we need to call his eccentricity what it is: ADHD.
He struggled because of his ADHD. Yes, he was a great mind, but he also struggled with executive functioning, emotional dysregulation, and the constant stress of not finishing anything.
He had brain fog and impulsivity. He lost things. He’d probably relate to several ADHD memes.
The connection between his chronic inability to finish anything and ADHD has been made, and one Google search of “Da Vinci ADHD” comes up with several articles. But we erase it from mainstream biographies, his eccentricity being romanticized.
ADHDers don’t need to know how much of a genius he was because of his ADHD. We aren’t all Da Vincis. We’re not all Steve Jobs. But we need to know he had it. We need to normalize potential neurodiversity in historical figures. As it stands now, resources on neurodiverse figures in history are usually clickbait lists. This is fine if you want to search for famous lefties, but neurodiversity had a hand in human history. And just because we’ll never know for sure isn’t an excuse to not present the possibility.
We need to know Da Vinci thought he was a failure because we believe the same of ourselves. As it is now, the education system is devastating to the mental health of neurodiverse students. We are often bullied, even by adults, for our symptoms. Even with evidence, ADHD is often minimized or brushed off entirely by medical professionals. I’ve had a doctor tell me my meds weren’t necessary because “ADHD isn’t life-threatening.”
When the potential of neurodiversity is erased, ADHDers only see mysterious neurotypical geniuses. We see all of history as neurotypical. As if someone with ADHD was never successful. Of course, there is danger in only pointing out neurodiverse “superpowers,” but we can’t only discuss the struggle either.
When I worried about romanticization, I forgot that these figures are already romanticized. ADHD symptoms are already being romanticized as neurotypical eccentricity. If you’re gonna add flair. It might as well be accurate flair.
We see Da Vinci as someone who got so much done and was talented in everything. Ahead of his time. And he was all of that. He followed his ADHD heart like a butterfly hopping flowers, and ADHDers need to see themselves in that. Otherwise, we see someone with as many interests as we have doing the same things we do, except actually succeeding. The “neurotypical” is silent but assumed.
In a society that is increasingly calling attention to how marginalized voices are left out of historical narratives, it is vital neurodiversity isn’t left behind. This is especially true when we consider that neurodiversity isn’t in a vacuum and will impact and be impacted by gender, race, immigration status, class, etc.
As it stands now, we mainly discuss neurodiversity when we discuss institutionalization and/or what was done to people with real or perceived psychiatric disorders. We hear about how Nellie Bly brought attention to the horrors in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, but rarely hear about people with real or perceived psychiatric disorders unless they fit the “troubled artist” trope.
Da Vinci could have had a better quality of life if he had access to ADHD treatment, but we’d never know Leonardo da Vinci's name without ADHD. Both statements are genuine. Neurodiverse people were not helpless and left behind in asylums. They had an active hand in forming human history. Their art is in museums. Their mathematical and scientific theories are still with us. Their inventions are in our homes. And often, it wasn’t despite their disorder, but because of it.