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The 15:17 to Paris - ADHD in Film


A new film about three young men who foiled a 2015 terrorist attack suggests that two of them may have also wrestled with ADHD.


The 15:17 to Paris tells the true story of three friends who were in the right place at the right time: College student Anthony Sadler, National Guard Specialist Alex Skarlatos and Airforce Medic Spencer Stone. While traveling from Amsterdam to Paris by train on August 21, 2015, they confront a terrorist, saving the lives of more than 500 people.


Early in the film, a flashback scene shows both Alex and Spencer’s moms meeting with their sons’ frustrated teacher. The teacher doesn’t know what to do with two adventurous boys who can’t focus and who stare out the window. With judgment, she states that the boys should take ADD medication or they might self- medicate in the future. The moms are horrified at the thought of their son’s being “drugged” and basically tell the teacher off.


We don’t know, for sure, if these young men had ADHD. The film shows that they certainly had many of the traits, including impulsivity and the inability pay attention. They were oppositional at times (especially to authority figures), did poorly in school, and seemed not to fit in with their peers. They did, however, have a vibrant teacher along the way who inspired them to succeed, honing in on their interest in the military.


The school situation shown in the film is actually quite typical for young people with ADHD. Many students struggle to find their way in what feels like a hostile school environment. Most people want to succeed and do well. If they are not doing well, it’s important to find out why not. What is getting in the way? Frequently, behavioral issues stem from academic difficulties.


The first step for people who suspect that they might have ADHD is to pursue a comprehensive diagnosis, which may include educational testing. With a diagnosis, schools can make accommodations that help to level the playing field, such as a 504 Plan.


Medication can be a frontline treatment, allowing students to focus for the first time in their lives. We know that 70 to 80 percent of people with ADHD have a good response to medication. ADHD medication supplies two brain chemicals—neurotransmitters—that are in short supply, namely dopamine and norepinephrine. This helps to get the brain “online” or in focus, sort of like wearing eyeglasses to see the blackboard.


We know from research that the two most effective treatments for ADHD are medication and behavioral modification, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or ADHD coaching. In addition, strategic school support can go a long way.


The movie shows that Anthony, Alek, and Spencer eventually find their direction in life, but not without some significant hurdles. If indeed they did have ADHD, one wonders the difference effective treatment might have made. Sometimes what appears to be a weakness is a strength not yet developed. When faced with great opposition, the young men who once “found trouble” decide to run toward danger, taking down a terrorist.


The Clint Eastwood film, based on a book of the same name, has a happy ending: Each young man is honored for his bravery. As he concludes his portion of the book, Anthony makes an interesting comment. It says: “He felt grateful, beloved, and proud. He felt able. He felt for the time being that things were all right in the world.”

It echoes what I’ve found to be true in my coaching practice: When people with ADHD receive the right support, they can be among the most successful.

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