Olivia Lutfallah was looking for a pastime outside of school. What she found was a captive audience, and a caring community, eager to learn more about living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It all started last March when the biology student opened a TikTok account, seeking a creative outlet.
“I was thinking all I did was school and that I needed a hobby,” Lutfallah said. “I had just got off the phone with a friend who was asking me questions about ADHD, and I thought since that was something I was knowledgeable about ─ because I’ve had it for so long and have developed a lot of coping mechanisms ─ maybe I could share a few tips on TikTok that could help somebody else.”
Her intuition was right.
“When I created the account, I had zero followers. I didn’t tell anyone about it except for my parents because I just wanted to see what would happen without any outside influence. The first video I posted drew 66 ‘likes’ and I was over the moon. My mom took a screen shot so she could frame it.”
Lutfallah’s content, featuring creative, humourous ‘day in the life’ skits, resonated with a rapidly growing audience, becoming a platform for education, awareness and a safe space for others living with ADHD and other neurodivergent disorders, including anxiety and autism. “I found many people I could relate to, and saw how many people could relate to me,” she said.
“I felt very out of place in this world for most of my life, so I hope with every post I can make someone with ADHD feel a little more normal and a little less different.”-Olivia Lutfallah
Today, Lutfallah’s TikTok account has more than 236,000 followers and close to 14 million ‘likes.’
In August, she extended her platform to include YouTube, which has more than 80,000 subscribers.
Lutfallah was first diagnosed with ADHD in grade three and is grateful it was identified early.
“When I was younger, it was thought that girls didn’t have ADHD, which was funny, because ADHD research only ever involved males. So, the criteria for ADHD was very male-based. Most females are not diagnosed until they are in their 30s, but I presented as most males present, which is very hyperactive. I was always asked, ‘Why can’t you just sit still? If everyone else can do it, why can’t you?’”
A sense of relief and a feeling of clarity came with her diagnosis, providing what she then understood as an explanation for her actions. “It was like putting glasses on for the first time, looking at trees and seeing that those green ‘blobs’ are actually trees, and those other green ‘things’ are leaves.”
Her knowledge of the disorder is extensive. And educating others about ADHD is nothing new, having been encouraged by her parents to advocate for herself from an early age.
This became particularly important when she entered high school and required accommodations as part of an individual education plan (IEP) that recognized the challenges of her ADHD.
An interaction with one of her now favourite teachers stands out. During a grade 10 physics test, Lutfallah told her teacher she was allowed extra time.
“She told me, ‘You have the highest marks in the class. There’s no reason for you to have extra time.’”
Though the teacher said she had received training in ADHD, Lutfallah recognized that it may have been based on narrowly defined stereotypes around behaviour and an inability to learn.
“The next day I came to her with a sheet of paper, explaining everything about ADHD, and I continued to go through it with her throughout the entire semester. At the end of the year, she thanked me for taking the time to educate her, rather than just letting it slide. It was a turning point in my life.
“I think a lot of people when they speak negatively about ADHD, it’s simply a lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and it’s important to get educated before you speak and not confuse opinion with fact.”
Lutfallah continues to receive accommodations at Western, which include getting extra time on assignments and writing tests in a separate room. She recently posted a video to help other students with learning disabilities to feel empowered to request the tools that allow them to perform at the same level of their peers.
She also posted a school edition of ADHD survival tips based on her university experience.
As much as Lutfallah offers support, she receives it too, interacting with other neurodivergent creators in the TikTok community. “It’s been very eye-opening and inspiring because I’ve only been surrounded by neurotypical people my entire life. When I met (with the other creators) for the first time on zoom, it felt awesome to connect and be able to talk with people who’ve had similar experiences.”
It’s also satisfying to receive feedback and questions from followers.
“I had a comment on a video from someone who had just been diagnosed with ADHD, asking me for words of wisdom. I told them, ‘Your life will start making sense soon. Just know that whatever you’re going through is normal and being different isn’t a bad thing.’
“And when they tell me they’ve ‘finally found their people.’ I say, ‘Welcome to the cool kids’ table.”