“I keep reading the same passage over and over, and I still don’t understand it.”
“I don’t do well with unstructured time.”
“I keep spacing out during lectures and don’t know what’s going on.”
College is a time of discovery. It is an opportunity to try new things, shed old identities, and discover previously unknown aspects of ourselves. For some students, college is the time when the increased academic demands and relative lack of supervision may reveal a previously undetected learning problem, which can make for a stressful adjustment.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition that first became a recognized diagnosis in 1980. Initially, the stereotype of a person with ADHD was a child who was repeatedly scolded by teachers for talking, fidgeting, and getting up and moving around the classroom. One reason for this stereotype is that this type of behavior in children quickly comes to the attention of adults who are motivated to diagnose and treat it. This “hyperactive” type of ADHD is just one aspect of the diagnosis. In teens and adults, this “hyperactive” type can take the form of stimulation-seeking through interrupting, substance use, and other impulsive behaviors.
Another form of ADHD, the “inattentive” kind, often goes undetected in children, partly because it is less disruptive to adults. Children and teens who daydream, have their noses in books during class, show up late for appointments, and have trouble with unstructured time, can often fly under the radar, particularly if they are skilled at working under pressure and improvising. For many, however, college can present a crisis as they realize they cannot continue to function this way and perform up to their potential in school. There is also a “mixed” form of ADHD that includes both hyperactivity and inattention.
One tendency that is found across all types of ADHD is an aversion to repetitive, uninteresting, or frustrating tasks. Of course, no one likes to engage in boring activities, but for a person with ADHD, such chores can feel intolerable. Another trait shared across all types is difficulty with executive functioning. This includes sequencing tasks, managing time, and organizing materials.
One of the “side effects” of ADHD is damage to one’s self-esteem. Individuals who take a long time to complete tasks, forget procedures, and “butt in” on conversations tend to fall behind in school and become targeted for “problem behaviors” in the workplace. The irony is that many people with ADHD are intelligent, fun, and creative people, which makes it all the more frustrating when they can’t seem to get their projects completed or who rarely see one of their many ideas come to fruition.
The good news is that college is a place where there are resources available for those who want to get help. A psychological assessment with Counseling and Prevention Services can help confirm a diagnosis and qualify a student for accommodations such as extra time, permission to record lectures, and having a helper to take notes in class. For some people with ADHD, receiving medication under the care of a doctor may be helpful. Other forms of treatment that research has found to mitigate ADHD symptoms include exercise, a diet high in protein and relatively low in carbohydrates, and meditation.
For many people, it takes time to find the most effective way to manage ADHD. Therapy can be helpful in teaching skills to manage ADHD symptoms. Experiment with finding the best place to study; seek advice from friends who are organized; consult websites and books for tips on how to manage your symptoms, and take some time to learn more about how your brain works. In the meantime, find ways to use your curiosity, energy, and edginess creatively. As livestock expert and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.”