Ty Pennington — From ADHD To ABC

Circa 2007

Now going into his fifth season as host of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Ty Pennington’s brand is expanding nearly as quickly as the Starbucks folks can throw up a new java joint on the next corner. The designer not only made the leap to a hit show, he recently opened his own L.A. design boutique called ADHD (Art Design Home Decor), with a wink to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder—a condition that once made the successful life he leads today seem like an impossible dream. Today, Pennington publishes a quarterly, home-décor magazine that bears his name; presides over a line of home fashions for Sears, and even serves as a spokesperson for both an aspirin and an ADHD medication manufacturer. Our editor-in-chief, Chet Cooper, caught up with him during a brief break in the action. Pennnington could only sit still long enough to answer a few questions as he was preparing to get back on the road for the show.

Chet Cooper: How did you get involved with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?

Ty Pennington: Oh, wow, let’s see. Well, I was on Trading Spaces at the time, and I was sent out to California to start having creative meetings with this company that wanted to do a show with me. I wanted to do something like Make A Wish, you know, maybe build three-story treehouses for kids who are battling some huge illness. I wanted to make a wish of theirs come true. So we got to playing around with different ideas. They came up with building a house in seven days with six or seven designers, and then chaos ensued. But that’s what’s great about the show: It kind of creates itself. While the original show they’d planned was more about the chaos of building a house, it evolved into what it is now, which is the type of show where everybody gets involved. It really is phenomenal. It’s the greatest job I think I’ll ever have.

Cooper: They came to you because of your background?

Pennington: Right. On Trading Spaces I was a carpenter-designer, and I remember them asking me the question, “What do you think about building a house in seven days? Do you think we can do it?” And I said, “No, absolutely not, but that would be a great television show.” So Extreme Makeover: Home Edition evolved along the way. A lot more goes into it than I think a lot of people realize, and because we have such a short-production timeline, it’s incredible that we can pull off what we do. But you really have to have a plan of attack before you get started, because you can’t change your mind once the ball starts rolling.

Cooper: Are you involved in selecting the family?

Pennington: No, no, I wish I was. We have a group of people who do that. They’re fantastic. You have to do so many background checks to make sure their story is true, that the house is really theirs, you know… Our crew goes through like 4,000 tapes a week, and the team is just outstanding. They find great families; that’s the story. That’s our show. So finding families is the toughest job. They have to not only be great people, but they also have to have a great story. I think they also have to have really given back to so many people. And most of the ones that we choose really aren’t even asking, they’ve been nominated by someone else. That’s the key. I’m real passionate about family.

Cooper: Saying “no” to so many people…

Pennington: Yeah, that’s the worst part, but who knows, we might be able to go back and help some of those people we had to say “no” to earlier. What’s really cool is, some of the families we’ve helped have come out and helped us with other families. They really want to give back what’s been given to them. There’s definitely a pay-it-forward kind of vibe on our show.

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Cooper: What season is this for the show?

Pennington: We just started season five.

Cooper: Are you still using the bullhorn?

Pennington: (laughs) No, we sent it on vacation for a while with a family, and it’s doing great. It sends back postcards, it’s met some other bullhorns and they’re having meetings, they’re yelling at each other. It’s great. It’s having a great time on its own. It’ll come back eventually, but right now it’s on vacation.

Cooper: (laughs) Tell me about your home-fashion line at Sears?

Pennington: I designed bedding, plates, glassware. It’s something I’m really passionate about as well. That’s one thing I guess that people might not know about me. Design is in my blood. So to be able to have a chance to do it for Sears, and to get it out to people who can actually afford it is awesome. So it’s cool, man. I’m the guy who makes the final decisions on everything for my line. Many months ahead of time I have to give the okay so it can be ready to manufacture. It’s definitely more than just putting my name on something. I’m kind of a control freak, but it’s awesome, man, it’s really, really cool. It’s great to see the finished thing out there and see people enjoying it. But I’ll be honest with you, it takes a lot of research. I design a lot of the product on my computer in between doing the show, so I definitely have a lot going on. The coolest thing about my job is the creative process.

Cooper: You went to school for design?

