I have ADHD, along with some kind of learning difference that doesn’t quite have a name, but has attributes associated with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and non-verbal learning disabilities (NLD). On the one hand, I have all the hallmarks of ADHD: charisma, energy, and the ability to bring many different ideas together, plus I’m disorganized, impulsive, and have poor follow-through. On the other hand, like some with AS/NLD, I’m also critical, conceptual, and technical, but have difficulty reading physical environments, emotions, and body language.
These days, I see myself pretty clearly. I’ve learned how to maximize my strengths and accommodate my weaknesses. I feel good about how I operate, but it took a long time to get here.
High School Struggles
High school was especially challenging. My teachers sensed that I was smart enough, but reminded me constantly that I wasn’t living up to my potential. I was trying my best, but my best was never good enough. The problem was I was using non-ADHD study methods with my ADHD brain. That just doesn’t work.
In addition to struggling with executive functions, I would often misunderstand the expectations of my teachers. I’d dive down rabbit holes that interested me but had little to do with the assignment requirements. These academic challenges lead to emotional difficulties: it’s safe to say that the self-image I internalized during these years wasn’t the greatest.
Toward the end of high school, I had the good fortune to find a mentor who understood me, and together we came up with new strategies to raise my grades. It worked.
I was accepted at NYU, studied around the clock, and then transferred to Columbia. But I was operating at 150% to get 90%, and I began to fear that was unsustainable.
At Columbia I was diagnosed with ADHD, which was another milestone in my journey. Finally, my issues had a name. I began reading about ADHD and applying ADHD-specific study strategies to my work. For the first time, I felt as if I was able to get good grades, and not burn myself out in the process.
Last Piece of the Puzzle
It was a couple of years later, while in graduate school at Brown, that I began to see that ADHD wasn’t my only challenge. I had become very organized, but many things that seemed intuitive to others still were counter-intuitive to me. I finally pieced together that in addition to ADHD, I also had a hybrid form of AS/NLD. Again, I began to learn everything about these issues, including how others innately respond to body language and non-verbal cues in their environment. I’ll never be a natural, but I picked up enough to better read situations and understand the people around me.
Two years after graduate school, I was awarded a fully funded year-long fellowship by a media and technology company to pursue the intersection of journalism, technology, and the arts. Throughout that year, I dedicated myself to creating, using the best parts of my ADHD and AS/NLD mind in a supportive environment that nurtured my differences. If you had told me such things were possible when I was in high school, I would have laughed.
To others who share challenges similar to those I’ve described here, know you’re not alone. There is a path forward that includes accepting your strengths and weakness, working on improving the areas that you can, and finding places that bring out the best in you.
Ari Kalinowski is the Director of the tutoring and mentoring company Unconventional Minds http://unconventionalminds.info/. He works with students with ADHD, AS, NLD, and processing disorders.