Commentary

Differently Minded

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was in second grade. My parents were reluctant to put me on medication, so I struggled through bursts of inattention with only the help of a supportive family and counseling sessions. I went through most of elementary and middle school with no major problems, but despite my best efforts, I lost my homework every week and forgot my teacher’s simple instructions as soon as they left her mouth. My parents got used to hearing comments from my teachers along the line of, “Adrienne is not putting in an effort to be a responsible and mature student.” I always wanted to scream, “I am putting in effort!”

One of the problems with trying to explain ADHD or any other neurobehavioral disorder is that their symptoms can look, to the ignorant and untrained eye, like a lack of willpower. ADHD can manifest as procrastination, hypersensitivity, impulsivity and chronic lateness. Separately, these symptoms can be dismissed as one behavioral shortcoming or another, but their combined impact can lead to far more serious problems in emotional and mental well-being if not properly acknowledged.

Often, it’s difficult for others to understand what makes me different from someone who just tends to procrastinate, or someone who isn’t willing to put in effort. How do I explain that no matter how hard I work to catch myself, I can still act impulsively and inappropriately? How do I explain that I really did do the reading, and that I just can’t remember anything from it, or that my incessant fidgeting is not a sign of disrespect or boredom? How do I explain that I didn’t skip the meeting; I just forgot about it despite writing it down in three different places?

The point is that neurobehavioral disorders like ADHD are not an excuse, a phase or a problem of motivation. A student with dyslexia can spend twice the amount of time on a reading as other students and accomplish half as much. Another student with ADD might spend two hours on a question that takes most other students 20 minutes. It takes more energy for me to concentrate on my teacher than it might take a student without a neurobehavioral disorder. To underestimate or dismiss these learning disabilities is to completely ignore an entire aspect of my identity, something that I must live with everyday.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who misunderstand ADHD so completely that they would prefer to separate students like myself from other students. Each year before coming to Andover, my parents sent my new teachers a letter explaining my ADHD. One year, my teacher pulled me aside in class and mislabeled me as a “victim” of ADHD. She then proceeded to give me a free pass on every assignment I never handed in and always addressed me slowly and carefully, as if addressing a five-year-old. It was the opposite of what I needed. My teacher stopped treating me like an intelligent, hard-working student. She was treating me like I had a disease.

Students with attention disorders need teachers and classmates who can understand the difficulties we face, without dehumanizing us and seeing only our disability.

In the end, I am not asking for anyone’s pity. I am just asking for students and faculty at Andover to acknowledge and understand that learning differences are real and that they matter. I am only challenging Andover to embrace the students who are differently abled, because a community that claims to be intentionally diverse needs to know that neurobehavioral diversity is just as important as other types of diversity. As a community, we must strive to be inclusive of Andover students with learning abilities of all kinds.

Jan 29, 2016