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Growing up, Henry Lang kept hearing that he was too disorganized and “not smart enough.” Then in high school, he was diagnosed with ADHD and started getting support through a 504 plan.

Now, Henry is a teacher in Vermont dedicating his career to — and even writing his thesis on — teaching kids with ADHD. He has trouble giving himself the same empathy he shows his students, though. Henry, like many of us with ADHD, often calls the mistakes he makes because of his ADHD “dumb.” Henry and host Laura Key unpack what he really means when he says “dumb” — and how other ADHD-ers might internalize and misuse that word, too.

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Episode transcript

Henry: When I was student teaching, I realized that I couldn't possibly accommodate absolutely everybody all of the time. I could sit with and appreciate the smaller impacts that I could make without worrying about every single string pulling me in different directions.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood, and as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host. And I'm so excited to be talking with you today. Henry Lang, high school English teacher located in Vermont and also formerly a writer and content creator for Understood.org. Welcome to the show, Henry.

Henry: Thank you for having me, Laura. Very excited to be here.

Laura: I'm excited to be here with you too. And I just have to say it's both for you and for our listeners that I might sound a little weird. I am getting over a cold, so my voice is like extra deep and a little bit raspy, so I just needed to say that out loud. I know that our listeners can't see, but you are at the school where you teach, is that right?

Henry: I am. I'm here at school. I have a learning environment set up with lots of different seating arrangements that you can't see right now. But rocking chairs specifically for students with ADHD wheely chairs, big armchairs.

Laura: Oh, my gosh, I want one of those right now. I feel so fidgety in my podcasting chair right now. Could we start with when were you diagnosed with ADHD?

Henry: I was diagnosed with ADHD in 10th grade of high school after I had bounced around in different levels of classes and kept hearing, "You're not smart enough, this isn't the best fit for you. You're too disorganized, we're going to bump you down." And then feeling very stuck and in limbo and not like I was able to challenge myself in the courses I really wanted to invest in, like English language arts. And I think we had a teacher review meeting to determine if I was eligible in April of 10th grade. And then I was officially diagnosed with and implemented 504 plan in my junior year of high school.

Laura: For those who don't know, can you explain what a 504 plan is?

Henry: 504 plans are really helpful write ups with these schools, 504 coordinator, the different teachers on the students team, the student, and any caregivers or family members, they come up with a list of accommodations for that student to have equitable learning access as they relate to different elements that are impacted by conditions like ADHD, anxiety. They could be medical as well.

Laura: So, you were identified as needing those supports. Am I right that you were also clinically diagnosed by a pediatrician?

Henry: Yes. After being referred from some school counselor.

Laura: That's a cool example of a school-doctor relationship, at least from where I'm sitting. Maybe you have a different experience.

Henry: I was very grateful that I had teachers who were listening to my concerns and had been through this process before. But even coming from a family with lots of people who had ADHD, it was kind of shocking when we realized that I officially had it just because I have always been, you know, like a reader and very mellow in that sense. And we could get into that stigma today about what ADHD looks like. But teachers recognized how desperately I was trying to do my best work and thought that I might need to talk to a specialist about these problems.

Laura: You started to talk about the symptoms that you were dealing with. Tell me more about those.

Henry: I wanted so desperately to be an active listener who could cooperate with an activity, implement feedback from a teacher, a caregiver or a mentor. I vividly recall playing middle school basketball and having a coach look me in the eye, walk me through a play that we needed to run, making the eye contact, nodding along and just feeling this fog in my head. Just kind of a wash in between what was expected of me and what I actually had to do in a collaborative setting to support the rest of my basketball team in that play.

Laura: I've been perusing some of the content that you did for Understood.org — I will include one video in particular in the show notes when this when this episode goes up. You're such a creative person and I can imagine you as a young person just diving in with so much creativity and anything you do. I think I remember in one of your videos that you put together that you talked about having no filter. Can you tell me a little bit about that? You're nodding. You know what I'm talking about.

Henry: Yes. I have learned to have a much better filter as an educator now, but I think that in a lot of collaborative settings, it can be hard to resist that ADHD rush of excitement to contribute to the conversation because I'm a more extroverted person and a thought will zip into your head — my head, I should say — and it's like Times Square billboards, it's like, yes, yes, yes, right now, spit it out. And I have to remember that my picture of Times Square billboards flashing looks entirely different from the rest of the conversation, because I think that I get excited when we're telling jokes and sharing ideas.

