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By decoding ADHD for her family, a filmmaker helps many others

Nancy Armstrong’s experience raising children with ADHD inspired her to create “The Disruptors,” a film about the neurodevelopmental disorder and the people who have it. She shared her story on Thursday at Northeastern’s annual Women Who Empower event. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

For Nancy Armstrong, raising children felt lonely sometimes, like her family was on an island that no one could reach. She and her husband struggled to help their oldest son, Jack, focus at school. Later his two younger sisters seemed to have trouble, too.

Eventually, Jack received a diagnosis that would change his—and his mom’s—life. Doctors determined that he had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD. It explained his sometimes scattered, other times laser-focused attention, and his proclivity for constant motion. And it planted a seed in Nancy Armstrong’s mind that would bear fruit years later.

“The diagnosis opened the door for us,” she told the packed crowd at an event hosted by organizers of Northeastern’s Women Who Empower initiative. “We felt for so long that we were alone, but at least now we knew what we were dealing with.”

dark haired woman sitting in a chair smiling
Nancy Armstrong, right, joins Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, in a conversation about ‘The Disruptors’ and her own journey of discovery about ADHD. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The experience—from getting kicked out of a mommy-and-me class when Jack was a toddler, to discovering how often people with ADHD are simply dismissed as “disruptive” or “trouble-making”—inspired Armstrong to do something. So, she created “The Disruptors,” a film about ADHD and the people who have it, including entrepreneur Paris Hilton, musician, astronaut Scott Kelly, and comedian Howie Mandel.

Armstrong, whose company, Happy Warrior Media, produced the film, also served as its executive producer. “The Disruptors” screened at a number of film festivals and won the audience choice award at the San Diego International Film Festival this year. It will be released to the public in early 2022.

On Thursday, Armstrong joined Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, in a conversation about the film and her own journey of discovery about ADHD.

The neurodevelopmental disorder is one of the most common among children, and it often lasts through adulthood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And yet, as Armstrong and several audience members attested at the Women Who Empower event, the disorder can easily be misread by teachers and other educators as simple distractedness or excess energy.

“If you’re a child with ADHD, or you have a child with ADHD, all you’re told is that you’re disruptive. With this film, we wanted to turn the idea of being ‘disruptive’ from a negative trait to a positive one,” Armstrong said, noting that the term is already used glowingly to describe tech innovators as who “disrupt” the status quo.

woman smiling holds microphone with one hand and the other hand pressed to her chest
woman sitting in a chair laughing
women who empower pamphlet in audience members lap
woman in audience wearing orange shirt
Armstrong’s work to destigmatize and spread awareness of ADHD resonates with people in the Women Who Empower audience, many of whom share their own experiences with the disorder. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Indeed, many of the qualities associated with ADHD can be understood as positive traits, Armstrong said. Ned Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist featured in the film, reframed several so-called negative traits such as hyperactivity and impulsivity as energy and creativity in a clip shown at Thursday’s event.

As for Jack? He’s studying business management at Northeastern and seeking out new and innovative solutions to some of the world’s big problems. In January, while strict density-mitigation and physical distancing measures were in place across the U.S., he created a set of QR codes to post around Northeastern’s Boston campus and help people connect with one another, virtually.

Armstrong’s work to destigmatize and spread awareness of ADHD clearly resonated with people in the Women Who Empower audience, many of whom shared their own experiences with the disorder and thanked Armstrong for her passion. Asked by one audience member about her legacy, Armstrong pointed back to the viewers of the film.

“To the extent that I think about my legacy, I only really think about it in terms of what I can do that’s useful, that’s helpful,” she said. “I wanted something positive that would help other people. I felt like someone had to make the film, and I guess that person had to be me.”

On Thursday, Armstrong joined a growing number of entrepreneurs, innovators, movers, and shakers in the Women Who Empower network, including 19 women who were part of the inaugural class of Innovator Award winners. The award recognized women who were current students or graduates of Northeastern whose ventures received funding to help push them forward. Northeastern’s Women Who Empower inclusion and entrepreneurship initiative distributed a total of $100,000 in grants to help fund 17 ventures. Applications for the next round of funding will open in January 2022. 

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