Learning With ADHD in a System Built for the Neurotypical Student

ADHD continues to be a challenge for many college students. Learn how Devin navigated learning in a college environment built for the neurotypical student.
portrait of Devin Anders Muellenbach
Devin Anders Muellenbach
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Devin Anders Muellenbach (he/him) is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire working to complete his associate degree of arts and science. He hopes to graduate after the fall of 2023. His dream is to become a fiction author and singe...
Published on June 14, 2023
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Cameren Boatner
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Editor & Writer

Cameren Boatner is a diversity, equity, and inclusion editor at BestColleges. She's a Society of Professional Journalists award winner for her coverage of race, minorities, and Title IX. You can find her work in South Florida Gay News, MSN Money, Deb...
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All I'm hearing is excuses, not solutions. My dad told me this after I first expressed my difficulties as I fell behind and struggled with extreme depression in college. That type of attitude and thinking is quite common among most of society, especially towards those with ADHD, autism, or other mental disabilities, known as neurodivergence.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in the winter of 2021 after years of struggling with the world's neurotypical-structured system, wondering what was wrong with me that made everything so hard. It always seemed like others didn't share my struggles — not needing to read or draw during a lecture to hear and process it, not finishing a whole year's worth of math homework in an afternoon for fun, not feeling the crippling stress and pressure to achieve literal perfect grades or be seen as a failure.

Growing up without knowing that I had a neurodivergent mind, I often felt alienated and had a lack of self-identity, never knowing why. I put my self-value and self-compassion into earning perfect grades and being mature for my age. I was a gifted kid — advanced math and reading skills meant I breezed through elementary and middle school, feeling very underchallenged and understimulated. I was also used to achieving perfect grades.

When I got my first “A-” in a high school history class, my black-and-white view of the world fell apart. It might sound cocky, privileged, or dramatic to the neurotypical mind, but for me, I felt like a failure.

Here's my experience as a student with ADHD trying to learn in an educational system built for neurotypical students.

I Was Never Taught How to Learn

As my educational journey continued, I found myself on a downward spiral. Suddenly, I wasn't able to do and know everything immediately. I had to actually learn. Since I was never taught how to learn, it was discouraging and angering if I didn't get something right on the first try — especially since classes weren't designed to offer different kinds of learning environments.

When I took pre-calculus in my junior year of high school, it was a fast-paced class designed to teach a broad introduction to the material in only one semester, building concept on top of concept. This meant if one didn't understand something, they fell behind and usually stayed behind. It never felt like we spent enough time on topics. The teacher's teaching style was more lecture and less try-it-yourself, and he would answer questions with more questions.

That was my first “C” grade, and I decided to drop the second pre-calculus course I had in my schedule for the next semester, not feeling smart enough.

Colleges Default Their Support to Neurotypical Students

Similar to primary and secondary education, colleges and universities often assign assumptions to students. The default is to treat everyone as a neurotypical student within the gender binary, which I was not a part of. If someone doesn't fit that mold, it's the student's job to force themselves into that shape without any assistance or understanding.

College Disability Services Tries, but Falls Flat

My university has a Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) department to provide said assistance, which is amazing in theory and ideology. However, the solutions offered come with enough catches and strings to tangle up a student, often setting them further behind instead of helping them stay on top of their studies.

For example, SSD offers an electronic pen to record lectures and make time stamps when notes are taken. But the recording needs to be listened to again in full to confirm the time stamps and that everything was recorded correctly, therefore defeating the purpose.

Another option is a PDF reader that can read documents and long articles aloud. But the version offered by SSD only allows for 20 minutes of the “premium voice,” i.e., one that processes punctuation and pauses. After 20 minutes, a robotic voice takes over, turning the article into a run-on, hard-to-understand, single sentence — unless you purchase a subscription for $60 a year on your own.

Counseling Services Is Understaffed and Overbooked

The one incredible resource my university provides free with tuition is counseling services, with kind and wonderful counselors knowledgeable about specific issues, identities, and disabilities/disorders. However, since they only have so many counselors, the wait to see one can be a month or more between sessions, not to mention the several-month waitlist for your first appointment.

They do offer “crisis counseling,” which is a walk-in meeting with a counselor for an hour-long visit, yet there are still some issues with this option. Because of the name, many students assume it's only for extreme mental distress.

Also, the counselor will be whoever is available, meaning students are often unlikely to receive a meeting with their counselor, which can create slight difficulties — such as needing to retell past traumas or stories to catch this counselor and avoid a sense of unfamiliarity — making it harder to share the problems that brought the student in.

Neurotypical Faculty Struggle to Empathize With Neurodivergent Students

The fight for simple empathy often feels never-ending and hopeless, with everything stacked against neurodivergence.

Some professors may not allow certain resources, saying things like, They didn't have this when I went to school, so you students shouldn't get to use it either. (That is, in fact, an exact quote from a professor of mine.)

Some professors also simply refuse to acknowledge accommodations or disabilities, giving no help or assistance when asked. Alternatively, similar to my father's initial reaction, they may call a request for an accommodation an excuse.

What Helps Me Learn as a Neurodivergent College Student

Even though solutions seemed out of reach, I was able to create little things to help, including:

  • Flashcards to help with studying and memory issues
  • A timer to avoid hyper-focusing and losing track of break time
  • Small, quiet fidget toys for class that allowed just enough stimulation to pay attention

What can colleges do to make my experience better? Breaks during long lectures or notes posted online after class could help, although the effectiveness of these approaches differs from person to person and from professor to professor. I also don't know what more SSD can offer, especially if they continue down the path of providing the bare minimum with no personalized help for different learning methods and different minds.

Colleges need more neurodivergent professors. I did have one neurodivergent professor, and her class was the most amazing experience I ever had. She used a self-grading system and took the focus off of grades. Her teaching approach was very hands-on and included as little lecturing as possible. Additionally, she always summarized the day's planned activities and lessons on the whiteboard before class to help both her and us get prepared and stay on track.

What I Do to Cope With Learning in a Neurotypical World

Whenever things began to overwhelm me or felt like too much to handle, I found the best resource was the Trevor Project's text hotline. Though it can sometimes feel like my issues aren't serious enough or that the hotline is only for emergencies or suicidal thoughts, they have trained counselors online 24/7, ready to help with anything and everything — no issue too minor or treated any less than others.

Not only do they specialize in assisting members of the LGBTQ+ community, but they also provide helpful guidance for neurodivergent individuals who are struggling. They helped to remind me that things were going to be OK — to just focus on one day at a time. And focus on what I could control.

As stated by Neil Milliken, We should celebrate neurodiversity — the world would be poorer and life duller if we were all the same.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Devin Anders Muellenbach

Devin Anders Muellenbach

Devin Anders Muellenbach (he/him) is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire working to complete his associate degree of arts and science. He hopes to graduate after the fall of 2023. His dream is to become a fiction author and singer.

Devin loves writing novels and creating characters and different worlds. His author inspirations are Alice Oseman, Casey McQuiston, and Venessa Kelley. His music inspirations are BTS and Thomas Sanders.