Samantha Koopman is a great friend and resource of mine from the MAT (Masters of Arts in Teaching) at University of Southern California. When I heard about her brave educational path with both ADHD and dyslexia, I knew she had to be honored as our “crush”. I am so glad she has shared he story with us and is guest writing for us in the future. I am also honored that she is dedicating her life to teaching so that people with learning exceptionalities can thrive under her watchful, meticulous and kind eye. We bonded over equity and access for students with varying disabilities and she is truly remarkable. I know you will feel the same after reading her inspiring words. When were you first diagnosed? What can you tell us about your diagnosis? While there were many signs and symptoms of my disability present in my academic and developmental growth throughout my life, I was not officially diagnosed with ADHD until I was in my junior year of high school. My disability was largely unnoticed when looking at my grades because of the amount of support and structure I received at home that enabled me to succeed. My parents both worked tirelessly with me to help teach me invaluable study skills and self regulatory management, however as the cognitive demands of high school increased, it became apparent that I could benefit from being properly evaluated. During my evaluation with a psychologist, I was asked first to self-rate my difficulty with certain tasks and behaviors pertaining to symptoms of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
My parents, whose responses were very similar to my own, were also asked to evaluate the same behaviors and characteristics from an external perspective in order to offer multiple perspectives of the challenges I was facing. My parents were asked to provide a developmental history of my physical, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones as well as a family history, as ADHD can be a genetic trait. I then participated in many interviews and assessments to rule out other disorders that could be the cause of the challenges I was facing, such as anxiety and depression disorders. I was also asked to complete the Stanford-Binet-IV (SBIV) IQ test, the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (WJ-R), and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Tests (WIAT), which evaluated reading comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, and math, to determine a baseline for my cognitive functioning and academic achievement levels. Additionally I was also evaluated with the Bender Gestalt assessment, designed to evaluate visual-motor functioning, and the Wepman Test of Auditory Discrimination, which helped to determine whether or not my ADHD was based in difficulty processing visual information, auditory, or both.
What was your treatment? How did this impact your schooling? After being diagnosed, my treatment was multifaceted. I was prescribed Adderall as a medication to treat my disabilities, in addition to acquiring a 504 education plan, recommendations for structure and study skills to help me succeed, and learning disability accommodations for classroom and testing situations.
My accommodations included receiving time and a half on all tests, both standardized and in class assessments, receiving copies of instructional materials such as projector overheads and PowerPoints, being permitted to record class instruction, having a seat reserved at the front of the classroom, having a note-taker, priority registration opportunities, and being provided with syllabi and reading materials for classes early. While many of the treatments such as having a note-taker, and receiving copies of instructional PowerPoints, and early registration opportunities were not tools for treatment that I utilized until I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, being provided medication made simple tasks such as organization, time management, and self-regulatory behaviors both academically and socially tremendously easier.
The first two weeks I took my ADHD medication, I remember feeling absolutely amazed with how much easier everything seemed to be for me, and wondering if this was how life was for “normal” students.
In the back of my mind I always wondered why certain things, such as remembering to bring my homework to school (I frequently forgot my homework on an almost daily basis) were so difficult for me. Throughout my life in elementary, middle, and high school, I often felt insufficient and inadequate when comparing myself to my peers. I had trouble with teachers and peers because of the impulsivity that is deeply ingrained in my disability, and often felt like there was something wrong with me.
Being evaluated for my disability allowed me the insight to understand that despite being a high achiever academically, the feelings I had of struggle were not due to my inadequacy as an individual, but rather the result of challenges I didn’t even realize I was facing. Furthermore, while my score was above average, having taken the SAT the first time without medication or an accommodation to provide me with extra time, I was frustrated as I failed to complete almost every section. When retaking the SAT with the accommodations offered to me, I scored significantly higher, increasing my score almost 200 points. In my undergraduate studies, I am adamant that the accommodations provided for my disability were a paramount influence in my ability to succeed and graduate, particularly as I was only just beginning to understand my disability and the ways to address it, but more importantly because the very consistent structure and support I received from my parents was removed. Without the accommodations, study skill and organization seminars, and the other supports I received from the Disability Resources for Students at the University of Washington, I have no doubt that I would have failed to complete my degree successfully.
What/who offered you support? From a young age my parents were always the primary and most significant source of support. Many aspects of my disability were the source of what seemed like a train of un-ending conflicts with my parents, stemming from my constant procrastination, disorganization, impulsiveness, and trouble following directions. While I suspect that having a messy room is the source of at least a couple fights between all parents and their children, the issues with my room were characteristically different. My room was constantly in a massive disarray of clutter and mess, a point of major contention especially with my mother. However I always knew exactly where I left that “one book” or my calculator. When my mom would move things around in my room it would completely throw me off and cause great amounts of stress and anxiety because suddenly I felt like I couldn’t find anything, despite the contradictory logic that such a situation provides to those who did not understand how such a process could work when contradicting the basic logic that a clean room helps you find things easier. Despite frequent fights with my parents as a young adolescent and teenager, my parents were both incredibly involved in my life, and never ceased to maintain an abundance of love, support and encouragement. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, my parents were, and continue to be, the biggest advocates for me as a both an individual and a student.