And sometimes I get a little carried away when all you need is a little side ad on a bus to keep the comparison going or a little flyer being handed out at the corner. We don't need a gigantic flashing screen with different caricatures displayed advertising a product. Does that make sense?

Laura: Another amazing, very easy-to-visualize analogy. I appreciate that. Another thing that you talked about in some of your content that I've noticed is you use the word dumb a lot. I want to dig into that. You've talked about dumb mistakes, how that doesn't make you dumb. So, can we start with some examples of you would say like you would make like a million dumb mistakes on something in school?

Henry: I haven't thought about the word dumb specifically as it relates to my ADHD before. I think it has to do with the ways that I have internalized how others who don't have ADHD see people like me because so often I will be caught up in a task and I am the one who's behind the rest of the group, or I am a million miles ahead of the group. I think that in my own diagnosis as well, I had this frustrating situation where my mother, I will say, felt terrible after we learned that I did in fact have ADHD.

But she just had it in her head. I remember her saying the antithesis constantly, like "He's too smart, he loves to read. He's not dumb." And I think my mother also may have ADHD. She revealed in saying something like that, this deficit thinking about folks with ADHD. I'm trying to think how I can describe when you ask about dumb, Laura, do you mean just for myself specifically why I use that word?

Laura: I think it's twofold. I'm curious about, number one, just practically speaking, the kinds of things that you might refer to as like, I just made all these dumb mistakes that were related to ADHD, using that as a mechanism to help explain how ADHD symptoms can manifest. But then exactly what you're talking about, this word dumb, the dumb mistakes and this perception, this deficiency perception that your mom was clearly like harboring a little bit, too. And that's not uncommon among many people. There's a thought that, you know, if you have ADHD, then you're less intelligent in some way, which we know that brain science tells us that is not the case.

Henry: I'm replaying a couple of things you said in my head just to make sure I get the train of thought back. It was, OK, I may be lost. Would you mind asking a smaller question?

Laura: I don't mind at all. And I really enjoyed just now watching you replay it back in your head. It was very reassuring to me because that's the kind of thing that I do very often.

Henry: That makes me feel better.

Laura: And how about this for a connective tissue, that's when I do that kind of thing and it makes me feel like I'm dumb. Like when I have to stop and say, "Wait, wait. I was following all of that and I feel like I have the answer to all of that. But now too much time has passed, and you kept talking and I can't. I lost the thread. Can you repeat it for me?" And I used to feel really, I still do, and depends on the environment, but I used to feel really ridiculous and dumb when I would ask somebody that. So, the dumb mistakes, let's start there. You might not remember exactly what you were talking about and this piece of content that I'm referencing, but like, give me an example of those mistakes.

Henry: Everything's coming together. I think that part of the challenge I was struggling to name earlier is that dumb, dumbness, as a descriptor is sort of a dodge of a question. And I think that when I throw myself under the bus saying dumb, what I really mean is "I don't want to acknowledge that I struggle tremendously to filter things down" or "I don't want to reflect on how I am disrupting this environment right now. And I'm just going to call myself dumb because I've seen people rehearse and do that before."

And right now, I think, you know, we are recording a podcast and I don't want to make noise moving things around on the table. And here I am thinking, "Wow, maybe I could just advocate for a pause while I find a way to discretely jot notes to myself because that's something I do regularly." One of my favorite teaching strategies is put your finger on your nose when you know and wait so that those of us who just need a little extra time can get there too. So, I'm going to put my finger on my nose for 30 seconds and think of some good examples that are worth amplifying for our listeners. All right. I'm ready to move forward.

What is it about constantly driving around in the car with the gas light on or the tire pressure low? I said I've got plenty of time. 60 miles to the gallon or 40 miles to go, 30 miles to go. And then all of a sudden, you're late. One time I was trying to drive back to my summer camp as a counselor in training, and I knew that I didn't want to be late to our morning attendance because then I could lose days off time — the way the director of the camp put it — and I remember racing back on an empty tank, running out in the middle of no cell service in Vermont and having to leave the car and hike up and sheepishly knock on a neighbor's door and ask for help and to borrow the phone. So, that's how I learned to keep my car filled up and not ignore the problem.

