Students with ADHD adapt to academic surroundings

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Junior Sara Keeler sits down in the back of the lecture hall during her psychology class. A seat near the door alleviates her anxiety and makes her feel like she has an escape route. She’s trying to pay attention to her professor, but the girl sitting in front of her is shopping online for stickers for her laptop. Her medicine was wearing off. Without being able to stop herself, Keeler types in the URL and starts looking at the stickers too.

When she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during her sophomore year of high school, Keeler’s doctor referred to it as “the plague of the intellectual individual.”

“It can be a huge challenge,” said Greg Lam, ’15, a Lehigh industrial and systems engineering major with ADHD. “It was like, ‘I know all of this stuff in my head, but somehow it’s just not translating into grades on the test.’”

People with ADHD experience challenges in executive function, which can include things like planning, organizing and time management, said Cheryl Ashcroft, the assistant dean for students with disabilities. The hyperactivity element of the disorder may or may not be present in different individuals, but the disorder is referred to as ADHD regardless.

Symptoms manifest themselves in daily life even when doing something like going out to dinner with a group of friends. Keeler said she may become completely engrossed in a conversation happening a few tables away and ignore the group she’s with. Her friends take it in stride and often jokingly tease her when she has trouble controlling her impulse to shout out her opinions.

“I am the head of the peanut gallery when we’re watching movies,” Keeler said. “It’s really bad. My friends are like, ‘Sara, shut up!’ and I’m like ‘Sorry, I’ll be quiet!’”

A female junior who wished to remain anonymous was able to control her symptoms throughout high school. Although her father had ADHD, she was afraid to get diagnosed because of the label of having a learning disability. But the lack of rigidity that came with college made it too difficult to ignore. Juggling academics, extracurriculars and a social life became too much. A particularly rough semester made her finally seek help.

“I base part of my confidence on how well I do academically,” she said. “It was just horrible getting low grades on stuff I knew I could do if I could focus.”

Struggling to remember due dates, keep track of upcoming exams and pay attention in class can make it difficult to succeed in college. Lam took time off from Lehigh during his sophomore year after getting a low GPA.

“I thought maybe I needed to take some time off and reflect,” Lam said. “Clearly, banging my head up against the wall was not working.”

The Academic Support Services department provides coaching for students with ADHD to help them stay organized. Ashcroft said the coaching follows a “self determination model,” meaning that it assists students in defining and reaching their goals. The coaching gives students an opportunity to come up with a structure and follow-through process to ensure that those goals get met.

When Lam returned to Lehigh, he began going to weekly coaching sessions. Having someone to talk to about when his assignments were due and which weeks were going to be particularly busy for him helped him get back on track.

Besides coaching, Lehigh offers accommodations that can range from permission to take notes on a laptop to private exam rooms. Lehigh adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure that students who need support receive it. According to the Disabilities Support Services website, students who request accommodations are required to provide the school with documentation of their diagnosis. They take a series of assessments including an IQ test, and their scores get reviewed to determine the types of accommodations they need.

The office was able to work with a male Lehigh junior, who wished to remain anonymous, after he considered dropping out of Lehigh because of his ADHD symptoms. The student said when he provided his documentation to the office, it was easy for them to give him accommodations. He was allowed to wear noise canceling headphones and get extended time on exams.

“Otherwise everyone sniffling and rattling their papers gets really distracting,” he said. “Most of the time I don’t spend the whole time focusing on the test, I get distracted for sure.”

Accommodations from the office paired with medication can add up to success for students with ADHD. For the female student, taking her medicine is crucial to being able to achieve academically. She said she doesn’t tell many people she’s on it because she knows they are a coveted item.

Medications like Adderall and Ritalin are considered study drugs. College students who are not prescribed them to help them stay up late to do their homework or study for exams. Keeler, Lam, and both the male and female students have all been asked by someone at Lehigh for their medication.

“I use my ADHD medication to be almost normal compared to everybody else,” Keeler said. “If someone sitting next to me has taken Adderall that isn’t prescribed to them, then they’re using a performance enhancing drug that I need to be normal but they’re taking to be above average. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Keeler said most of the time it’s acquaintances who see her taking her medicine in class. She finds it disrespectful when people ask to buy it from her because it makes it seem like she takes them “for fun.”

Ashcroft said her office works to educate students as a preventative measure about how to handle people asking for their ADHD medicine. They work with them on not making their pills visible and keeping them in a safe place.

The complications of taking medication as well as the other symptoms that come from ADHD are a challenge for college students, but they are not all-consuming. In fact, the male student thinks that people fail to look at some of the good things about having ADHD.

“People who have ADHD tend to be more creative, and I think I’m one of those people,” he said.  “I definitely think that my mind works differently, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Although ADHD typically impairs concentration, Lam said he becomes hyper focused when doing something he’s passionate about.

“I can struggle to do a homework that is not appealing to me, but I can easily spend 10 hours doing something I enjoy and not even notice the time,” he said.

The female student believes that her ADHD helps her get stressed out less than other people. She’ll procrastinate, but in return she does not spend her time harping on how much work she has to do. She has learned that there is no reason to be ashamed of her disorder.

“It is a disability, but you can live with it and it’s perfectly acceptable,” she said. “It’s not something that you should feel decreases your value.”

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