Normal. Disablity. Differance.

Words are funny things. They are identifiers or names we put on things. Socially, we have put these things that we name into neat little boxes of meaning and stick a label on it; usually the same as the name of that thing inside. All of this in an attempt to make the complexities of communcation and understanding as brief as possiable. Over time we put boxes into more boxes; these are then passed down to us. When a conflict appears between the meaning we were given and the meaning we experiance for ourselves, we create new boxes to put these things in; sometimes we use different labels on these new boxes that are now at odds with the ones we were originally told to carry. Nevermind that both boxes contain the same thing.

Reading through personal accounts of dsylexia and ADHD, I found that the first paragraph usually contains something along the lines of: “It’s not a disablity, it’s a difference”. Little boxes. Is it a disablity? Yes and no. What context are we working from? A disablity is a condition that limits or impairs a person’s ability to perform a certian task. This is so absurdly broad that if we use it literally, everyone has a disablity in some area of life. ADHD/Dsylexic and socially standard brains diverege by using different pathways to reach the same goal. It doesn’t matter if that path is being viewed as an impairment to the normal way or if it’s being viewed as the overlooked rebel. Until we stop clinging onto our neatly orginized boxes, the brains that work outside of the inherated social constructs will continue to be duct taped to the disablity box. All of this, in a messy effort to avoid the uncomfortbleness that comes with any major change to the normal order of things.

Once I learned my brain was broken I was hell bent on fixing it. I dove into books (audiobooks) on cognitive and behavioural science, self-improvement, neurobiology, neuroplasticity, and even how-to material. I was sure there was something there that I could use to make myself normal. On the outside I presented as someone who embraced being different. Inside, I felt defective and just wanted to be normal so I could fit in for once. Normal is dangerous. It has been perverted from the average standard into the de facto, and often times, the de jure standard - i.e., the only correct way. This creates a human divide between those that tic all of the boxes on an inherated list of what normal is and those who do not.

Road to Enlightenment

Years of my life were spent trying to hide my inner shaming, insecure, self-lothing bully that relentlessly harrassed me.

When I finally gave in to the pride and ego I built up to gloss over the inner pain and embarresment, everything changed. I sought help. It took a few months and some awkward moments dealing with side effects to get the medication right. Explaining that AdderallXR knocks you out for the best sleep of your life will net some side-ways glances.

Before this, I would lose hours, days and weeks even; I had no idea where they went. One of the exciting aspects of my ADHD is time blindness. I dont get it. Labeled time is an odd concept that I have difficultly structuring things around. The world does not even agree on a time format or calendar. I limit scheduling things if it is not absoultuely nessary. People end up seeing me as either fun and spontanious or committment phobic. Truth is that commiting to anything further than a few days out causes intense anxitey for fear of forgetting about it and letting others or myself down. The combonation of time blindness and slow reading ability wrecks havoc on productivity. Not being aware that either of those are a factor can cause confusion that slowly eats away at your self-esteem.

Once the right medication was found, I felt superhuman. I could control time itself. Finally, I could choose to sit down and read a regular book cover to cover. That was it. I avoided reading walls of text because I couldnt get myself to sit down long enough to do it. Now I could. No more scanning through pages of words while my mind was off doing its own thing. Now I could sit down for a couple hours and actually read that 12 page chapter.

I was reading news and blog articals from top to bottom without falling down the wiki rabbit hole in search of more information about a place or event that caught my attention. Yet, something about it bothered me, the estimated read times were just misleading. Those 8-10 minute articals took 30-40 minutes to read; they were consuming my entire day. My first thought was there was a miscalculation - but on multiple sites? Off to find the general average words-per-minute read time for an adult and re-calculate some previous articals. 8-10 minutes.

Falling Through the Cracks

Turns out that dsylexia is rarely about seeing letters or words backwards. Although, it is one possible manifstation on a spectrum. It is a grab bag quriks, similar to ADHD.

Of those quirks, difficultly with phonological proccessing and/or rapid visual-verbal processing will probably be the ones that cause the most embarressment; not only for yourself, but everyone around you as well. Phonological processing is understanding letter sounds or the ability to sound out words. When this goes funny, learning to subsitute words or change entire sentences or statements becuase there is a word that you can’t pronounce becomes a common coping method.

Rapid visual-verbal processing is the ability rapidly translate the visual recongnization of some thing into the verberal output of it’s name. Sometimes this word is similar to a word that can not be pronounced or looks similar to a word that I know is not the correct one. This causes more hesitation as the two words are fighting it out for the final visual reprentation to be verbally output. The words or sections within the words visually bump each other out in my head until the right combonation is found; hopefully the final word is one I can pronounce, if not, I may use a synanoym. My verbal speech tends to be drastically different than my written speech, and much less cohrent when trying to explain something. The proper explanation is in my head, yet it refuses to find its way out verbally in the same way I visuallise it.

