You've likely taught students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder already, given that approximately 2.2% of the general population has the disorder. Its prevalence makes it a well-known and relatively well-understood condition, and you likely know some of the symptoms already. I'm a university and college graduate with ADHD, and I'm going to explain some of the challenges that your affected students will have faced before they ever made it to your classroom.
I'm fortunate that the name of my disorder describes it so well. I don't have a “borderline personality” or a syndrome named after the person who first categorized it, I have an attention deficit and I'm hyperactive. On the rare occasions my disorder is relevant enough to mention, “ADHD" is usually enough, and the conversations on the subject are usually short. A deficit of attention is easy to understand and explain, but not always easy to live with, particularly in academia.
My life in secondary education was often miserable. I slipped, time after time, through the cracks of the revered K-12 assembly line. The skills taught in secondary education may be reading, writing, and arithmetic - once called “The Three Rs" by people who hadn't gotten the hang of the second one -, but what a child with ADHD learns is that the skills required for participation are staying silent, staying attentive, and staying still; we'll call those “The Three Ss.” How well a student absorbs and retains information depends more on those three skills than on their natural intellectual capacity, and another thing students with ADHD learn is that not all educators know that.
Another unfortunate problem, for the affected as well as for the educator, is that many of the symptoms of ADHD are also the same run-of-the-mill negative personality traits often seen in poor students. I can’t help you understand the difference because I’ve never been sure of where the disorder ends and the rest of me begins. Am I by nature a lazy procrastinator who forgets information he shouldn’t forget, or can those traits be explained by the chemical imbalance in my brain? I can't decide which possibility bothers me more. I just wanted to be like the other kids, not have my faults explained away and accommodated for, and I was ashamed of needing anything to compensate. It’s becoming an accepted fact that mental health is twinned with physical health and both are equally important, but I was ashamed of accommodations in a way I likely wouldn’t have been for using a crutch to compensate for a broken leg. I wouldn’t have had to tell anyone why I needed the crutch, and I wouldn’t have to wonder whether anyone would freely give me their opinion that broken legs don't exist.
I've described ADHD as “being only 70% present,” and that’s still the best definition I can come up with. If someone explains something to me and I feel comfortable enough to be honest with them, I may have to ask them to explain it again if retaining the information is more important than avoiding embarrassment. If you’ve told me your birthday, I’ve already forgotten it, and if you tell me again I'll probably forget it again. If I have to memorize something I'm not interested in, it's like trying to break a brick wall with my forehead, and I live with the fear that someone will think that my forgetfulness or inattentiveness is a sign I don't care about them. I have many people I care about, but that doesn't mean I can easily remember individual facts about them after being told only once.
How much of my mind is wandering at any particular moment depends on how interested I am in what I'm supposed to be learning, and (throwing a bone to the people in the peanut gallery who believe ADHD isn't real) I'm aware that, to some extent, that's the same for everyone. The difference is that for me, trying to focus does not help, it only makes me focus on focusing, then I focus on self-recrimination for my lack of focus, and neither helps me learn.
Now I'll explain why the presence (sort of) of students with ADHD in your classrooms is not an obstacle to be worked around or a reason to change the way you teach for the benefit of 2.2% of the population. You will probably never see the most severe cases, the ones that can't keep their eyes on a line long enough to read it, in your classes. When those cases slipped through the cracks in the K-12 system, few of them were able to claw their way back up. The students with ADHD you'll see in your classrooms are the students like me, the ones whose disorder is manageable. For those students, university often ends up being a breath of fresh air and a sense of personal vindication.
I like to write. Because I like to write, it takes little effort and I do it when I don't have to. If you give me information to assemble into an essay, I will give you a decent one, because when a student with ADHD gets to focus on something they enjoy, the disorder slips away and the educator can see what the student is capable of. If a student comes to you and explains that they find it hard to focus, it's possible that what they need is medication or learning strategies, but it's also possible they aren't studying their subject. I've mentioned I'm a serial procrastinator who finds sitting still challenging, but my mother gave me the opportunity to write this article two days ago, with a deadline of “before September," and I wrote it on July 2nd, in one sitting.
As warm and fuzzy as the notion is that there are “no disabilities, only different abilities,” I don't believe it; no statement so general can be accurate. I’m not offended by having my mental idiosyncrasies categorized if the purpose of categorization is easy understanding. What I believe is that a student with ADHD can thrive in post-secondary education when they finally get to take the classes they want to take.
Being allowed to study what interested me was the greatest gift anyone could have given me. I barely graduated from high school, but through both college and university my grades steadily improved.
ADHD is a hindrance to academic performance, professional performance, and personal relationships, but it's a hindrance many people live with. As an educator, you will see it in your students. Don't pity them, don't offer accommodations they don't ask for, but understand that many of them are giving education a second chance after an unkind twelve years in a system that seemed designed to detect and punish the traits their disorder made so prominent.
Sam Wandio is a graduate of the Holland College Journalism program and the UPEI Arts Faculty. An avid writer, runner, and traveller, he takes creative writing classes to hone his imaginative writing and enjoys a large online following for his streaming.