this is what a learning disability and ADHD look like.

I wake up as After the Fire by Andrew McMahon fades in on my iPhone on the edge of my bed. Like most, I assume, I tap the back of my phone and the music fades out—the SleepCycle version of snooze. A short time later, the process repeats but instead of tapping snooze, I sit up, unplug my phone, and start getting ready for the day. I take my morning dose of Concerta—occasionally, however, checking the water glass beside the sink to indicate whether or not that it was indeed this morning that I took the Concerta! Sometimes the mundane tasks blend into one another, and it’s the little tricks that help me figure out what I’ve done when.

I step over something or another, and attempt to find clothes within my room. Yes, I’ll admit, it’s a disaster in here. There are a pile of books, papers and textbooks beside my bookshelf, many residual from April when i finished exams, or yes, dare I say it, February when I was working on a project for the Asthma Society of Canada and was reconsulting many of my books from school. Yet, I graduated university in June, and those piles remain. So do the ones of clothes on the floor, a byproduct of my normal cluttered life, and the fact that I spent every weekend for nearly six months packing up a bag and heading out of the city. Others of the books on the floor are notebooks, journals, and yes, my kickass yet not-utilized Moleskine Lego planner. Lesson learned: not even the kickass Lego planner can take the place of Google Calendar in my heart—or brain. I find some clothes to throw on—well, eventually; sometimes that doesn’t happen until 2:30. I graduated university in June, and resigned from my job at the beginning of October, so at present I’m hunting for jobs, doing some quantified-self-ing, and trying to make productive use of my time. Writing, video editing, coaching… A myriad of tasks and habits I’m trying to build or un-break stack up in HabitRPG.

Routine, especially building it, is probably one of those things that’s harder to work at with ADHD. It’s hard for everybody, but because I am so dependent on reminders (such as Google Calendar/iCal), it is difficult when these reminders become too repetitive and, thus, no longer intrusive enough—like I said, problem for everybody, but potentially disastrous for me in terms of meeting obligations and being accountable—another thing I try to stay conscious of. I have excellent intentions of organization: sometimes I am able to stick to them, especially with the right technology. Others, the act of organizing the organization is simply too much to organize—or, I get distracted in some subset of organization and then never accomplish the initial task! (This, is what happened in my bedroom, really. I went in to start cleaning and organizing. I decided I needed a file cabinet to keep all the paper in. I needed, then, to acquire the file cabinet. Oh, file cabinets are expensive, what about some plastic drawers? Oh, those all sort of don’t meet my needs. Hey, guess what? This was May—it’s October now. All that paper is still on the floor right where it was! (I still don’t have a file cabinet or any such organizational implement—but yes… I am trying.)

Right now, the first thing I do (and last thing I do, and maybe 85% of what I do in between…) is sit down at my laptop. Usually, my mom has affixed some sort of post-it note to it with a task or two or seven for me to accomplish. Today is “wash + dry dishes + sweep floor”. (But I swept the floor yesterday with no prompting!) Usually, with these notes, the job will get done (even though, to my dismay, the dishwasher is still not working—usually the notes say “empty dishwasher and reload”—dishwashers are probably an independent ADHDer’s best friend, except I live with my parents), because as I tell her and as my friend Jay said, “Write it down; if it stays in your head it gets lost.” That’s why not very much stays in my head very long—it gets lost super quickly in there. I struggle significantly with memory related tasks: my visual memory sucks, and my auditory memory isn’t a ton better—so, I work on the deficits of both of these by combining them to get stuff down. That’s why lists are so important… well, if I don’t lose them or can figure out how to implement them!