Pennington: Oh, yeah, those are the only schools I’ve ever gone to. I think I went to the first one when I was 10 years old, and after I graduated high school, I went to the Art Institute of Atlanta. Then I worked in a design studio, and won some awards. I took a break after that, and just traveled a while. But I always went back to working with my hands, whether it be building and designing furniture, or designing logos for corporate identities. I’ve been playing around with graphics my entire life, as well as fine art. So to use my creativity to not only make something unique and different, but also to design a line of home fashions, it really is a dream come true. But it’s kind of weird, because it’s always the path I’ve wanted to be on. I just didn’t know I would take so many different back roads to get here. It’s awesome that I actually ended up where I wanted to be.

Cooper: Are you using Photoshop, Illustrator, CAD?

Pennington: I’m pretty fluent with Photoshop. But every year they do an upgrade, so the tools become slightly different, which is good, it’s just that I have to keep upgrading myself. I’m still working on CAD and all those other tools. I have a shop where I design furniture and stuff. For some of the programs, I’ve got a guy I work with. He’s actually a buddy from high school. So I’m really trying to understand CAD. I just don’t have a lot of time in the day to devote to it. Still, we come up with some really cool, unique stuff.

Cooper: Do you ever incorporate feng shui?

Pennington: Either you understand feng shui or you don’t. I don’t. But you can walk into a room and know if it doesn’t flow because the back of the couch hits you in the knees. That room definitely doesn’t have feng shui. But whether or not my bed is facing north or south… I just use the principal in the sense that I try to achieve harmony in the room, but I’m not the type of guy who will come in your house and say, “My God, you need some feng shui up in here.”

I think everybody has a certain amount of feng shui that they can understand. That kind of thing doesn’t have to be forced on anyone. But I can walk into any home and tell whether its elements are working in harmony. Usually it’s a matter of clearing out a bunch of clutter. But yeah, I think we all dig a little bit of that. Everyone likes a clean, open, Zen-like space. I’m definitely down with the Japanese and Scandinavians’ simplicity of design. But do I have a lot of mirrors that reflect the image of water in my house? No, not really. But I definitely like the sound of water in the backyard. I do find a way to bring in the elements.

Cooper: Was it tough going to school and having ADHD?

Pennington: Oh, God, growing up with ADHD! Well, to be honest with you, that was difficult. First of all, what a lot of people probably misunderstand is, there’s ADD and then there’s ADHD. [For more on ADHD, see page 43] And the “H” stands for “hyperactivity.” And if you are a child with an enormous amount of hyperactivity, school itself, along with the learning process, goes right out the window. I mean, I was so out of control that I spent most of the time in the hallway or in detention. What was really interesting was that my mom was actually studying to be a child psychologist at the time, and went to my elementary school to test the worst kid they had. She was pretty shocked when the principal and the administration sent me up there. She was like, “Oh, my God!” and I was like, “Hey, what’s up?” Then she observed me in class and within 30 minutes, I was wearing my desk. I swung to the blinds, I climbed out the windows, I ran around naked, I slapped Johnny in the back of the head. So I was what you call “a classic distraction.”

With ADHD, one of the things is, you can read a whole chapter in a book and not remember one word. The second one is, you are so distractable that you just cause chaos in the classroom. So not only was I the class clown, but I never really had a chance to learn much because it just didn’t sink in, mainly because I was being disciplined the whole time. So I tried all kinds of different things like antihistamines, which they put me on to make me drowsy. But I wasn’t really diagnosed with ADHD until I was starting college. So it’s amazing that I actually graduated high school with a decent grade-point average. The grades would be As one year, when I’d start a new school, then Ds the next year once people got to know me. That’s how you can tell if someone’s really got it, check their grades and their conduct. So yeah, school was probably one of the most difficult things.

ADHD hurts your confidence. You feel like you really can’t succeed because you don’t make good grades, you’re always out in the hallway so you don’t really fit in as a member of the class. That really kind of affects you later in life, especially when you’re trying to get a job and your confidence level is low, and your parents are afraid for you to mow the grass because they’re afraid you’ll chop your toes off. Chances are you will chop your toes off… So for me, it wasn’t until I really left home and kind of went out on my own that I started to grow in confidence, because people were so used to me as a child with ADHD that they couldn’t really see me as an adult. So that was difficult.

