Practical Information and Advice: An Article Explaining Why It Seems They're Not Listening

Blinks: A Phenomenon of Distractibility in Attention Deficit Disorder
by James Reisinger, MBA, CLU, CFP, ADD

Where do ADDers go when they space out and why can't they just say, "I'll think about that later?" I offer an answer to this question and a glimpse inside the head of a person with ADD. My hope is that this insight may spark a new look at the existing research and prompt confirming studies. I named this peculiar experience a "blink," an identifiable characteristic that distinguishes the blink phenomenon as an experience unique to ADDers. Others with ADD have called them "skips," "thoughts racing," "spacing out," "tune outs," "static," "thoughts," or "gaps," because the person skips over, tunes out, or has gaps in awareness of events going on around them.

A blink occurs as the ADDers attention involuntarily shifts focus from what is relevant to something irrelevant. This shift from a 'local" situation (such as talking, reading, or working) to some other internal mental content (e.g., a thought, picture memory, or plan) blocks the local information.

People blink their eyelids without noticing the moment of darkness. A "lid closing" during a sneeze is noticeable, more so if driving or doing some action (try keeping your eyes open the next time you sneeze). If a deaf student sat in a lecture and closed his eyes for a few seconds or minutes, it would reduce what he could learn.


These gaps in the intake of local information are often erroneously mistaken as memory problems. Teachers are taught that material gets lost between the instruction and the doing, or between the brain and the pencil. True for a defect, but not for a deficit (attention type). It does not get lost, it gets missed or absorbed. The material may get worked into the thoughts in the "blink" and consumed there. After leaping back to the current event, the ADDer may have a moment of disorientation. Many times a thought about the "local" situation that triggered the blink was carried away and "used" in the blink and is unavailable upon return.

A second-grade girl told her parents, "It was just like you blink your eyes and then everything seems different."

To illustrate the major impact of a short blink and its results, consider this scenario:

An elementary school teacher instructs the class to put their English book away and take out their math books, then continues, "We've been studying chapter five, but let's go to the questions at the back of chapter six and work problems 1-5."

A 3-second blink could mean that the students with ADD did not hear the change from chapter five to six, and therefore, incorrectly continued the work in chapter five:

When the teacher asks for a volunteer to answer the first question, the student with ADD, raises his hand, sure he has the correct answer. "Four," he says. The classmates snicker. The teacher asks, "How did you calculate that?" The student says, "Five apples from nine apples equal four." The class laughs and the teacher remembers that was a question in chapter five, and says, "No, you are in the wrong chapter."

Consider a 20-second blink when none of the instructions were heard:

The student unblinks and finds the rest of the class is working with pencils and papers in the blue math book, and not the red English book. Trying to get with the program, the student changes books, gets a pencil and paper, and leans over to a neighboring classmate to ask what they are doing.

The teacher hears and sees, the student being disruptive again. This typically will result in some amount of rejection from classmates, another reprimand from the teacher, and the student doesn't have the slightest clue why the rest of the class is in the math book. An eighth grader commented on this ever present condition: "I'd be sitting in class and then I'd look around and say to myself .... Where are we? What are we doing?" The result, one more slap in the face, one more failure, and one more blow to the self-esteem.

One of the writers on Prodigy's Attention Deficit bulletin board related, "By high school and college, I had learned not to ask anyone what we were doing or where we were supposed to be. When I finally snapped out of it (blink), I just nonchalantly looked around and peered over to a neighbor's book pages. I used to get terrible negative feedback when asking where we were."

A skillful and confident ADDer with tact and fast talk will go on like nothing was wrong. The shy and somewhat "battered" ADDer will withdraw until class participation is minimal. Withdrawal is not a problem of language; it is humiliation avoidance. It can lead to a spiral of less talk, less vocalizing, lower self-esteem, and less talk. After leaping back to class, the ADDer may find the teacher asking, "Well, what is the answer?" Being bad is better than being dumb or stupid. Understanding how blinks cause a lack of information will allow teachers and parents to modify their input to the child with ADD and modify their responses to the child's actions or lack of action.

The ADDer may conclude that there is no hope of keeping up. In their book Hyperactive Children Grow Up, Weiss and Hechtman wrote of one patient, "(Random outcomes) caused him to either hold in suspicion his own abilities, or to stop believing in those things which define him as good or bad." When a student feels so out of control, he cannot reflect on a course of action and use it as a base of leaning and growth.

Blinks are unique to ADDers, and their pervasive nature causes confusion for all those involved. Often someone suggests that what I am discussing is a petit mal seizure. However, unlike a lapse of consciousness or an absence in time, that may occur during a seizure, a blink starts with a thought and is filled with thoughts, images, memories, or plans, that are often totally unrelated to the subject at hand. This all-encompassing aspect is significant because, when an ADDer's attention switches into deep concentration on a tangent track, all other information that could be received is missed.

