By Philip Harker, Staff Writer, & Eden Zorne, Associate Editor

It seems like everyone has their own concept of what ADHD is. 

Illustration credit: Elif Sari, Graphic Designer

To some, those four letters conjure up images of the hyper kid in the back of their elementary school classroom who was always being kicked out for being disruptive. To others, it seems like a curse— a disease that dooms its victims to a lifetime of poor academic performance and professional stagnation. There are even those who view the disorder as a convenient means to an end, a sneaky and legitimized source for prescription amphetamines.

In a world with so many opinions so publicly postable and accessible, facts can be hard to come by. So when people set out in search of the realities of Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder, it is hard to blame them for falling victim to these opinions. The simple truth is that psychology is a complex field, and scientific consensus can be few and far between. This reality was even more frustrating when it came to our task of reporting on ADHD. How were we to create a supposedly objective and unbiased article on the subject, when we ourselves are stuck in our own internalized concepts of ADHD? We decided that if we were interested in the facts, we would have to start at the only primary source: the people who live and work with the disorder.

Our findings? It’s complicated. Though people with ADHD are subject matter experts, their experiences still vary. Despite decades of academic research and innovations in medicine, there really is no blanket definition of what it truly means to live with ADHD. That being said, there are common experiences that we found interesting— and perhaps by sharing these experiences, we can amplify the voices of those who underwent them and contribute some facts to the 21st-century sea of opinions.

Old World Views on a Modern Disorder

For one, there still exists a great stigma around ADHD. Madeleine is a 2nd-year Trinity College student and a recipient of the University of Toronto National Scholarship. She told us that the other finalists treated her differently when she told them about her disorder. 

“I remember when I said that, the looks that I got from everyone were like ‘why are you here?’ They kind of avoided me after that and weren’t really talking to me. They were all nice people, it was just this weird experience to realize that I’m probably the only one around here who would want to register with accessibility services when I go to the school.”

Fortunately for Madeleine, she went on to win the scholarship when some of the other aforementioned finalists did not. It goes to show that even though many assume that ADHD is something that is universally accepted and acknowledged, the neurotypical population are, through no fault of their own, blind to the fact that there are people in their own demographic who view neurodiverse people as somehow intellectually or socially inept.

Long Term Management vs. Short Term Fix

Stigma still exists around the treatments available to those with ADHD, especially pharmaceutical treatment options. Karen is a 2nd year Trinity College student whose parents have uncertain feelings regarding ADHD medication.

“They make it sound like once I’ve improved my life with medication, that I should go completely off of it, they make it sound like it’s a crutch and that I need to go completely off of it once I’m better, there’s a lot of, ‘oh you stop taking the medication once you’ve improved,’ and sometimes I don’t wanna do that because it’s like taking a risk, like a gamble.”

To neurotypical people, or at least to people who lack the experience of having to take medication regularly for a chronic condition, there seems to exist this attitude that ADHD medication is like an antibiotic— that they should be prescribed as necessary, and taken until either the body can handle itself on its own or non-pharmaceutical means can be found for recovery. This principle just simply isn’t the case for ADHD. The need for the drug is not a result of addiction or abuse, but, as 2nd-year Trinity College student Amy puts it: “It’s hard to explain to someone that it’s what makes you able to function, like if you haven’t seen me trying to do homework when I’m not on Adderall, you probably wouldn’t be able to understand.”

The Inaccessibility of Accessibility

To accommodate for the neurodiverse community on campus, the University of Toronto offers its Accessibility Services. Students with medical diagnoses can receive extensions on deadlines, extra time for exams, and other help. Though some of our interviewees have benefited from Accessibility Services, there is general agreement that barriers exist. Amy notes that the process can be time-consuming or logistically challenging to receive accommodation: “I should, but I don’t use it because it takes too much time to get the extra time on tests, so I just don’t take it.”

Even when the services have been established, the bureaucracy of an institution the size of UofT means that keeping accommodations can be as hard as getting them. Madeleine told us her experience of transferring from UTM to UTSG.

“It’s definitely been a bit of a struggle transferring campuses; getting new people to help with the same things I had set up last year. It’s the same school, just a different set up. All the rules are different.”

Isn’t that beautifully ironic? Though the good people working at Accessibility Services seek to accommodate neurodiverse people, those in need are made to slog through the same kind of tedious paperwork and procedures that they already struggled with in the first place. Such is the reality of an institution, and indeed a larger society, in which systems and programs for the disabled are created by those who don’t understand their needs firsthand. 

The neurotypical people of the world have a duty to, at the very least, understand mental illnesses so that we can support those who need support. The power to undo decades of stigma is in our hands, not in theirs. 

That said, there is such a thing as “overdoing it.” ADHD specifically has, perhaps in an effort by the masses to embrace neurodiversity, been the subject of misinformation in recent times— everything from the sentiment that ADHD is an incredible ability and privilege to those who suffer from it, to individual self-diagnoses based on shaky evidence.

Madeleine speaks for many when she says she wants people to stop treating ADHD like a “superpower.”

“It undermines and ignores the fact that there are struggles with it. I struggle to do my laundry. Like, that is a struggle. That should be a really easy thing to do, but I’ll forget my laundry, I’ll procrastinate my laundry, I’ll have no clothes, and it’s just a simple thing that should be easy and it’s not.”

Karen points out that the phenomenon of self diagnoses and neurotypical people seeking ADHD medication for abusive purposes harms those who genuinely need it. 

“I think neurotypical people… they want to get a prescription for, say, Adderall, and they try to say they have it, that’s what makes it really hard for ADHD people to try to get treatment because of the way neurotypical people have abused the treatments.”

ADHD is complicated. But the key to integrating and embracing neurodiversity in society is education. By taking our knowledge of ADHD from firsthand experts, ie. those who live with it, and allowing them to design accommodations that fit them rather than leaving it to the neurotypical majority, we can come that much closer to a world where our differences are celebrated rather than stigmatized; not just in body, but in mind.

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