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Yasmeen (they/them) was a perpetual procrastinator. They would always wait until the last minute to write a paper or start an assignment. But then came a tough college course and an equally tough professor. Yasmeen’s old methods were no longer working, which set them on the path to an ADHD diagnosis.
Yasmeen reflects back on growing up with undiagnosed ADHD, specifically their struggle with homework. Yasmeen, who works as a user researcher, also shares what they’ve learned about the over- and underdiagnosis of ADHD in the Black community.
Yasmeen: So, when I was in my junior year of college, I had an English class that I needed to pass in order to get my minor. And we had sort of one final paper that was worth a lot for that class. And so I remember knowing that my usual routine of going to the library two or three hours before class and doing the paper that was due that day wasn't going to work for this paper, um, in particular. And I tried to do a different approach. I spent a couple of days writing this paper. I got so much feedback from other people about the paper. And I felt really, really proud of, sort of, the work I put in. But then once I submitted the paper and he started talking about the prompt we were answering, I realized that I didn't read the prompt properly and I missed a key point that he wanted to see in the paper. And I wrote a completely different prompt that he didn't want. And I just remembered that day, just, like, sinking into my chair, and I just started crying in that class because I knew, even though I tried my best, I still failed.
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.
I'm here today with Yasmeen Adams. Yasmeen is a user researcher, and they work with me at Understood. Welcome, Yasmeen.
Yasmeen: Thank you for having me.
Laura: When you got to Understood, you had not yet been diagnosed with ADHD, is that right?
Yasmeen: No, no, no, I hadn't.
Laura: But your "aha" moment wasn't necessarily at Understood. It sounds like working at Understood kind of nudge you towards getting diagnosed, but you had an "aha" moment when you were in college — your junior year, is that right?
Yasmeen: Yeah, so in my junior year of college, I was finishing up my English minor. And there was one class that you had to take. I forgot what the exact class was, but there was a professor that was sort of known in the English department of being, like, someone who was, like, really, tough, like, a tough grader. A lot of the people in my major kind of described him as, like, a pain in the ass, to be honest. And so he was the only person who was teaching the specific class that I needed in order to finish up my English minor. And I was sort of notorious by a lot of my friends of being, like, a chronic procrastinator. I was not the person who would be responsible enough to, you know, oh, if I have a 10-page paper, do you let me do two pages a day so that, you know, I'm not too anxious about finishing the paper. What I would do is that I would actually do it the day of, or, like, the day before and just sit in the library for, like, two hours and, like, bang out a 10-page paper and call it a day.
I look back on it now and it's like, wow, that was, I was a little, that was a bit insane for doing that. But for me, it was sort of like, one, I couldn't really break down things into tasks. It was always like, let me just do this one big assignment and in one go and, like, get through it. And there was also, like, this weird sort of like rush I felt while doing it because it was almost like, I don't know if it's similar to like how chefs are on, like, cooking shows and they have, like, 30-minute timers and they have to, like, whip out a dish and, like, hope and pray that, like, they'll get through.
I felt like that was sort of the same rush I felt. Where it's like, wow, I'm, like, really anxious. I'm, like, down on the wire. I only have 30 minutes before I have to get to class, and I have 250 words to still finish up. But it was the, like, adrenaline rush of actually getting it done and, like, the relief to get it done. I would do this constantly.
And I would never really be punished for it via, like, having bad grades or anything like that. And I sort of provide this context to help establish why this moment in my junior year of college was, like, so devastating. Because I remember, like, submitting a paper in for one of our first assignments, and then I got feedback on it and I got, like, a C on it, which I’d never, I’d never gotten. And he was just like, "You were jumping all over the place in the essay, you were doing this, you were doing that." And I was like, "I never had this feedback from everybody else. Why am I getting it from him?" And I think, like, the breaking point for me was there was either, like, a final paper or, like, it was a pretty significant paper to my grade. And based on the feedback I was getting from other papers and the grades I was getting, I was like, for this paper that I have to submit, I actually can't do what I usually have done. I actually have to, like, really sit down and, like, pay attention and, like, break this up so that I'm presenting the best possible paper I can for this class.
And so I spent, like, two or three days writing this paper, getting feedback from other people, working with the English resource center at my school. I did, like, a lot of, like, preparation for this paper, which I've never done for any other class throughout all the time I've been in school. And I submitted it; I was really proud of it. I was, like, yeah, I'm going to get an A, like, I actually destroyed this paper. And then I remembered he was, like, talking about the paper and he was just, like — he mentioned something in the instructions that I completely looked over for this research project. And I realized in that moment, I had made, like, a really dire mistake, and I essentially wrote a different type of paper than he was asking for.