Non-ADDers often say, "Everybody daydreams sometime, they can be concentrating so much that they don't respond when their name is called." I asked one "non-ADDer, "How many times did you day dream at work yesterday?" The answer was, "Not at all. I was too busy to daydream." That is the difference, the ADDer is never too busy. Unlike an average person's daydream, blinks capture attention, not as some think of hyper focus, more like compartmental thinking.


Instead of having a choice of undivided attention, the ADDer's attention MAY go whenever and wherever it is taken, Blinks have a magnet-like quality in that they wrap the person's attention and hold the focus.

Most people mistakenly assume that with effort, dedication, or diligence, those with ADD could be attentive. Wrong! The blink is completely involuntary and all encompassing. There may be little or no volitional control of one's deployment of attention, even though there is a logical flow to the thoughts within a blink. This mental transportation or "Free Flight" can last a few seconds or many minutes.

The ADDer has no indication before a blink is about to occur or that one is in progress. Emerging from the "cocoon" of a blink, he may have a startling revelation, a vague recognition, or possibly no awareness that a blink occurred. Therefore, if it cannot be foreseen, trying to avoid or stop it with cognitive or behavioral method is reduced or impossible.

If one is "isolated" while in the blink, self talk is about the subject within the blink.


Blinks chop the ADDer's attention into ever-changing, inter linked segments. The ADDer's mind takes in stimuli and adds to it all the unrelated thoughts it has been flying around inside. The ADDer's mind seems to have a dozen open channels to every thought, sound, or sight. Thoughts spring from one to another other and then wander on.

When a person is "plugged-in" to a blink his thoughts may bounce around automatically like a pinball being shot back and forth even before it reaches the flippers. Until "Game Over" or someone pulls the plug they may be bouncing across a rapid trail on topics.

Blinks are a constant hindrance to fluid thinking or leaning. An ADDer can be continuously distracted with his thoughts jumping from topic to topic. The missing "local" information during the distraction is the root of many educational, social, and emotional problems.

High distractibility increases blinking. Blinks restrict both input from the local situation and output back to that level. ADDers may cope by mastering the ability to blend from one unrelated topic to another within a verbal sentence. ADDers may become jokesters or boisterous as a mechanism to save face or just give themselves time to catch up. ADDers miss more relevant input in large rooms and in one-on-one conversations they may seem uninterested because of their shifting eye or head movements.

A 'reverse" track, where blink information comes into main discussions, is dangerous to the ADDer. The ADDer works very hard to keep the blink thoughts separate from the local discussion. There can be a large memory bank of all the ideas or problems solved while off track. This is where the creativity, attributed to ADDers, is processed. Some material is duplicated, and the ADDer has to be on guard to keep this sidetrack "analysis" or "scenario" thoughts out of an unrelated local discussion.

Another aspect of a blink can be just as disconcerting. The ADDer can visualize a train of thought so clearly, including a mental "sounding" of a conversation, that the episode is retained in "active memory" instead of "filed" as a subject to be discussed later. This is a case where the thoughts processed while in a blink become consciously recorded as the main conversation. Wives and secretaries verify that ADDers are often positive that they said something, when in reality they had only thought it out.

From teacher to teacher and from one job to another, it is not reasonable to expect the world to speak in short, simple format. A student might ask a teacher, "Please check to see that I have gotten all your requests before you leave." But, consider going up to a new boss the second day on the job and asking to be quizzed after each instruction to be sure you heard it correctly. In some situations, the ADDers can make a list and read it back, but most life situations do not allow this. Many messages at work or school are one way. Reading, too, is one way; the sentences or paragraph blinked over is lost and the reader may NEVER have a clue that it was skipped. Slow reading speed, exaggerated by the need to constantly start over, is a major problem for the ADDer and the loss of skipped material is detrimental to learning living and loving.

Children with ADD have had so many miscues that their experience regularly proves the "wrong" answer is often a possible solution. After living with blinks and practicing the 'normal" problem-solving process time after time with various outcomes, a child may conclude that the results of random choice are just as likely as those from deductive reasoning. To a teacher or parent, an answer may be so wrong that it seems to be just a guess, but based on the incomplete data the child received, it is their perfect "answer."

If a complicated story problem is given for four Mondays in a row, the student with ADD is likely to do it four different ways. The missed information is random in repetitious situations because blinks do not occur on a regular schedule.