But once I was diagnosed and got on prescribed meds, I could work during the day and go to school at night, and really focus my life. That’s when people sought me out to come work with them. I went on to win awards in design. I realized, I have a talent. So yeah, it was night and day. It definitely changed my life.

Cooper: How did you find the help you needed?

Pennington: Luckily since my mom was a child psychologist, and I was actually going to college at the time and taking an art class, she noticed that I was doing some pretty disturbing art, and she was like, “What the hell is this?” And so she kind of had me checked out by a psychiatrist. She’d always suspected I had some problems, because she’d studied psychology most of her life. But once I sat down with this one doctor, who was quite brilliant, within three seconds of looking at my grade transcripts and talking to me he said, “This looks like classic ADHD.”

So I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think anyone is excited to hear that they have a learning disability and that they have to go on medication. I certainly wasn’t excited to hear that. But I thought I’d give it a try. This guy seemed like he really knew what he was talking about. He traced the condition all the way back to primal man, where there was the farmer and the hunter. The farmer would tend to the fields all the time, so that his crops came in on a regular basis, while the hunter only left the cave once he was out of food. Then he went out, got a whole bunch and dragged it back. So in a way I could kind of identify with that scattered, ‘hunter’ personality that doesn’t plan things out, but focuses on priorities, what needs to be done now, and say to myself, “okay, that’s where it comes from.”

Once I tried out different meds that he prescribed and then went back for the follow-up, there was a huge change in my behavior, which was phenomenal. I’d never even heard of ADHD. I knew that I had problems. My brother was pretty aware I had problems, because I was always in the hallway. So to see such a change in my grades and in my class participation, not to mention the fact that I could actually communicate with other people, go on a date and not mumble the entire time… I think a lot of people don’t understand how much of an impact this condition has on a person, and what a struggle it can be in your life, not just in your grades and your job, but with your relationships. Especially when you’re a teen, people are trying to understand what’s going on with you and you just don’t have a good way to really communicate it. That’s probably why our jails are so full right now, because nobody gets treated.

That’s why I joined up with the ADHD team and spread the news, because I think there are a lot of kids out there who are ashamed that they might have it. I think I’m a really good example of someone who had it really, really badly—and still does—but has been able to not only build houses in seven days, but communicate with builders, use hand tools and at the same time film a television show and design a line for Sears. It’s amazing that I can juggle that much and keep it all on track. So yeah, I think I’m a pretty good spokesman for how to make it all work. You can be successful if you get to know yourself and realize that there are things you must to do if you want to manage ADHD.

Cooper: And you also find the time to do an interview with ABILITY Magazine while you’re on the run.

Pennington: (laughs) True. I have a lot going on, but it’s fun. I have to admit, though, that anyone who’s ever lived with ADHD can understand the concept of thriving in chaos, because most of one’s life is like that. I think a lot of people fear that once they get medicated for ADHD, they’ll change as a person, but I haven’t really changed. It’s just that now you can rely on me to be on time and get the job done when I say it’s going to get done. Because that’s the thing: You can actually finally finish the things that you start. That’s probably the biggest difference in whether you’re treated for ADHD: People can trust you, and that’s huge.

Cooper: Do you like being on the fast track?

Pennington: That can be a big problem with people who have ADHD: being on the fast track. The three characteristics are distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Being impulsive means you do things without thinking a lot, so especially kids in their teens can descend into serious, life-changing problems that way. When I was impulsive I used to jump off houses playing “Army.” Who knows what’s going to happen when you take risks like that? But I was like, ‘Let’s just see.’ A lot of people don’t realize how big of a problem it is. It’s not just something you grow out of because you reach adulthood.

Cooper: What meds are you using right now?

Pennington: I’m actually on Adderall, but I’m starting to try out a new product called Vyvanse, which is FDAapproved. It’s a cool product that really keeps me focused all throughout the day and into the night. That’s important because that’s the time when kids are doing homework and hanging out with the family. So that’s great. It’s made so it’s less likely that people will abuse it.

