This is what it’s like having ADHD as a student at UCL
Beware: Here comes the fidgeters
What comes to mind when you think of “ADHD”? Barney from How I Met Your Mother and Phil from Modern Family? Stressed uni students popping ‘good old Ritalin’? (I’m mildly concerned that I just quoted The Simpsons.) Or that weird fidget spinner-hype in 2017 when people who don’t need to fidget made it the goal of their lives to piss teachers off?
Now, get ready for the shocker of the century: there can be someone with ADHD sitting next to you in lectures – looking “normal,” unmedicated, and not fidgeting.
As someone with ADHD (some of us say “ADHDers” for short), I can confidently say that ADHD is one of the most misunderstood and trivialised invisible conditions there is – which is why October was dedicated as ADHD Awareness Month. While it’s impossible to debunk all of the ADHD myths without making this article into a four-paged rant, please read on for some snippets of the real ADHD experience at a London uni.
Uni is ‘a very fast-paced environment’ that’s ‘very hard to keep track of’
If there can only be one takeaway from this article, it should be that the stereotypical “can’t sit still” ADHD chaos is more often experienced mentally than physically – it’s often the brain that’s hyperactive rather than the body.
This can mean many things, including going on elaborate daydreams and missing important notes during lectures, having trouble with assignments that require a clear train of logic, struggling with time management because our brains are biochemical beehives, etc.
An ADHD fresher called Charli told The London Tab: “UCL is a very fast-paced environment and as a first-year student you have to adapt to it very quickly which can be hard to do with ADHD.”
To paraphrase, it can be very easy to miss things with so much going on at the same time and a messy communication system. “Emails get sent to us about our department, specific modules, events, societies and these are all sent to the same email so it’s very hard to keep track of all of them,” said Charli.
There are just some ‘bad brain days’
Besides the rapid-firing thoughts, there can be days where the constant internal and external movements become so exhausting that ADHDers can’t do anything.
This meme. Except apply that to uni, where everything has regular dates and deadlines that don’t take “bad brain days” into account.
And this is already troublesome for Charli: “I’m worried that if I’m not on top of everything from the beginning then I’ll start falling behind or missing out on things that really interest me.”
Social struggles: Rude, unreliable, and intense
I’ll be honest: I couldn’t get anyone else to comment because their ADHD brains probably forgot about my interview inquiry right after they’d agreed. But hey, I have ADHD so I count too, right?
As a uni student, the social struggles that come with ADHD are probably what impact me the most.
The main problem is that when you are with an ADHDer, you can’t see their 100-miles-per-hour mind. All you see is that they “hog” the conversation when the topic is interesting to them, do not return your texts until five days later (if at all), seem distracted and bored when you talk, late to every meet-up with you, etc.
But please trust me when I say that most of the time when these things happen is really not because we dislike hanging out with you.
So, please try to think twice before judging someone or excluding them from your conversation.
UCL is inclusive, but is that enough?
In trying to paint a clearer picture of ADHD experiences at UCL, it’s also important to investigate the issue of accessibility. Charli said: “UCL seems very supportive of its neurodiverse students, [but] I would say it is more inclusive than accessible.
“Certain things like starting the new term were very sporadic with many changes, unclear schedules, lack of communication.” Although many students were in the same boat, this posed more challenges for ADHDers who already struggle with being disorganised. There didn’t seem to be much extra support around this, both practical and emotional.”
Louise Grimmett from UCL’s Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing team told the Tab that “UCL Student Support and Wellbeing recognises the brilliance of our AD(H)D student population, along with the challenges they may face.” They use “a multi-layered approach” of support as ADHD is “a neurodevelopmental mental health condition [that] requires an approach beyond specific learning differences.”
“Our approach to accessibility is in-line with the social model of disability, whereby we remove barriers through supportive adjustments, documented in the Summary of Reasonable Adjustments (SoRA),” the team said.
Some of their other efforts to improve access include allowing access to assistive technologies and promoting a “presently small AD(H)D student peer group on MS Teams, called Neurodiversity @ UCL, as well as the Disabled Students’ Network.”
For prospective ADHD students, they made these suggestions: “Engage with your Psychiatrist and GP at least three months in advance of coming to UCL, or as early as possible. It is important to discuss the potential impact of academia, and if you are taking medication, how your prescription will be managed to ensure there are no delays or shortage.
“If you are moving to London for your studies, to register with a GP in your postcode catchment area. The GP finder is a great resource for this.
“[And] if you are an offer-holder applicant, to discuss support during your time at UCL, please make an appointment with Student Support and Wellbeing, Disability Mental Health and Wellbeing, as soon as possible.”
Everything above is nowhere near enough to explain the nuanced experiences with ADHD. But it might provide some context for why ADHDers are more prone to having lower grades, dropping out, and struggling with mental health problems at uni.
That being said, it is definitely not this article’s intention to encourage pity parties for us: while having ADHD comes with certain struggles, being neurodivergents might also give us certain advantages – i.e. resourcefulness, resilience, and curiosity.
Barely grabbing onto the tail of ADHD Awareness Month (my disorganised brain just couldn’t finish writing this sooner), hopefully this article helps in providing more perspective, understanding, and kindness towards the ADHD students camouflaged amongst you.