A successful marketing representative said, "I have developed systems of dealing with things based on incomplete information. I'm not sure when I've had a skip (blink), I just find out that I have missed things all the time. It is always difficult to conclude what is real and what is not. I have experienced common outcomes from seemingly different sets of actions or achieved various and contradictory outcomes from a seemingly identical set of actions in the past.' This strikes at the very heart of learning. In the ADDer's case, hard knocks are more frequent and more painful.

The intelligent ADDer will compare many experiences and, over a period of time make a preset choice based on a previous set of actions that has proved most frequently to produce favorable results. This contributes to the rigidity and lack of flexibility often seen in adolescents and adults with ADD. These preset choices are the ADDer's handrails along the mazes and stairways of life. Just as a driver hits the brakes when he hits a pocket of fog and he cannot see the road, the ADDer brake back to the "handrail" of preset choices when there is a change of plan or time allotted for a task is shortened.

Educational "walls" typically block ADDers at grades 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13 and 17. These are times when the style or type of learning changes. Most ADDers with average or superior intelligence get by well enough to complete high school. Many go on to college. The increased demand for concentration and attention in middle and high school, and more so in college, often leads to dropping courses, dropping out and career changes. Many do not hit the "wall" until college or even graduate school.

The observable body language that shows as one blinks away may look rude or even antisocial. Parents or teachers have had to deal with actions that are labeled as behavior problems; however, they may be the result of attention problems. These behaviors are disruptive, but the cause is ADD. It may not be a matter of being able to act but rather not being available to respond properly.

Ritalin has taken a bad rap. Ritalin has been around since 1953 and is used extensively, but denial, fear and confusion after a diagnosis of ADD complicate the clear thinking about medication.

Patients or parents present the question, "Must we submit to the "control of a pill?" It is important to clarify the misconceptions that from this question. The medicine enables or corrects an imbalance in the brain chemistry. Millions find it to be a 'release," not control. I was released from the scatter, static-like bombardment of thoughts that forever distract me. Marcel Kinsbourne, M.D., said, "The proper use of stimulant treatment is to improve the quality of life of the ADDer."

Medication can remove up to 90% of distractibility for persons with ADD. According to the late Samuel Nichamin, M.D., a Diplomat of the American Board of Pediatrics, and a pediatrician who was willing to follow his ADD patients into adulthood and still provide treatment, 'Almost any person who suffers from this attention problem can benefit from a medical approach if the medication is prescribed by a physician with expertise in the management of ADD. As Dr. Arthur Robin, author of Parent/Adolescent Conflict said, "You cannot behaviorally modify a physical condition."


A common question I am asked is, "Considering your academic, social, and business success, at what point in your life do you think medication would have hindered or inhibited you?" NEVER!! Even with a 5mg dose of Ritalin, my abilities increased immediately. I could be on task and pay attention whether working with individuals, participating in group discussions, or listening to a lecture. As the dosage was corrected, these improved and my ability to concentrate while reading new material was greatly enhanced. This enhanced ability to structure a thought and present an answer in a clear and complete manner was less stressful for both me and the listener. Removal these ADD impediments sooner would have helped me throughout all my academic, social, and professional endeavors. ADD was never good!

Being less interruptive or dominate in discussions has improved relationships. Being more patient improves interactions with peers. At the same time, my energy level is increased while sometimes I'm downright calm. Problems are reduced because I can voluntarily attend and when a sound, movement, or thought flashes by, I can hold my thoughts on what I am doing. The medication allows me to work things through to the end, thereby reducing the number of things left undone. A mother with ADD said, "After starting Ritalin, thoughts seemed to come in order and go on organized shelves in my brain for use later."

Kinsbourne wrote, "The appropriate and timely initiation of stimulant therapy in coordination with behavior management and counseling, as indicated, arrests the spiraling decline in quality of life in most cases. Of course, the medication regime has to be individually selected, intelligently scheduled, and adequately monitored."

It is obvious that, if not balanced or enabled with medications, the ADDer is operating at less than full capacity, If effective treatment stops, the damage is often displayed in terms of the child's progressively plummeting self-concept. Frustration for the child, the family and the school "may be substantial and even, in part, irreversible," says Kinsbourne. If a child with ADD was not learning, could learn with medications, then when medications stopped could not work up to par, wouldn't we expect them to be more "burned" than those who never saw the normal side of life?

A person's perspective comes from the knowledge they build as a matter of interpretation from many situations. What one brings to a situation as a result of growing up affects their interpretation. ADDers cannot avoid being creatures of their past, we all see what our eyes have been shown.

Reprint free with credits to author.
For a copy of the complete booklet, contact:
Blinks, c/o Jim Reisinger
P.O. Box 1701,
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

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