ASD and ADHD: Disabled, but NOT Stupid!

Brainscan of brains with and without ADHD
Brainscan of brains with and without ADHD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now have the very good fortune to teach the most amazing students on the planet. I teach college kids who have a diagnosed learning disability, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), or ADHD. These kids are smart, funny, and creative. They are also sneaky, occasionally lazy, sometimes lacking in hygiene — just like any other college student. To be a student at my college, they also have to WANT to be here. they interview personally with the college president before starting school. Most of these kids have failed out of other schools, have been told by teachers or family members that they are unteachable, and generally have been conditioned to believe that they cannot succeed in our society.

It breaks my heart when I read their files and see the psychological profile and descriptions of past occurrences. Some of these kids fight terrible anxiety and negative self-esteem. They are terrified when they first get here and scared to death when I first ask to speak with them. But they come to class, sometimes with their homework done and sometimes not, time after time. Why? Because this is a place where they fit in, where their disability is not a liability. Their self-determination is often at odds with the sabotage that their brain generates.

I’ve had people tell me that ADHD is not a r”real” condition, that it’s a media hype, and how could it be so prevalent now when it wasn’t known as such in previous decades. Other people have asked me if my job is to teach basic life skills to my students. One person told me that the hyperactive, easily distracted behavior that is common in ADHD just needs to be treated with stern discipline.

As I work more with these kids and see the struggles that my younger daughter (who has ADHD) every day, my heart breaks open. I’m not saying something sappy-sweet like these kids just need love. These kids need to be taught, but in a way in which they CAN learn. For some of them, they need the one-to-one attention, while others learn best by themselves. Sometimes I find myself repeating the same things over and over. I’ve learned that the repetition is not a reflection of the student’s lack of respect, but of their brain’s inability to remember what they were told.

I think that more compassion for what these students endure is absolutely critical. They don’t need sympathy, but don’t certainly don’t need heavy-handed discipline. They have to be ready to enter the work world as capable adults who can contribute to society and who can live independently. The classes I deliver now are more rigorous than anything I’ve ever delivered, because I believe that these kids need to be more qualified than their peers to be able to compete in the job market.

If I had been asked even a year ago if I would like to work with this particular demographic, I’m not sure I would have consented. Now that I’m here and have witnessed what happens when these student can learn in their way, I don’t think I would want to work anywhere else. Once these kids get a taste of success — some of them for the first time in their life — their thirst for knowledge grows and their confidence goes through the roof.

It’s a heady experience, and I find myself wanting to witness it more and more.  Actually changing someone’s life profoundly is incredible. Sometimes all it takes is a smile or a quick “good job” note.  Two seconds of work and someone ‘s live changes forever. I think it’s worth the effort.

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