My sister Jennifer, who also has been diagnosed with ADHD was only two years ahead of me in school. Behaviorally we were like water and oil – she was quiet and courteous, while I was rambunctious, impulsive, disruptive and talkative. On numerous occasions, my parents advocated for fair treatment and defended me against the teachers that constantly were comparing me to my sister and describing me as a “problem”. They helped me in every aspect of my life to navigate the difficulties I faced with teachers who treated me unfairly, and advocated for my rights as both a student and a person. How were you able to finish your degree? I faced multiple struggles in completing my undergraduate degree. My grades freshman year were inconsistent, failing one class while receiving a 4.0 in others. The accommodations that received for my disability were an incredibly significant factor in facilitating the successful completion of my degree, however I would wholeheartedly state that the most important thing that allowed me to finish my degree was continued perseverance despite multiple prior failures. Persevering is never an easy thing to do, especially when you feel like almost the entire world is rooting for you to fail. While I had many professors during undergraduate that were helpful and supportive, I had just as many, if not more professors in my experience who did not care if I was struggling, why I was struggling, and who saw and treated me as an imposition and individual who was never going to succeed, and therefore not worthy of extra attention.
As an adult now completing a Masters degree through USC in teaching, I can say that for the first time in my life, I finally feel like I have mastered my disability. While in many aspects I do feel that I have to work harder to achieve the same level of success as my peers, I have also learned how to transform the unique challenges I face into advantages academically and as an individual, a thing that is no easy task and takes years of trial, error, perseverance and practice. What are your tips to living a healthy and fulfilled life? My tips for living a healthy and fulfilled life are beneficial for all individuals, but I feel are particularly relevant for individuals with learning disabilities such as ADD/ADHD.
First and foremost, pursue a career or purpose in life that is something that genuinely interest and motivates you. A major characteristic of children and adults with ADD/ADHD, is being successful academically in subjects or content that you find particularly interesting and engaging while failing and struggling in those that don’t. The same could be said about a career and life outside of academics. Find something that you are truly interested in and passionate about, whether that means being the best stay at home mom in the world, or working in a professional field that you enjoy and are engaged in. No matter how out of reach your interests might seem, pursue them and you will find fulfillment. Second, make a point to make time for yourself to spend with friends and do things you enjoy. Life can be incredibly stressful for everyone, and often even more so for individuals with learning disabilities when considering the unique challenges we face. No matter how many deadlines, responsibilities, work left to do, or other stresses are playing out within your life at any given time, it is imperative to make time for yourself, your friends, and your family. Whether you are making time to get a coffee with your neighbor, or taking a yoga or pottery class just because you always wanted to or you enjoy it, making time for yourself is the key to managing stress and feeling and being happy and healthy. Furthermore, don’t neglect your relationships!
There will always be something to get done and sometimes you feel like you are too busy for your friends, but trying to be successful in life without the support of friends around you is not only nearly impossible, it is also unhealthy, and unfulfilling. Friendships, like a cozy campfire on a cold night, will warm and comfort you against the bitter cold and challenges you will face around you – but like all flames, they require attention to insure they stay lit. Make sure you attend the flames of friendship in your life, and you will never be left out in the cold. Third and possibly most important, learn to roll with the punches and celebrate the successes in life, no matter how small they may be. To live a truly healthy and fulfilled life, you need to accept that sometimes, bad things will happen. Often in life, these bad experiences might outside of your control, and it is important to recognize when you can and can’t change something that is happening. It’s also important to realize when you could have changed something bad that happened but failed to do so. As hard as it is, take these moments as a learning opportunity to recognize the ways you can improve yourself in the future if greeted with the same situation – as people, we never stop learning, and making mistakes is a key component of the learning process. Forgive yourself for mistakes made, and recognize that some negative things that happen are either outside of your control, or can’t be changed, but tomorrow is always a new day.
Also, be sure to celebrate the little successes in your life no matter how insignificant they may seem. Whether it is making it to work on time everyday for a week, completing a degree, or simply doing something well, such as managing to get all of the laundry done and the kitchen cleaned. Take time to recognize your achievements, and congratulate yourself in your successes, whether they are something as small as finishing the laundry and cleaning the kitchen, succeeding in a test, or finishing a degree. There is no success, no matter how small or insignificant that should go unrecognized or celebrated in life – learn to recognize the little things you did manage to do, and no day will pass that you don’t fulfilled and happy for part of the day.If someone received a similar diagnosis in any stage of schooling, do you have any advice for them? No matter what stage of schooling you are in, if you have received a diagnosis of ADHD, ADD or for another learning disability, my advice is to keep your chin up and stay positive. As individuals with learning disabilities, all face different challenges in life. What distinguishes you as exceptional with your learning disability is not the disability itself, but the way that you meet the challenges you are faced with as an individual. You will have supportive people in your life, but you will also encounter situations and the people in life that go out of their way try to make you feel bad about yourself, insufficient and hopeless. No matter what situation you find yourself in, prove to everyone, and most importantly to yourself, that you can succeed.
