Normal. Disability. Difference.

Words are funny things. They are identifiers or names we put on things. Socially, we put these things that we name into neat little boxes of meaning and stick a label on it; usually it’s the same as the name of that thing inside. All of this in an attempt to make the complexities of communication and understanding as brief as possible. 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 experience 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. Never mind that both boxes contain the same thing.

Reading through personal accounts of dyslexia and ADHD, I found that the first paragraph usually contains something along the lines of: “It’s not a disability, it’s a difference”. Little boxes. Is it a disability? Yes and no. What context are we working from? A disability is a condition that limits or impairs a person’s ability to perform a certain task. This is so absurdly broad that if we use it literally, everyone has a disability in some area of life. ADHD/Dyslexic and socially standard brains diverge 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 organized boxes, the brains that work outside of the inherited social constructs will continue to be duct taped to the disability box. All of this, in a messy effort to avoid the uncomfortableness 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 behavioral 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 tick all of the boxes on an inherited 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-loathing bully that relentlessly harassed me.

When I finally gave in to the pride and ego I built up to gloss over the inner pain and embarrassment, 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 don’t 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 absolutely necessary. People end up seeing me as either fun and spontaneous or commitment phobic. Truth is that committing to anything further than a few days out causes intense anxiety for fear of forgetting about it and letting others or myself down. The combination 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 couldn’t 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 of hours and actually read that 12 page chapter.

I was reading news and blog articles 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 articles took 30-40 minutes to read; they were consuming my entire day. My first thought was that there must be 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 articles. 8-10 minutes.

Falling Through the Cracks

Turns out that dyslexia is rarely about seeing letters or words backwards. Although, it is one possible manifestation on a spectrum. It is a grab bag of quirks, similar to ADHD.

Of those quirks, difficultly with phonological processing and/or rapid visual-verbal processing will probably be the ones that cause the most embarrassment; 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 substitute words and change entire sentences or statements because there is a word that you can’t pronounce becomes a common coping method.

Rapid visual-verbal processing is the ability to rapidly translate the visual identification of some thing into the verbal output of it’s name. Sometimes this word is similar to a word that I can not pronounce or looks similar to a word that I know is not the correct one. This causes hesitation as the two words are fighting it out to be the final representation of that thing, as a word that I see in my head, to be verbally output. The words, or sections within the words, visually bump each other out until the right combination is found; hopefully the final word is one I can pronounce, if not, I may use a synonym. My verbal communication tends to be drastically different than my written communication, and much less coherent 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 visualize it and I end up describing the context surrounding it instead.

These are probably most pronounced when having to read aloud in a classroom. Each word not only has to be decoded and processed, now it has to find its way back out. Tack on the additional anxiety 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 frustrating and publicly damaging situation is knowing the answer to a question, only to be randomly called on to answer and my 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 out proper answers before the question has been fully asked. If the teacher is having a good day, you get ignored or asked to wait and raise your hand. If it’s a bad day, expect to be snapped at or scolded. It is a bit of a no-win situation. The answer was right so the teacher 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 coherent way. This happens everywhere, not just school, and appears as if the person talking is being rudely cut-off or ignored. That is not the intention, but they don’t know that.

A large part of excelling in school requires skill in rote learning, remembering information 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. Accurately condensing the breadth of an event to 160 characters or less, is unlikely to happen.

The one saving grace about this style of assessment is understanding that standardize testing is just that, standardize. There is a very ridged framework, i.e, pattern, that they are built on. Especially the history/english/reading sections. I could count on answering at least a third of the questions by finding the answers within other questions using the contextual clues between them. This is easiest in the reading comprehension sections. The questions [at the time at least] follow the story in a linear fashion, narrowing down the search area and telling 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 comprehension scores.