These are probably most pronounced when having to read aloud in a classroom, or even bedtime stories and public speaking. Each word not only has to be decoded and processed, now it has to find its way back out. Tack on the additional anxity of being fully aware that the snickering and laughter from the rest of the class has turned into dead silence and stares of confusion. I could generally count on only having to read aloud once for each teacher, each year. Only the brave or forgetful called on me twice.

Another fustrating and publicly damaging situration is knowing the answer to a question, only to be randomly called on to answer and words fail. The answer is there, you see the answer in your head. Nothing comes out. The confusing part is when the impulsiveness of ADHD blurts outs proper answers before the question has been fully asked. If the teacher is having a good day, you will get ignored or asked to wait and raise your hand. If its a bad day, expect to be snapped at or scoulled. It is a bit of a no-win situration. The answer was right so the teach will keep calling on you randomly, only, being put on the spot will usually cause a block in being able to express an answer in any cohearent way. This happens everywhere, not just school, and appears as if the person talking is being rudely cut-off or ignored. That was not the intention, but they dont know that.

A large part of excelling in school requires skill in rote learning; remembering infomation such as dates, names, exact statistical facts, etc. Then connecting these to the event story, current or historical. The who, when, and where to the what, why, and how. The first three tend to be the priority on test; simple facts are easier for multiple choice answers. Accuratelly condensing the breadth of an event to 160 charaters or less, is unlikely to happen.

The one saving grace about this style of assesment is understanding that standardise testing is just that, standard. There is a very ridged framework, i.e, pattern, that they are built on. Especally the history/english/reading sections. I could count on answering atleast a third of the questions by finding the answers in other questions using contexual clues between them. This is easest in the reading comprehension sections. The questions [at the time atleast] follow the story in a liner fashion, narrowing down the search area, and then tells you where the answer is found. Add in multiple choice options and cross referencing them to the words in the search area, means never having to actually read most of the short story in order to obtain perfect comprehention scores.

The result of our test-dominate education is prioitizing rote learning/information in classrooms. Rote learning relies on verbal/phonological and semantic memory to remember dates, names, stats, and the chronological order of items on a list. A disadvantage for the many dyslexic brains that learn best through active, associtive, or observational learning. These styles rely more on the visual-spatial and epicsodic memory; images, big picture stories, connections and experiances. Throw in ADHD’s overloaded working memory and none of it will matter if the ADHD brain is not stimulated by how or what is being taught. It will find something more interesting to focus it’s attention on.

Math and Timed Test

A little known aspect of dyslexia is how it can affect math. School math likes to rely heavly on rote information; math tables, formulas, recalling a particular set of preferred steps to solving a problem and other facts. The why, or logic and understanding the goal of the problem, is skimmed over for follow someone else’s preferred solution verbatim. This hampers the independent critial thinking aspects of math for the reguritating of facts and processes that someone else told you was important to pass an exam.

I simply can not recall most math table pairs and must solve for most basic arthmatic - every time. Identifing and naming equasions or remembering which rule/formula/method to use, let alone listing the order and steps needed to solve them - is an exercise of futility. Remembering static facts is needed to successfully pass exams. Over the years, many dyslexic brains adapt coping stragities to hack our way through standerised learning; if not give up altogether due to a lack of external support or caring. These are personal methods of taking the required information and teaching it to ourselves in a way that we can use. It’s not always pretty, but it usually works well enough.

My coping method involved assoicating the steps into what amounts to a youtube clip of solving the equasion; where the numbers visually calculat and move/shift to proper places in my head. To save space, some of the steps were grouped together. The clips that I would manage to save still had to be paused and rewound at times; all while trying to export it to paper. This causes problems when part of the grade includes showing the steps to solve it. It looked on paper that I went from step one to step four to the correct anwser at step six by lucky guesswork; often receiving half a point marked off a correct answer. Another no-win that ended in a jaded attitude towards math.

Test on the ablity of application, not memorization.

A fun aspect of partisapating in rote memory math exercises was blurting out answers that made no sense to anyone but myself. Let’s say it is my turn to quickly recall an answer to a multiplcation table pair that is then written on the board or on a flashcard: 4 x 8. There is a good chance my answer would be 12; 8 x 4 and my reactive answer may be 2. For reasons that I do not fully grasp, my brain’s first reaction is to make spontanous patteren connections instead of retrieving static pieces of information. Ask the question verbally, and my answer would be a blank stare from being put on the spot and needing to figure out what I just heard and translate that into a visual repensentation; if given time, I would then go through the process of solving the problem and answer. The more common senerio to being asked verbally, would end with me starting to formulate a sound of some sort right as the teacher gave up and snappily called on another.

As much fun as all of that is, it is not even the most exciting part of math for many adhd/dyslexic brains. That is reserved for word problems.

“At 10:00 AM train A left the station and an hour later train B left the same station on a parallel track. If train A traveled at a constant speed of 60 miles per hour and train B at 80 miles per hour, then at what time did train B pass train A?” - Word problems can trigger an ADHD focus flight response; as in what world are 2 trains running on parallel tracks, which do not diverge or merge, in the same direction an hour apart at a distance where the latter train eventually passes the first? That rail line need a new logistics operator. Cue obssesive thought cycling on what or where the trick to the question is, because why would they run trains like that?