Recognize not only that you are a bright individual, but also that you have many talents and strengths, even if they are outside of the academic core subjects. Always, no matter the challenges you face in life, persevere in trying to succeed. It is frustrating to see others succeed easily with tasks and situations when you try your hardest and still fail, and when faced with the challenges of learning disabilities like ADD/ADHD, you will likely fail often. However, perseverance against the challenges and adversities you face will see you find success and gratification in the end. As long as you never stop trying, you will never be a true failure, I have often found that the more you fail at something, the sweeter the experience is when you finally succeed. Do you have a top three/five/whatever advice for keeping ADD/ADHD under control?
- Set a routine: Find a daily routine that is efficient, addresses the needs, expectations, and requirements placed on you as a individual and that works for you, and stick to it. Even on the days you aren’t in school or at work, stick to your routine and keep that consistency in your life, it will help you to not only stay on top of the things you need to do, but also will provide the structure and support you need to succeed.
- Set reminders, and then reminders for your reminders: Having ADD/ADHD means that you are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting things done successfully. Set alarms or reminders on your phone, or with a friend or parent to help you get the things you need to get done, done. My phone, daily, has about 18 alarms that notify and remind me of things I need to do that I have built into my routine. Whether its taking medication, remembering to sit down and write your paper, or leaving to meet with someone, set a reminder 15 minutes before you need to start doing whatever it is, and then set another alarm or reminder (Not the snooze button!!) to get it done, because chances are you will be doing something when your first alarm goes off, and will turn it off and then forget about it.
- Be realistic about what you can do, and how long it will take you to do it. This is especially relevant when writing or completing academic assignments for those who procrastinate and struggle with other aspects of focus related to ADD/ADHD. Carefully assess what you need to do, and factor in how long it will take you to do it, taking into account time for distraction, and your other needs like eating and sleeping. Give yourself more time than you think you need, and approach tasks in distraction free environments that are not particularly comfortable, such as the kitchen table.
- Take advantage of the resources available to you, whether they are in the form of academic support resources, or technological resources. I am a huge fan of Self Control, Anti-Social, and Freedom, three apps for Mac and PC respectively that allow you to block access for set periods of time to certain websites such as Facebook and other social media sites that are distraction and procrastination magnets. These apps allow you to block certain websites that distract you for a set period of time while allowing you to use the Internet for research and other academic needs – even restarting your computer will not unblock the site you want to visit. Parents take note – A list of 10 great technology tools for aiding concentration and focus can be found here.
- Keep a planner and a master calendar. Know what tasks and assignments you need to complete, and when. Keeping a schedule for the day, week, and month is crucial to managing your ADD/ADHD symptoms. Use a desk sized calendar and hang it on your wall to list everything you have to do and when it needs to be done, not just for a month but also for the following month. This will allow you to not only plan out times to work on and tackle various requirements within your daily routine, but also help you to recognize when you have too many tasks on your plate at one give day or week. This is important for people with ADD/ADHD because it will allow you to identify when you need to be flexible and create time to work on tasks well in advance of due dates in order to be successful with everything you need to complete.
How is it being a military spouse with ADD/ADHD? It is a difficult thing to define how my ADD/ADHD impacts me in terms of being a military spouse. In many ways because my husband is an officer in the army and is often gone for a week or two at a time during training rotations, I often struggle to balance my life between when he is home and able to help me out, and then when I am left to my own devices to get things done and have to be accountable completely for myself. In the Army, time management, accountability and responsibility are all deeply ingrained into the culture of military life. In this regard, as a military spouse with various responsibilities to the troop, regiment and my husband I face many challenges related to my disability such as making sure I am early to every event.
My ADHD is also characterized by a measurable amount of impulsivity and spontaneity, which is difficult for me, as impulsivity and spontaneity are particularly incompatible with the Army lifestyle. However, with the support of my friends, family, and especially my husband, who is very considerate of the challenges I face with my disability, I have found that adjusting to life as a military spouse, while not without major challenges has been a rewarding and satisfying experience thus far. Great resources for parents and individuals with ADHD/ADD: Easing ADHD without Meds, Rebecca Clay 2013 Quinn, P., & Stern, J. (2012). Putting on the brakes: Understanding and taking control of your ADD or ADHD (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Magination Press. National Resource Center for ADHD