Rodolfo Villanueva, interviews fellow UoA students in the Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Hangout Group: an open, free, and student-led peer support group for students with ADHD.
Disclaimer: The experiences here do not claim universal narratives about ADHD, but speak to the particular stories unique to the individuals. What will follow is not a substitute for medical or professional advice nor does it reflect the best pathway to your own betterment.
Deborah: I’m finishing up my honours in Social Anthropology. I had gone to university for the first time a few years ago, but struggled to work out what I was doing or what I wanted to do, so I took some time off [and] did some other stuff. When I came back, I started an undergraduate in Psychology and I was just really having a hard time. I knew that I understood the stuff I was reading and I understood the stuff being taught in the classroom, but I was just really struggling to translate that into a good grade or to understand how things worked at uni. I could see that I was putting in just a lot more effort than many of the other kids in my class. I ended up going to a psychologist here at the uni who eventually asked me for permission to discuss my case with a health psychologist colleague. In the following session, she said, ‘Well, I think you might have ADHD.’ I didn’t even know what ADHD was. It wasn’t in my realm of possibilities. So I went home and Googled it and was like, ‘Oh!’
Shaun: I’m studying for a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Psychology. Middle child of three children, all boys. I may or may not have middle-child syndrome. Looking at all my school reports, my teachers were always saying, ‘Shaun is a lovely student. He’s a lovely boy, but if he could just focus and apply himself more he could reach his potential.’ And for as long as I could remember, that was always normal to me. It didn’t cross my family’s mind that I might have ADHD because I was never like the other kids who had it, who were very, very hyperactive. I just loved sport and was always an energetic kid.
A few years ago, after a series of concussions from rugby and other things, I had to take a year off and recover. I started my degree in 2018 and it was the first academic thing I wanted to do. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t really concentrate. During that time, I had a lot of mental health issues that I was seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist for. I talked to my psychiatrist about not being able to focus and he ran some assessments. As far as ADHD goes, I passed with flying colours.
D: It can be needing to move a lot, not being able to pay attention, needing to look at other things, needing to listen to music at the same time you’re doing stuff—because your brain is constantly looking for dopamine [a neurochemical associated with rewards]. For me, I don’t have an internal hierarchical organisation structure. I don’t see a bunch of things and go, ‘Okay, that’s the most important and this is the next important.’ I look at a pile of things and all of those things are just as important as everything else so it takes a lot of work to figure out how to organise your life—particularly for the purposes of succeeding at university. We thrive in contexts where there are immediate rewards. And university, while extremely important if you choose it to be so, doesn’t always activate immediate rewards because you’re looking at these much bigger, broader concepts and concerns. I don’t think there’s any way to trick my brain into believing that the one assignment I’m working on is going to change somebody’s life or save the world. I have to find some other kind of long-term way of getting pleasure or satisfaction from it and I think it’s harder to do that for me.
S: Having conversations with people. I used to think it was normal to be talking to somebody and then have some abstract idea pop up where I start thinking about it. I miss half the conversation.
Growing up, my parents would always say, ‘Oh you know Shaun is always talking.’ I’m just always blurting. There’d be situations where I might interpret something different or I might say something that is inappropriate; it’s not until after that I realise that it wasn’t the right thing to say or do at that time. So then I start being over analytical about myself and make sure I’m not doing anything inappropriate.
There’s also a lot of guilt. Other people are working jobs while studying, and I’m sitting at home asking myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ The education system is not built for people with ADHD, and we’re forced to work around that—put in a lot of hours, make sacrifices, and adapt to fit the university system, which is challenging. I have to put in a lot of hours and make sacrifices, which is a struggle. I’ve also gotten the whole, ‘Oh yeah he only gets good grades because he is on medication.’ It feels like you really can’t win.
D: I think it’s in those small immediate tasks where you get feedback. Everything’s really clear cut; you don’t need to make conceptual decisions. That’s also the case with emergencies. I’m really good at emergencies. I keep a really clear head [and] just figure out what needs to be done. Also, I think that if you’ve grown up in a world or in environments where things haven’t come really easily or naturally to you, then that gives you more of a sense of empathy; understanding other people’s issues and problems because you don’t see anything as straightforward or simple—you can appreciate other people’s difficulties.
I find that people with ADHD can make connections that other people might not be able to see. They’re lateral thinkers who think about systems and networks and how things relate to other things and that stuff is really useful.
S: I would just have energy all the time. You know, I was the kid in school that would get up at six every morning and I’d be at school by seven kicking a ball around. I’d be itching just to go run around in class. If we’re doing work, I’m just sitting there trying to crack jokes with people. I think a big positive [is that] it has made me more aware, and I think understanding, of other people. The fact that I assess myself so much with the whole, ‘Is this the right thing to say here? Should I say that now? Don’t say that!’ has made me think about that perspective for other people as well.
D: I started getting better grades when I started developing closer relationships with my teachers. They could see how much work I was putting in and they put a little bit more effort into looking at my work and finding the parts that made sense. That’s a relationship thing, that’s a human universal; once you have a relationship with someone, it becomes reciprocal in some way and they think of you as a human rather than a number or a bum in a seat.
Go to office hours, ask questions at the beginning of the semester, tell them you have some issues with things and that if they checked in with you once [in] a while, it would be really helpful, because that external accountability means a thousand times more than your own internal accountability, or your parent or whoever telling you that you should do some work.
One of the things I want to point out is that ADHD isn’t really a problem with you. It’s that the system; in particular, the university system isn’t designed for people that think like you and that it’s cool to get help and there is some help available.
I think that a lot of people at university who have different experiences of neurodiversity think, ‘I’m not keeping up or I’m not smart enough,’ but what I want to point out is that you’ve made it this far. There is nothing about this system which is made to make it easier or even relatively comfortable for somebody who doesn’t fit into the model of neurodiversity; the imaginary model of neurodiversity that the university is constructed around.
S: If you’re at uni and struggling to learn and struggling to pass/get good grades, don’t wait till it’s too late. Just come seek the support that you can. If you’re just discovering it [while] just starting uni, [or] if you’re in your third year and you’re just discovering it, go to the Inclusive Learning, [as well as] talk to your lecturers.
For students with ADHD wanting support, please visit the University of Auckland’s Inclusive Learning and Student Disability Services websites. In order to join the ADHD Hangout Group, students must be registered with Inclusive Learning