Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Transitioning to College with ADHD

I recently came across an article online titled, “Teens With ADHD May Need Help Transitioning To College.”   As a person with ADHD, the title of the article seemed like an understatement to me.  I thought back on the first semester of my freshman year in college when I was overwhelmed with the many transitions in my life.              

I went on to read the article, which turned out to have some very helpful study tips for college freshmen with ADHD.  If you are a college student or a college-bound high school student with ADHD or similar disabilities, or the parent, teacher, or friend of one; I highly recommend reading this article.

In addition to the tips in the article, I also would recommend that teens with ADHD and similar disabilities begin their transition to college while they are still in high school. Transitions tend to be particularly difficult for people with ADHD, and the first semester in college is one of the biggest transitions in a person’s life.  Not only are college freshmen transitioning to a new school, new surroundings, and new classmates; but for most people, it’s also the first time they have ever lived away from their family and the home they have known their whole life.  While many freshmen are eager to move out and be independent, experiencing so many changes in a short time can be quite daunting for someone with ADHD. 

You can start preparing for college by educating yourself about your disability and the accommodations you will need to succeed in college. When you go to visit colleges, schedule an appointment to meet with someone in the campus office that provides accommodations to students with disabilities. Some colleges call it the Disability Services Office or the Center for Students with Disabilities; while other colleges offer these services from the Academic Dean’s office.  During this appointment, don’t let your parents do all the talking.  Your parents won’t be there to advocate for you in college, so use the time to practice self-advocacy. Tell the person at the college the name of your diagnosis and any accommodations you may need; and ask him or her about the services they provide for students with disabilities.  This will be good practice for when you are in college and need to ask professors for accommodations.

Speaking of which, don’t be shy about letting professors know that you have disabilities and need accommodations.  As the article stated, some students are hesitant to ask for the help they need because of the stigma surrounding ADHD.  However, if you don’t speak out, you will not get the services that you need and that you have a LEGAL RIGHT to obtain under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA also makes it illegal for a professor, teacher, or boss to discriminate against you for having ADHD or any other disability. So, don’t be afraid to speak out. The law is on your side!

Matt*, a young man with ADHD, agrees about the importance of reaching out to your professors. He offers the following advice to college students with learning issues, “Meet deadlines, meet the professors, and most of all reach out for help when you need it because no one will throw you a life line when you are drowning if you don't splash around a bit.” Although Matt did well in high school and made good grades, he struggled when he got to college without having his parents around to keep him on track. He eventually transferred to another college, where he graduated with honors and made the Dean’s List every semester. Matt is now a successful accountant in Washington, DC, where the readers of a local paper voted him as one of the area’s top businessmen.  He credits a large part of his success to recognizing that he needed help and not being afraid to ask for it.  

Should you disclose to your roommates and friends that you have ADHD? It is entirely up to you, of course, but remember that having ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of.  If you decide to be open about your diagnosis, you don’t need to say to every person you meet, “Hi, my name is _____ and I have ADHD!” but you may wish to tell your roommates and maybe a few close friends.  I recommend that you say something like, “Oh, just so you know, I have Attention Deficit Disorder, so if you ever catch me staring off into space or not paying attention to you, don’t be alarmed and don’t think I’m ignoring you on purpose.”

As a college freshman, I was reluctant at first to tell my peers about my ADHD. In retrospect, I regret that decision, because they often thought I was deliberately tuning them out or not paying attention to them, and they thought I was rude and didn't want anything to do with me.  As a result, I was very lonely for most of my first semester and didn't have many friends. When I finally gained the courage to tell my peers about having ADHD, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that no one shunned me or thought less of me.  Instead, they were grateful that I was honest about myself.    

Matt agrees about the importance of disclosing.  He says, “When I was young, I learned that it was nothing to be ashamed of so, throughout high school and even into college I sort of laughed it off and joked about it. That seemed to put others at ease.”

It is also important to attend every single class. Many incoming college freshman think that they will be able to get away with skipping classes without anyone noticing; as professors don’t take attendance like teachers do in high school. However, if you deliberately skip your classes, you will miss out on important information, you won’t learn anything, and when it comes time for the final exam, you’ll get an F. One reason why I was able to do well in college and graduate in four years was because I attended all my classes. The only time I skipped class was when I was too sick, and on those days I made sure to contact my professors or another student in the class to find out what I missed. 

Another factor that contributed to my success in college was living in substance free housing. I had to be cautious about consuming alcohol as it would have a negative interaction with my ADHD medication. If you are on similar medication, you might choose to live in a substance free dorm, with other people who have chosen to abstain from drinking or at least to only drink in moderation. This way, you will avoid peer pressure from your roommates and hall mates to drink.  Some people will tell you that drinking is part of the whole college experience, but it doesn't have to be. While I can’t say that I never partied in college, I only had one drink per night if I drank at all.  The residents of my dorm were allowed to attend parties in other dorms on campus; as long as we did not return to the building visibly intoxicated.

I sometimes wondered, “When I am older, will I look back on my college years and regret that I didn't party more?” Today, as I think back to my time as a college student, I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I never passed out or threw up from drinking too much, and I never woke up in a stranger’s bed wondering where I was. I never had to be sent to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, I never had a hangover, and I never did anything embarrassing like stripping in public or drunk-dialing an ex-boyfriend because I was intoxicated. Instead, I remember my college years as a time of personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth; when I made many wonderful friendships that have lasted to this day and will continue to last for the rest of our lives, and when I learned to accept myself and to stop being ashamed of my differences and to live life to the fullest.

My final piece of advice is to be patient and flexible. It takes time to get acclimated to new surroundings and new people. Don’t be concerned if it takes you a while to make new friends or feel at home. Get involved in activities on campus, and keep an open mind.  While my initial transition to college was very stressful, my college experience turned out to be among the most wonderful times of my life.

I hope that someday you can say the same.

*Names have been changed.

By Becky Rizoli

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