Even if my ADHD doesnt get side tracked by the content, stabbing my hand with the needle point of a compas is a more exciting option than dealing with the added bounus of reading a paragraph, sometimes littered with semantic oddities, in order to identify and extract the correct question - before solving for it.

Part of my dyslexic brain enjoys skipping and/or changing small words when reading and writting such as: is/as, in/on, to/too, of/for, that/then, etc. It also changes contexual words and phrases into something similar when I recognise the meaning but cant pronounce the word; resulting in a longer more verboss sentence that only exist in my head. If I dont recognise the word and am not able to quickly look it up, it gets skipped over in the hopes I can figure out the gist of it from the other contexual clues in the paragraph. All of this happens without my full awareness. It is only when the changes cause such a jarring sematic effect that I can then figure it out. At that point, reading comes to a dead stop and I end up having to re-read the sentance, possiably the paragraph, another 3-4 times before spotting where the translation went wrong. The end result is usually wasted time and solving the wrong math problem.

Add these word problems to a timed test, let’s say the SATs, and it results in having so many unfinished problems that scribbling in random bubbles, before the second more directed instruction to put the pencil down, will still not answer each question in the section in the given time.

A Different Path to the Same Goal

How does someone with the inablity to keep up with the reading material, across all core subjects, and inhibited pathways towards rote learning finish primary/grade school without the accomadations granted to identified dyslexic learners? It’s different for each of us. Generally the answers will circle around finding ways to use the pathways, or strenghts of our adhd/dyslexic brain, to find loop holes in the structure of the system and in the human element of those in power. If it’s an honest answer it will also make mention of atleast one person, if not more, that believed in them and didn’t waiver in that belief; whether that person was a family member, coach, teacher, after-school mentor, it doesnt matter. Having someone see and believe in our ability can be the difference between us giving up and us finding a way to break through.

Dyslexic strenghts play directly into althletic skills and sports; these include visual memory and processing, pattern recognition and prediction, and spatial awareness. While most people have some level of these aspects, these are the more common pathways used by dyslexic brains, and thus, exercised more. It expresses itself a bit more naturally; the same way reading skill do for others.

America’s obsession with sports provides an alternate route for dyslexic and non-dyslexic students to obtain that covented degree. High School and College. What ever one’s opinion on the matter, many teachers/proffessors are either directly or indirectly nudged to pass student-althelets. There are the handful that refuse to budge. It is also easy to transfer into a class with a coach doubling as an instructor, or find those credits elsewhere. With large class sizes and pressure to gradurate students, giving a passing grade to a student-althete knowing the administration looks the other way is an attracitive option. It will be someone else’s problem next year.

As it turns out, negotioating with teachers on assignmments and test are also valid ways to gradurating. Classes with teachers that advise school clubs and origaniztions can turn into working partnerships; especally when leveragering one’s position on the school’s morning news production, newspaper, yearbook and photography staff. What if a teacher has no affliations or you are not a part of any school orignazation? Look for a problem or inefficeny within the teaching material or process, then find a way to solve for it. Having access to and knowledge of PageMaker and Illustrator in the mid-90’s allowed me to exchange teaching material and publicity of their pet projects for passing grades on reports and test that I knew I would not complete within the time given.

Carving Out Space

A common sentiment I hear when discussing programming with non-programmers or someone interested in making an app they have an idea for, follows along the lines of thinking it would be fun but not exploring that path because they dont like or are ‘bad’ at math. At some point someone told them they needed to be great at math to program. While there are some programming disiplines that are math intensive, web application or app programming rarely is. For the few times the app needs to perform a complex calculation, finding the rules needed to calculate it properly are an internet search away. Being able to creativly and elegently intergrate the componets interacting with the calculation is were the value is found.

So many people hold back from pursuing an attractive occupation or hobby due to the weight of carrying, as their own, someone else’s opinion of what they can or can not do. For many with adhd/dyslexia, we hear the negitivity more than others simply becuase we do things different. We can be frustrating and we are not usually trying to be difficult, just the oppsite. It wears others down, they are expecting us to conform to how they beleive we need to be if we ever want to achieve their idea of a successful life. I beleive many of them are well intentioned, they just dont realize they are doing more harm than not.

Obviously, being influenced by the negitivity of others can apply to anyone; the most damaging aspect is the internalizing of other people’s opinon and holding it as your own. It’s a common theme found through-out many personal stories of those with adhd/dyslexia. While those stories eventually inspired the writting of this one, they first provided a guiding light out of the darkness of self-loathing and worthlessness, and into self-love and acceptance. There is peace and clarity in knowning that our life experiances are not caused by being ‘defective’, instead, it is a result of trying fit into someone else’s idea of ‘normal’.

The environment and avaiable support systems play a large part in how well ADHD/dyslexic brains navigate this world. A world that throws us in the deep end waiting to congradulate thoes that find a way to doggie-paddle their way out, and chiding the ones drowning for being lazy and not trying hard enough. Choose empowerment and compassion for others, and yourself.