Laura: I always find it interesting that the things that we brush off as dumb, ADHD shit — pardon my French there — they're actually important things. They're things that matter. You know what I mean? It's important that you don't run out of gas. And I'm not saying this to make you feel bad. I'm saying this as a means to say people with ADHD deserve support, too.

And then in an even bigger scale, I feel like that dumb thing, like that's just a dumb thing that doesn't matter that they were late or whatever. Maybe it matters to me or maybe matters to you. And then somehow, like, that word dumb just gets conflated into like, "Well, people with ADHD are dumb," and it just pisses me off. And so, I just, I appreciate, I think that sometimes when it gets down into the granular, it can help to shed light on what's real and what's all the crap that people are saying. And let's not put up with that.

Henry: Totally, especially because there's irony in how I think at least of, you know, the word dumb. Am I implying that I'm just not engaging in any cognitive work, and I have nothing going on in my brain right now and I'm just sitting there? No, because people with ADHD like me I know are constantly in touch with that inner voice cycling and cycling.

And I've heard some of your guests on this show talk about like the laziness and ADHD myth. It's important to interrogate ways that we self-deprecate ourselves because I think that they are very revealing. As you've pointed out, those little, little things add up over time.

Laura: I would love to move into talking about the work that you did on your thesis because this was part of your "aha" moment. So, first, tell us, what were you writing your thesis on?

Henry: I was writing my thesis on supporting students who have ADHD. SuADHD I called it, because I was sick of typing students with ADHD over and over again. So, I made my own acronym, SuADHD. And I was really interested in the timing because I think I'm one of the few college lucky or unlucky, but I think that I'm equipped for a lifelong career in education having been a student in 2020, then a student teacher 2020 to 2021, and then a full-time teacher in 2021 to 2022. So, as everything kind of went through its phases, I had a little bit of insight into all those critical roles.

Laura: What a time to start your teaching career, Henry.

Henry: Yes, and I think I had 14 students total who had ADHD, and then I was able to work really closely with around eight of them and hear about their experience shifting to this form of blended learning. It was really difficult for me to manage as a teacher to have five or six students in the room 15 to 20 on Zoom and facilitate an activity that would reach both of them.

I was very, very impressed with the ways that my students carried themselves through that experience, especially the ones who had ADHD because they didn't have the school resources supporting them at home and to be kind of thrust in especially, I had one who was a recent diagnosis, it was a 10th grader, which sort of aligned with my own timeline as a high school student, and I don't know how I would have learned those self-advocacy skills and ways to really quickly learn like what it means to manage ADHD before I go into the workforce or go into higher ed without being in the building.

And one theme that emerged when I was working with students who had ADHD was that they felt so much more empowered to do their work when they were surrounded by at least another peer in their situation, or they had family support from adults in their lives who had ADHD and told funny stories to make them feel better about their dumb moments to use that word again, although maybe it's damaging to do so, and I should change that habit.

But just hearing directly from students through that time made me think more about "To what extent do I have an obligation to maintain strict confidentiality as required by law in some students' interests? And to what extent am I responsible for building rapport between students who share struggles with ADHD?" It's such a difficult balance as a teacher, at least here I've found ways to be more discrete about offering strategies through like a universal design for learning focus or more movement-based exercises, more hands-on learning. As I hear from a lot of parents who are requesting or advocating for their students.

Laura: How was that an "aha" for you?

Henry: I would describe my "aha" moment with teaching as finding ways to get comfortable disrupting learning by avoiding disruption. And what I mean by that is that when I am in a room full of people who don't have ADHD, I need to know which strategies work for me that keep me from getting to a disruptive point. Whether I'm disrupting the room with an unrelated thought or jumping to quickly ahead or pitching some other strategy. What can I do that might seem disruptive since I'm the only one engaging in that activity, but I know will help me focus on bringing my most focused and engaging, and worthwhile contributions to that space.

Laura: I found the way that you described it really interesting that you were — telling me if I have this right, Henry —finding ways to get comfortable by figuring out how you might be disruptive and then how can you avoid being disruptive?

Henry: Yes, absolutely.

Laura: That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, don't you think?

Henry:Now that I think about it, yes.

Laura: I'm not trying to do a "gotcha!" or anything.

Henry: But what I'm talking about is kind of like a personal gotcha that I'm almost policing myself on. So, I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

Laura: Was your "aha" that you needed to do this or was your "aha" that you needed to be kinder to yourself and not do that and not worry about the other people in the room who don't have ADHD?

