Jesse is an average college student. He’s an engineering major at the University of Illinois, lives in a dorm room, goes to class during the week and goes to parties on the weekend. But there’s one thing about Jesse’s college experience that sets it apart from most others. He has ADHD.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD, is a neurobehavioral developmental disorder that can be especially debilitating to college students. College students who suffer from ADHD are more likely to drop out of college than students without the disorder.
According to Neil Peterson, the founder of the Edge Foundation, and father of two kids with ADHD, “Students with ADHD are 33 percent less likely to graduate from college.”
ADHD is characterized by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity. The disorder, also commonly called ADD, can be present in three different ways. According to the USA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone can either have the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD, the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type, or the combined type.
People with the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD often do not pay close attention to details, are very forgetful and have a noticeably short attention span. While many people can attest to exhibiting at least one if not all of these symptoms from time to time, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have ADHD.
Peterson has a favorite analogy that he uses to distinguish people with ADHD and those without.
“Sometimes people will walk up the stairs, and when they finally get there, they can’t remember why they walked up in the first place,” Peterson said. “Plenty of people have had this experience before, but the difference is this: people who have ADHD experience this in a chronic fashion, rather than every once in a while.”
The case of the stairs is a perfect example of predominantly inattentive ADHD, but not necessarily the other types. A person with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD is usually very fidgety, has trouble waiting for his or her turn, blurts out answers to questions that have not been finished, and finally, talks excessively.
“Sometimes I’ll just talk, and not shut up, for like 10 minutes straight, and I don’t even really notice it,” Jesse says. “I just keep talking, and whoever I’m talking to obviously notices it, and probably gets offended, but I won’t even notice that I’ve been talking that long until after the fact.”
Jesse has the combined type of ADHD. This means he experiences various symptoms from both categories, inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive. However, like many people with ADHD, Jesse was diagnosed late in life. He was diagnosed just a year ago, during his freshman year of college.
Since many of the symptoms are thought to be simply bad behavior, extra energy, or just a part of a personality, many of the people in the U.S. with ADHD do not even know that they have it. According to Peterson, 50 percent of people with ADHD have never been diagnosed.
“I had a friend who had it [ADHD], and he was telling me about the things he was going through, and I thought ‘Hey, that sounds exactly like me,’” said Jesse. “So I went to get screened. After what ended up being a three-month-long process of tests and doctor visits, I was diagnosed.”
Jesse also said the biggest problem for college students probably isn’t the disorder itself, but the fact that so many people are unaware they have it. With all the academic demands, increased independence, and distracting environment, untreated ADHD students are likely to fail.
“If I wasn’t getting treatment , I can basically guarantee that I would have failed out by now,” Jesse said.
In fact, Jesse almost dropped out of school as recently as last semester. After being diagnosed, different medications were tested on him, but many of them had unbearable side effects.
Aside from depression and a strong urge to give up on school, Jesse said, “I had severe mood swings, one made me lose my appetite entirely, and one made me very angry and short-tempered. One even made me sweat.”
Even dorm life is greatly affected by Jesse’s ADHD. Anthony Perez, his roommate and close friend, said Jesse’s ADHD affects his life, too.
“A lot of times there will be tension in the room. He’ll have mood swings,” said Perez. “If he’s studying and I do something that distracts him, he’s completely screwed. He can’t just go right back to studying like most people. That leads to problems.”
Perez also said that the side effects from Jesse’s medications would cause fights and uncomfortable living conditions, so he was glad when Jesse eventually found the best one and stopped switching medications.
However, medicine is definitely not the only method Jesse uses to treat his ADHD. He receives treatment and special accommodations from U of I’s Disability Resources and Educational Services, or DRES.
With DRES, he is able to take his class exams in an environment conducive to people with ADHD. He takes his exams in a plain cubical with minimal noise and distractions. In this space, Jesse is able to concentrate, or “hyperfocus” as he calls it, on his exam, so he doesn’t make nervous mistakes that he would make in a normal classroom environment, filled with distractions and a time limit.
Next week: How an ADHD Coach changed everything