Cooper: Have you ever heard of the ABILITY House program?

Pennington: The ABILITY House? I’m not sure.

Cooper: Do you remember an award given to Extreme Makeover from the Media Access Office which is sponsored by California’s Employment Development Department? After the ceremony I met Denise and Charisse from your show.

Pennington: Oh, sure.

Cooper: We talked in length about a possible partnership between our program and yours. It’s funny, because you mentioned building a house in seven days. What we’ve done is partnered with Habitat for Humanity, I’m sure you know their history. I actually created the partnership with Millard Fuller, who started Habitat. We did our first ABILITY House in Birmingham, AL for a Vietnam vet who uses a wheelchair. We outreach to volunteers who have disabilities. Our first house was built in 1999. We got 250 volunteers with disabilities and did a blitz, seven-day build, for this house.

We had every type of disability you could think of, from learning and developmental disabilities, to people using chairs and prosthetics, to those who were blind or deaf. It was a great success and we now build homes across the country like that. I just want to share that with you to keep in the back of your mind, that there’s something still…

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Pennington: …something we could still do in the future. There’s so much coordinating going on to do what we do. I can imagine that doing it the way you guys do it is truly awesome, man! I’ll ask more about that. That’s cool.

Cooper: What are some things that you would like people to know about that you’re doing that doesn’t get on the media’s radar?

Pennington: There’s always so much going on, man. I’m not sure if people are aware of the fact that I’m involved in a school in New York’s Harlem community, where we’re redoing a playground, which is kind of cool. There are so many kids who have learning disabilities and other issues that they have to live with, like not having some things that other kids have, including moments to just play. And I think that’s so important growing up, just those times where all you do is laugh, because once you get older, there are not as many moments. I think childhood is an awesome time. The pressures of being an adult aren’t there yet. So whenever I get a chance to work with kids, I do that. They just inspire everyone. The sound of their laughter goes such a long way.

I’m a firm believer in education, and the more programs you have that allow people to express themselves and have fun, the more they learn. I was definitely a kid who realized that if you threw in a creative project at the same time that you taught me history, I was going to soak in two to three times as much knowledge. So being involved with kids’ playgrounds is something I’m definitely into. The project we’re doing in New York is going to be awesome. I can’t wait till we start. But I think there are lots of things going on with me that people don’t know. I just got back from Hawaii, where I teamed up with some guys to do a project to help people with disabilities who can’t even go to the beach, because wheelchairs don’t roll on the sand.

A friend of the family has a boy with muscular dystrophy, so he really can’t use his legs. So I teamed up with a program called Access Surf. These guys started a program to get people with disabilities back in the water. So I went out and helped people with all kinds of different conditions, whether it was Down syndrome, whether they were in a wheelchair or had artificial limbs. We got them in the water, got them on a surfboard or in a kayak, and they got to spend time in the ocean. Seeing their reaction was unbelievable, man, it was fantastic.

I spent a moment with a kid named Casey who couldn’t use his legs, but loved being in the water. I got him in the water on the end of my surfboard. We paddled out and caught a wave together, and just hearing him scream at the top of his lungs was awesome. It really shined light on people with disabilities, and others in the fact that many don’t have the same access that others of us do. (I unrolled this plastic that allowed wheelchairs to go right down to the water, where we put them in and shared that moment.) A lot of volunteers came out, a lot of surfers. It was so cool to see dads and moms sharing that time with their kids who have disabilities. It was just fantastic.

I really do get inspired. My girlfriend could barely keep from crying the whole day because she was so moved by the smiles on people’s faces. So that’s one of the things I did while I was on vacation. My schedule keeps me so damn busy, I don’t do as much as I would like. I think we all get inspired by people, and there are so many people who have been on the show that inspire me. That’s what life should be, inspiring. It’s the everyday people that have gone through more than you or I have, those are the true heroes. And I think that’s what’s great about our show, that we shine light on them.

Cooper: That sounded like a great holiday, by the way, a vacation that you could combine with helping others.

Pennington: It was. There are not many times you get to do that.