Henry: I think it aligns more with the latter, what you just said. Because if I don't give myself room to grow and appreciate what I'm naturally bringing to the table, then every time I go to serve an idea, I'm going to look down at the plate and think, "Oh, that could have been better." Like, I don't want to be the cook in the kitchen who is a constant self-critic and, you know, like a four-star out of five-star review is a failure. And I think that in moments where I do try to over-prepare or overly follow steps and struggling to think of a word like it's OK to just kind of perambulate through the demands of my personal life and my job without trying to use and anticipate a toolkit for success.

And I think part of that like educator mindset that I'm so ingrained to is, is knowing that this population of students I've worked with who have ADHD have really been left out of a lot of conversations as schools try to catch up on what they're doing.

And so, I think that sometimes I risk putting forward too many like strategy strategies, strategies as opposed to saying, "All right, I'm going to reflect on something that didn't go as well and then just try to be more mindful next time and just be a human being first and not always constantly like the 'I am the ADHD human, or I am a human who has ADHD and this is what I've done' Just exist and breathe," to put it simply.

Laura: Well, you're trying to give your students the opportunity to just exist and breathe. By doing that, that heavy work for them, like doing universal design for learning, thinking about ways that work best for their brain, figuring out how, what are you legally allowed to do in terms of buddying kids up and whatnot. So, you're doing all that hard thinking for your students. And it's almost, I wonder if maybe the feeling is like, you don't want to have to do that hard thinking for yourself in your own life constantly, because it's just so exhausting.

Henry: Ding, ding, ding. I think you know that well.

Laura: You touched your nose.

Henry: I did. Wow. Yes.

Laura: I actually have chills thinking about how as a person with ADHD, and you're writing your thesis on and you're teaching kids with ADHD, I mean, just how both inspiring and cathartic and again, like with big emotion comes big tiredness, that all must be right. I mean, that's I don't doubt that you've had many "ahas" that have come out of that work.

Henry: If I could offer one "aha" that has kept me going, it's to find the humor and the joy and the mistakes and oops and dumb moments that we have. I cannot tell you how gratifying. Yes, it's just magical to share a story with someone that you've found. Whether or not that's someone who has ADHD or not. I mean, preferably like it's great because people can kind of bounce off ideas, but hold on, let me get back to that. Get back on track. Joy, joy, joy, laughing.

Laura: You're doing great. I love you on or off track, Henry. This is what I mean. Like you don't have to stay on track with me.

Henry: OK?

Laura: I got you.

Henry: Thank you for that freedom.

Laura: I think that that's actually a great example of what seems like the pressure that maybe you put on yourself every day.

Henry: Yes.

Laura: Like you're accommodating for your students, but like, you're trying to accommodate for the people around you, for the fact that you have ADHD when it should be the other way around, right?

Henry: Yes, yes, yes, exactly. One trope that folks with ADHD have constantly forgetting, constantly losing a train of thought. There is nothing more refreshing or enjoyable than forgetting what you were talking about because you've taken a moment to hit pause and just say, "Hey, can I share something really funny with you real quick?" And just like, "OK, we have to end the meeting. Like, that was a great way to end." I feel so happy, and I want to be fulfilled and you can take the work seriously without taking yourself too seriously.

And I think that's what the "aha" moment is in part about for me. I think this is really the first year in my personal life, work life, family life, where I have found the confidence to say no to projects and politely distance myself from any collaborators that I don't think work well with my style, and to instead look at what I have, the assets that do fill me with joy and who see creative potential in me and value the unique skills that I do bring.

As someone with ADHD, I think that finding that strength to really set myself up for success by not thinking about success and just focusing on how I can be myself — as cliché as it sounds — find those people, do everything you can with them and appreciate them. Show your love for them, and that love will come back to you.

Laura: That's so beautiful. Thank you for being here with me today and coping with my raspy voice. And it's been really cool to watch you as you take your pauses and jot some things down. We may edit around some of them for the show, but I want listeners to know that you've been doing that and that that's OK and that it was kind of refreshing to have moments of silence throughout the interview because it gave me a moment to actually gather my thoughts too, which I never get.

Henry: Thank you so much for having me with you, Laura. You are an excellent facilitator, and even though your voice was raspy, it helped me stay engaged because it was unique.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!

Jessamine: Hi, everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

Host

  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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