Back to the Concerta for a minute, the Concerta does help in that regard—it keeps me focused a lot longer on a task, and things tend to get lost in my brain less easily (things getting lost in my brain include the result of what happens when my attention wanders from a task, and I move onto another one without finishing the first one. Like starting a blog post, and then finding myself an hour later trying to work on a website… with only two and a half sentences in the blog post window. Actually, case in point on the Concerta right now? I’ve been writing this for 28 minutes now and the only thing I’ve glanced at is my phone once to reply to a text message, and the post it note of chores—which are already done. It helps, like it does for most ADHDers, that I want to be writing this right now—but even that without the Concerta, was a big issue! Medication isn’t for everybody, but to me, I’m pretty sure it was the difference between graduating university and possibly dropping out. So yes, I am distracted by bright coloured things, but so long as those bright coloured things are like my post-it note of things needing to be done, well, that’s okay. The Post-It notes are necessary because, yes, if you just tell me something to do, it’ll be forgotten. If I have that visual cue that can keep reappearing, then I’m much more likely to actually follow-through with the task.

I contemplate writing things multiple times a day. Sometimes it happens and I open up the Evernote notebook of a project I’m working on, or throw a post onto Quantify This. Sometimes though, it doesn’t. I’ll intend to go write a post on the other blog, but then spend five hours trying to install a Windows VM onto my Mac, or learn how to download all my Fitbit data into a Google spreadsheet, and then get that spreadsheet to autopopulate into Excel. Except by then it’s midnight and nope, no blog post. This is why I’m not a good daily blogger! ADHD, I think, lends itself more to this infinite curiosity, except like other infinitely curious people, ADHDers tend to have faulty brakes—we either stop too frequently, or we get into something and can’t stop. The latter, known as hyperfocus, is kind of a compensatory mechanism: we bounce around so quickly, that sometimes if we get really engaged in something or have pressure to complete a task [ie. a deadline tomorrow] we simply power through and may barely look up from a task for hours—so, right now, I’m probably a tad hyperfocused on this post because the pressure that October is ADHD and LD awareness month and it’s the 21st of October and I forgot until two days ago is enough pressure for me to get this one cranked out—that, and enough people on Facebook expressed interest in my sharing of this article last night, that I figure sharing more of my story was important to do right now. (Run-on-sentence.)

The ADHD brain is kind of like a run-on sentence in itself—I’ve said before, “I don’t stop, only pause”—there are only commas in here, no periods. I may not be physically moving, but my brain is going full speed until I eventually go to bed—something that I also have to prompt myself to do: yes, eventually I feel tired, but I rarely feel it until I make the conscious decision to go to bed—sometimes annoying, and the reason that 11 PM prompts a (now frequently ignored) reminder to “wind down” on my iPhone.  [Okay, stream of consciousness: There we go. I remembered to follow up on an e-mail prior to sitting down to start this, and that reply to the e-mail lead to searching for t-shirts… Yes, can’t make this stuff up! So, there was a 30+ minute gap in there… Typical.] The ignoring of the reminder at present, however, might be because I no longer have engagements requiring being awake at 6:45 AM.  

Which begs the question:

So how much of this is me, and how much is ADHD/LD?

Well, I’m not sure I can really separate myself from them—how my brain functions is as much me as my personality or my affinity for Cheetos. It’s just the way I am, and I’m okay with that.

I’ve written about my LD here before, because it’s kind of nonspecific. A lot of it has to do with my visual memory: I can’t read an analog clock (at least, I can’t without using my fingers to help me determine what span of time the minute hand is pointing to, which is essentially equal to being unable to read a clock), I struggle with reading comprehension when attacking large works, because it’s hugely dependent on visual and visual working memory, areas in which I am deficient, despite my reading ability being above average. I may best fall into the category of Nonverbal Learning Disability, but have not been diagnosed as such—not that it makes a huge difference. At this point, my LD comes up in ways that could be associated with my ADHD, and ways that don’t presently affect me in the day-to-day now that I’m not in school—or, ways that are much a part of me and I don’t notice as much more than quirks.

