My Communicamp Experience: Why Open Conferences Are Danger Zones for ADHDers

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Today, I walked out of Community Media Workshop‘s Communicamp open conference. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to stay in my seat and spend the day with the cognescenti of the Windy City’s media and blogging worlds. But how do you remain at an event where the rules of the road seem almost aimed at making someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder–like me–feel as out of place as possible? Here’s why open conference don’t work for ADHDers…and how to change that.

The daylong Communicamp, still going on as a I write this, was billed as an “unconference” or open conference. Instead of discussing top-down topics in fusty meeting rooms, today’s event grouped people in a circle to propose and defend discussion topics, schedule breakout sessions, choose the length of each session, and keep each session on time. In other words, Communicamp participants were expected to plan and manage the day’s conference extemporaneously, making instantaneous decisions about programming, priority, and time management.

Less than 15 minutes into the opening presentation by conference manager Jean Russell, one increasingly painful question kept broadcasting itself through my mind: Has anyone who organized this conference ever met someone with ADHD?

As I wrote recently on my personal blog, Chicago Carless, the things Communicamp expected of its participants are exactly the things people with ADHD find hardest to accomplish without outside help. The brains of people with ADHD are neurologically hardwired to begin to shut down when so-called executive thought functions are required of us. These functions include common tasks non-ADHDers find simple and easy like identifying priorities, assessing relative importance, and most especially estimating and managing time.

Suffering through someone else’s slow, plodding pace is no picnic, either, when the Ferrari brain of ADHD kicks in and readies you to race ahead to the punchline of any presentation. As Russell spent the hour from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. methodically introducing the concepts of the open conference step by step by step, it was all the ADHDer in me could do to not dissolve into a puddle of flop sweat.

I have no doubt most others in the room had no quarrel with Russell’s frequent admonitions to “take responsibility for your conference experience,” “choose the length of your own group discussions,” and “keep track of time on your own.” Yet I also have no doubt I wasn’t the only person in the room feeling left out by the day’s DIY logistical parameters.

As 10:00 a.m. and the start of the day’s first breakout sessions drew nearer, I leaned to the person sitting to my right and said, “Maybe what we really need is a breakout session on advance planning.” To my surprise, she and her neighbor laughed and agreed with me. A participant sitting within earshot to my left chimed in next, mocking Russell with a sotto voce, “I guess ‘everything will just happen as it is supposed to happen,’” which generated additional chuckles from her side of the circle.

It’s never a good thing when you begin to lose your audience so early into an event like this, and I know Russell (who is both an accomplished coach and good at what she does) and everyone at CMW meant well with today’s conference. I am in fact very grateful to Workshop vice-president Gordon Mayer for facilitating my attendance at today’s event. And I know that great discussions are taking place at Communicamp at this very moment that I look forward to learning about. I wish I could have stuck around.

However, and it’s a big however, today’s conference was no place for an unprepared ADHDer. As I wrote on Carless about the plight of us ADHDers:

“Often we hear from colleagues, friends, and family that we should “try harder” to focus on the task at hand–after all, they tell us, when we really put our mind to our work, we zero in like a laser. There’s usually little headway to be made in explaining that no amount of trying harder can overcome a prefontal cortex wired to shut down the moment a task requiring executive thought functions occurs. Or that our occasional ability to hyperfocus on work is actually a symptom of ADD–the same symptom that more frequently leads us to watch Netflix, listen to iTunes, or play Xbox for eight-hour stints without coming up for air…

Those of you reading this with normal brains have absolutely no idea how to identify with the last [paragraph] I’ve written. Right now, you’re scratching your heads and wondering if I’m kidding. Meanwhile, those of you with ADD/ADHD are nodding in agreement. It’s a gap in understanding that often leaves ADDers feeling like we’re living in a separate world, without the vocabulary to adequately explain to outsiders the all-encompassing nature and pernicious tenacity of the disorder we fight on a minute-by-minute basis.”

It’s the same feeling I got when Russell told me point blank that neither she nor any other of the conference organizers would be helping participants keep track of time throughout the day. That comment, in answer to my question about how those present were supposed to keep simultaneous ad hoc breakout sessions on track, was akin to telling someone with ADHD to “try harder.”

By the end of the opening presentation, I felt totally demoralized and, frankly, fearful of my ability as someone with ADHD to make it through the next seven hours of the free-form, personally time-managed “unconference” without any aid whatsoever from the facilitator. That’s not to say open conferences are by definition dangerous places for ADHDers. But there’s a level of logistical support that must be present to ensure that people with ADHD don’t feel excluded, as I felt this morning.

The fact is, it’s the responsibility of an event facilitator to facilitate–to make sure the event is designed and run so that all participants have the ability to take part. ADHDers need structure to get through events like these, and it’s an absolute necessity that better time- and priority-management cues–or at least clues–be provided the next time someone holds an open conference in Chicago, to make sure everyone can feel comfortable joining the conversation.

Calling out timepoints at a daylong event would do nothing to take away from the central, crowd-sourced nature of an open conference like Communicamp. Neither would using email or web tools in advance to manage the process of seeking, combining, prioritizing, and scheduling the day’s topics.

The latter suggestion, in particular, would have eliminated a great deal of confusion and stress that was widely apparently in the room this morning as I experienced the process unfold, via paper and marker, in real time. It would also have saved a lot of time and reduced the ADHDer sweaty-palms quotient.

In the meanwhile, I heartily suggest anyone planning a future open conference inform themselves about ADHD and the challenges that many people in their audience will face simply by sitting down in the room. Here are some great places to start:

Who knows, a little-self assessment may be in order, too. You can check your own suspected ADHD symptoms with these web-based self-tests:

And if you do decide to hold an open conference, best of luck. Be prepared. And remember, ADHDers in the room will thank you to not look at them like they’re crazy…for simply asking the time.

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What do you think?