The result of our test-dominate education is prioritizing 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, associative, or observational learning. These styles rely more on the visual-spatial and episodic memory; images, big picture stories, connections and experiences. 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 heavily 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 following someone else’s preferred solution - verbatim. This hampers the independent critical thinking aspects of math for the regurgitating 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 basic arithmetic - every time. Identifying and naming equations 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 learn to adapt coping strategies to hack our way through standardized learning; if not give up altogether due to a lack of external support or caring. These are personalized 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 associating the steps into what amounts to a YouTube clip of solving the equation; where the numbers visually calculate and move or shift to proper places in my head. To save space, some of the steps were grouped together. The clips that I managed 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 answer 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 ability of application, not memorization.

A fun aspect of participating in rote memory math exercises is blurting out answers that make no sense to anyone but myself. Let’s say it is my turn to quickly recall an answer to a multiplication table pair that is then written on the board or shown 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. 4 x 4 and I’ll get a vision of a truck off-roading in a forest somewhere. For reasons that I do not fully grasp, my brain’s first reaction is to make spontaneous pattern 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 mind representation of the question; if given time, I would then go through the process of solving the problem and answer. The more common scenario 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; 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 needs a new logistics operator. Cue obsessive thought cycling on what or where the trick to the question is, because why would they run trains like that?

Even if my ADHD doesn’t get side tracked by the content, stabbing my hand with the needle point of a compass is a more exciting option than dealing with the added bonus 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 writing such as: is/as, in/on, to/too, of/for, that/then, etc. It also changes contextual words and phrases into something similar when I recognize the meaning but can not pronounce the word. This results in a longer more verbose sentence that only exist in my head. If I don’t recognize 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 contextual clues in the paragraph. All of this happens without my full awareness. It is only when the changes cause such a jarring semantic 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 sentence, possibly 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. That 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 within the given time.

A Different Path to the Same Goal

How does someone with the inability to keep up with the reading material, across all core subjects, and inhibited pathways towards rote learning finish primary/grade school without the accommodations 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 strengths 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 at least one person, if not more, that believed in them and did not waiver in that belief; whether that person was a family member, coach, teacher, after-school mentor, it doesn’t matter. Having someone see and believe in our ability can be the difference between giving up and finding a way to break through.

Dyslexic strengths play directly into athletic 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 skills do for others.

America’s obsession with sports provides an alternate route for dyslexic and non-dyslexic students to obtain that coveted degree. High School and College. What ever one’s opinion on the matter, many teachers/professors are either directly or indirectly nudged to pass student-athletes. 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 finding those credits elsewhere. With large class sizes and pressure to graduate students, giving a passing grade to a student-athlete, knowing the administration looks the other way, is an attractive option. It will be someone else’s problem next year.

As it turns out, negotiating with teachers on assignments and test are also valid ways to graduating. Classes with teachers that advise school clubs and organizations can turn into working partnerships; especially when leveraging one’s position on the school’s morning news production, newspaper, yearbook and photography staff. What if a teacher has no affiliations or you are not a part of any school organization? Look for a problem or inefficiency 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 don’t 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 disciplines 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 a WolframAlpha or Stack Exchange search away. Being able to creatively and elegantly integrate the components 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 ADHD/Dyslexic types, we hear the negativity more than others simply because we do things different. We can be frustrating. We are not usually trying to be difficult, just the opposite. It wears others down, they are expecting us to conform to how they believe we need to be if we ever want to achieve their idea of a successful life. I believe many of them are well intentioned, they just don’t realize they are doing more harm than not.

Obviously, being influenced by the negativity of others can apply to anyone; the most damaging aspect is the internalizing of other people’s opinion and holding it as your own. It’s a common theme found through-out many personal stories of ADHD/Dyslexia types. While those stories eventually inspired the writing 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 knowing that our life experiences are not caused by being defective, instead, it is a result of trying to fit into someone else’s idea of normal.

The environment and available support systems play a large, and understated, part in how well ADHD/Dyslexic brains navigate this world. A world that throws us in the deep end waiting to congratulate those 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.