ADHD and learning disabilities come in many flavours. I have primarily inattentive ADHD—making things like sustained focus (especially for the uninteresting), organization/remembering where I put stuff, initiating/changing tasks, and coming through on commitments more challenging for me. These things are because of the effects of neurotransmitters affected in ADHD on executive functioning… but, that’s a topic for tomorrow. [It’s already written, but, it makes more sense to split into two posts at this length! :)]

Questions about learning disabilities or ADHD? Leave them below!

2 thoughts on “this is what a learning disability and ADHD look like.

  1. I am autistic, and it comes with executive function issues that often look like ADHD but aren’t (and can co-occur with actual ADHD – I do not have actual ADHD but I do have executive function issues & a lot of the ADHD strategies help). I also have sensory-motor dysgraphia, which was more of a negative on my life in grade school when cursive was a thing that was expected of me (I still cannot do cursive. At 27. I am unashamed – frankly, I’m just happy my printing is mostly-legible. I was 15 before I got it to that point). My executive function issues tend to be issues of “out of sight = doesn’t exist to my brain” and hyperfocus (I will forget to eat, drink, or sleep for days if I get too into something).

    I also have trouble breaking stuff down. Combined with my perfectionism and completionism (I like to finish what I’m working on), this makes it hard to get started on stuff I can’t do in one sitting. If I can’t finish, it will bother me until it is finished because why did I start it if I wasn’t going to finish it? Teachers didn’t understand why I’d throw fits in school, but that was why. I’d get suck in a “But I’m not finished!” loop and get more and more and more upset until I melted down. I am still prone to doing that. I’ll usually get someone to help me break stuff down into things that can be finished in one sitting to help mitigate it, but it still bothers me if it’s not finished and done right.

    Dysgraphia actually affects all my hand fine motor control, so stuff like sewing and crafting are also cannot-do-well things (people tell me “Just sew it on yourself!” without realizing that I made four different home ec teachers give up in despair over my inability to master needle and thread – and sewing machines are worse. Sewing machine + poor awareness of where my fingers are = ow. At least with needle and thread it’s almost impossible to exert enough force to impale myself). In cases where I have to take lots of notes by hand (so, uni – my classes either forbid laptops or don’t have room for bringing them), it makes me more vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries because I have to grip so tightly to know where my hands are (my normal writing grip used to snap pencils in two so often that I moved to mechanical pencils which are a bit sturdier and don’t break as often. All pencils and pens I use end up bowed out of shape within a few days, and sometimes I’ve even broken pens. That’s messy). Additionally, because of how hard I have to grip, writing is painful always. So I prefer typing. I’m dealing with an RSI right now, actually (so rather than writing causing mild-moderate crampy pain like it normally does, it feels like shards of glass are stabbing my thumb and scaphoid joint that turns into burning agony along my entire forearm if I keep it up too long), and fighting with the accessibility centre over whether or not I can just write mathy midterms left-handed because math-literate scribes are hard to find (uhhh, no. No, I can’t.).

    Which is where my disabilities intersect: Because of the RSI, I need test accommodations (I’m pretty good at tests normally because they can be finished in one sitting and are all about doing it all right so I actually enjoy them and don’t need accommodations there). Because of the autism, I was a bit naive and assumed they’d do their job without hounding. So I didn’t get documentation about the agreed-upon accommodations, nor did I get the name of the person who set them up (not that I’d remember her name if she just told me and I didn’t see it written or her face anyway – I have auditiory processing issues and am faceblind because autism – if I don’t remember your name, it’s not because I don’t care, it’s because I didn’t see it written down and I can’t retain auditory information very well). So now I’m trying to protest what they set up, but I don’t have the documentation to prove they agreed to it and to prove I set up my accommodations when I did, and I don’t know who to go over the head of.

    Which is annoying. Bureaucracy is usually inaccessible to me (I don’t know how to find out who is next up the ladder, nor am I able to effectively self-advocate when I’m upset because I lose my words and most people in real-world are not very AAC-accepting, and I have a strong sense of fairness so I get very upset when I feel like I’m being setup to fail), so I’m at a point now where I’m debating going to the doctor and getting strong enough pain meds that I can just tough it out and deal with the setback writing the exam will cause me.