Cooper: If you ever want to do anything with surfing along those same lines, there’s a California-based foundation called Life Rolls On. They have a program called They Will Surf Again for people with disabilities.

Pennington: Is Life Rolls On that project Jesse Billauer is doing?

Cooper: Yes.

Pennington: Yeah, I know Jesse, he’s a great guy. He was on our show. He’s a pretty cool cat. I had actually met him before at a talk show.

Cooper: I need to watch more TV.


Fact Sheet on ADHD Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder

What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an illness characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. The most commonly diagnosed behavior disorder in young persons, ADHD affects an estimated three percent to five percent of school-age children. Although ADHD is usually diagnosed in childhood, it is not a disorder limited to children, and often persists into adolescence and adulthood. Frequently it is not diagnosed until later years.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

There are actually three different types of ADHD, each with different symptoms: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive and a combination.

Those with the predominantly inattentive type often:

• fail to pay close attention to details or make careless mistakes in schoolwork, work or other activities

• have difficulty sustaining attention to tasks or leisure activities

• do not seem to listen when spoken to directly

• do not follow through on instructions and fail to finish schoolwork, chores or duties in the workplace

• have difficulty organizing tasks and activities

• avoid, dislike or are reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort

• lose things necessary for tasks or activities

• are easily distracted by extraneous stimuli

• are forgetful in daily activities

Those with the predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type often:

• fidget with their hands or feet or squirm in their seat

• leave their seat in situations in which remaining seated is expected

• move excessively or feel restless during situations in which such behavior is inappropriate

• have difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly

• are “on the go” or act as if “driven by a motor”

• talk excessively

• blurt out answers before questions have been completed

• have difficulty awaiting their turn

• interrupt or intrude on others

Those with the combined type, the most common type of ADHD, have a combination of the inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

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What is needed to make a diagnosis of ADHD?

A diagnosis of ADHD is made when an individual displays at least six symptoms from either of the above lists, with some symptoms having started before age seven. Clear impairment in at least two settings, such as home and school or work, must also exist. Additionally, there must be clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social, academic or occupational functioning.

What is ADD? Is it different than ADHD?

This is a question that has become increasingly difficult to answer simply. ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is the only clinically diagnosed term for disorders characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity used in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fourth Edition, the diagnostic “bible” of psychiatry. However (and this is where things get tricky), ADD, or attention-deficit disorder, is a term that has become increasingly popular among laypersons, the media, and even some professionals. Some use the term ADD as an umbrella term after all, ADHD is an attention-deficit disorder. Others use the term ADD to refer to the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD, since that type does not feature hyperactive symptoms. Lastly, some simply use the terms ADD and ADHD interchangeably. The bottom line is that when people speak of ADD or ADHD, they generally mean the same thing. However, only ADHD is the “official” term.

How can ADHD be treated?

The most proven treatments are medication and behavioral therapy. Medication stimulants are the most widely used drugs for treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The four most commonly used stimulants are methylphenidate (Ritalin), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Desoxyn), amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall), and pemoline (Cylert). These drugs increase activity in parts of the brain that are underactive in those with ADHD, improving attention and reducing impulsiveness, hyperactivity and/or aggressive behavior. Antidepressants, major tranquilizers and the antihypertensive clonidine (Catapres) have also proven helpful in some cases. Most recently, the FDA has approved a non-stimulant medication, Atomoxetine (Straterra), a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor for the treatment of ADHD.

Every person reacts to treatment differently, so it is important to work closely and communicate openly with your physician. Some common side effects of stimulant medications include weight loss, decreased appetite, trouble sleeping and, in children, a temporary slowness in growth; however, these reactions can often be controlled by dosage adjustments. Medication has proven effective in the short-term treatment of more than 76 percent of individuals with ADHD.

Behavioral Therapy

Treatment strategies such as rewarding positive behavior changes and communicating clear expectations of those with ADHD have also proven effective. Additionally, it is extremely important for family members and teachers or employers to remain patient and understanding. Children with ADHD can additionally benefit from caregivers paying close attention to their progress, adapting classroom environments to accommodate their needs and using positive reinforcers. Where appropriate, parents should work with the school district to plan an individualized education program (IEP).



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