    But that’s something I wish people would be more aware off: different LDs and DDs can intersect and make stuff more difficult than for people who have just one.

    1. I was lucky to have (once I got the dx) an awesome experience with university accommodations. My assessment provided recommendations, and the accessibility advisor went above and beyond–not in a way that gave ‘advantage’ but in a way that made more SENSE. For example, when my recommendations said to allow me to audio-record all lectures, the advisor suggested that in addition to this, they could provide a request for a volunteer note-taker (excellent when the VNT took typed notes… near useless the one time I had a VNT who wrote in cursive, which I struggle to read only slightly less than I struggle to write :). Fortunately I made an awesome friend in this class who shared her typed notes with me *and* turned into my study buddy :).] Audiobooks also were able to be provided as eText, which is why I bought my iPad–because of the ADHD, of course, it was so much better using speak-selected-content with sentence/word tracking [I also had access to Kurzweil 3000 for this purpose; it worked on campus but the license/install on my Mac never worked right]. Mostly this allowed me to actually take notes while “reading” at the same time and it not take 10 hours to do one chapter.

      What kind of test accommodations do you have? I had private space + extended time for my final year-and-a-bit of my degree. Initially 125%, which worked well in Fall term for whatever reason, but not Winter. Early on (before midterms) I requested 150% for anatomy [which changed to 175% I think before the final, but that was modified anyways so it worked out]. Then, during Sport Psych and, to a bigger extent, Health in Antiquity in Winter term, I hit the wall on my midterms. Sport Psych I barely finished (i.e. the proctor was basically ripping the test out of my hands as I was finishing a sentence) and Health in Antiquity, I wrote 4 lines on a 20 mark long answer question–I got my time bumped up to 150% I think after that, but I got lucky on the Health in Antiquity situation: I walked out of the room and e-mailed my prof as I was walking down the hall, explaining what had happened and asking if I could come and verbally finish proving what I knew (since I knew I couldn’t see my test again) but I understood if he couldn’t make any changes and that I’d get my time accommodation modified for the final. By the time I got home, he’d e-mailed me back saying he’d mark the last question out of 10 instead of 20. Beyond fair, except I hadn’t realized how little I’d written–when I got the test back? The marking sheet simply had the final section crossed out and a note from the prof that said “Not graded – ran out of time.” Yeah, shocked didn’t even begin to describe it. I e-mailed him when I got home and gave him this massive thank you and told him I’d worked out my time accommodations so it wouldn’t happen again in the final. End result? A- in the course.

      So I got lucky that a lot of people in my world were/are flexible–I’ve yet to write about how anatomy panned out the way it did (C+ after two Fs!!), but I’ll probably do that tomorrow now :).

      I also hear you on the communication issues; that’s why e-mail often works better for me–not because I struggle to communicate verbally, but because sometimes (especially if I’m overwhelmed/feeling pressured), I simply can’t think quickly enough and get more overwhelmed. E-mail lets me revise what I’m trying to communicate with far less pressure. Case in point, I had my first appointment with Accessibility Services to discuss accommodations with the advisor the *day after* I got my assessment results–maybe not the best choice? Fortunately, the advisor is the sweetest lady ever, and gave me a lot of choices as noted above, and was just super patient when I had a “sorry, this is just really fresh” breakdown moment within like five minutes of meeting her. She, of course, also noted that my accommodations could be altered if I needed–so that 125% time recommendation wasn’t written in stone. I hadn’t felt like I needed extra time before, so I was kind of shocked when I needed more–except I probably was just actually learning stuff unlike before, so the time became a necessary factor :P. Well, that and the fact that my processing speed was tested at being in the 2nd percentile, so, I refer to it as “practically nonexistent” compared to other people ;)–and thus… um yeah, explains why extra time helped pretty significantly.

      …Sorry for the tangent. I should probably reply to these things not at 12:17 AM. :]

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