And I just remembered, like, sitting in class and kind of just, like, sinking down in my chair and just started, like, crying. Because I was like, I did all of this hard work. I put in so much time and resources that I never had to in other classes, for me to still fail and not do well. And that, I think, for me, it was kind of a big breaking point to where I was like, maybe I should really see what's going on with this. Because I always, like, kind of suspected it was related to ADHD, but I was like, "Well, it works for me, so I'm not going to really change it." But then it was, like, after that moment, I was like, "I really should probably consider something's wrong."
Laura: Am I right that you got good grades for all of your life, leading up to this?
Yasmeen: Oh yeah, definitely. I was definitely, like, an A or B student most of, like, my classes. The only thing that got me in trouble was, again, this idea of following instructions. Even when in, like, kindergarten, like I remember just, I remember teachers would say, "Hey, go right," and I would go left; "go up," and I'd go down. That was sort of me. I never really liked the idea of having, like, things being set out to me in the form of, like, commands or, like, actions. And I never understood why I had to do it, so I would always, like, not do it.
Laura: Yeah. And just to be clear, I don't think that actually getting a C is a terrible thing. It's not a bad grade. It's average. It's just, I have a feeling from your perspective that it was like, like a knife to the heart.
Yasmeen: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Because I'd literally never gotten a C, up until that point. And I was like, "Whoa, I don't want to be a C student." And it was definitely, like, a real crush to me cause I was, like, "I always did well, so why am I not doing well in this class particularly?"
Laura: Did you feel, like, exposed when the professor kind of discovered your symptoms or your methods?
Yasmeen: Yeah, like, I definitely felt, one, like, embarrassed a little bit. I remember, like, everyone was looking at me and just, like, "Yikes, how did you get that wrong?" And I also kind of felt that from that professor at that time, "It was clear for you to not do that and yet you did it." And so I felt, like, a little embarrassed because I felt, like, "Am I the only one that didn't get this? Really, nobody?" And I think also a lot of it, too, was that again, like, I felt like I could always kind of, like, skate by in a lot of classes. Because even I knew, like, it wasn't always the best work I put out when I had to rush, or I was, like, in sort of that crunch time mode, but I would still get really good feedback. But when it came to him, it was kind of, like, he saw through the fluff I would put a lot in writing. He was the one who was able to kind of see, like, the cracks in my foundation a little bit.
And I think that's what really also irritated me. And it kind of brought up a lot of insecurities about, like, my own intelligence. Was I actually smart, or was I just kind of, like, passing through to pass through, you know what I mean? And so I felt like a lot of emotions kind of came up in that class. And I think that one paper moment really summarized essentially, like, how I felt at that time, if I was, like, actually capable.
Laura: What did you think with that feeling and that information after that? And how many years ago was that?
Yasmeen: Well, that was my junior year of college. So I want to say that was probably, like, three or four years ago now. And I think maybe one of the first things I did was, I definitely went to my friends, and, you know, at first I kind of looked at it as a him issue, as like a, "He's just an a-hole, like, he just sucks. Like, he is not helpful." And looking back on it now, I kind of see why I did it because, again, I was embarrassed. I felt like he was, like, seeing through me and seeing through all of my faults, and never looked at me holistically as a person through my writing.
And I blamed a lot on him, but I think for me, it kind of took a lot of just reflection on, like, OK, this didn't work again. So maybe this is related to something else and I just don't really know it yet.
Laura: Isn't it interesting though, Yasmeen, that, like, one paper — how that can change everything and be a catalyst? And so when did you get diagnosed? That must have been one, two years ago?
Yasmeen: Yeah, it was actually pretty early this year, I want to say.
Laura: So recent. Welcome to the club, Yasmeen!
Yasmeen: I know! Oh, a weird club to be in, but happy nonetheless.
Laura: You’re right. It is a weird club.
I noticed at one point when you were talking, you said, "Oh, my methods aren't working again," which kind of tipped me off that maybe, like, little inklings of this had come up, just not as intensely, before. Is that right?
Yasmeen: Yeah, definitely. Like I remembered in school, one of my biggest sort of report card notes that I would always get is that "Yasmeen does not do homework." I just hated the concept of homework. Why am I going to school for, like, eight hours a day? And I could barely focus there. And then you're forcing me to spend another two, three hours on homework? I would just never do it. And so many of my teachers said I was, like, smart and I was capable, and I was definitely knowledgeable of what I was doing in class, but it was just the homework where that was a big stickler point. And one of my favorite, like, classes when I was younger was history. I really loved history. I love learning about world events and how that affected, like, future world events and who were the actors and who were sort of the players in those events and everything. And I remembered I got, like, a really high score on like the New York State Regents. I think it was like a 99 percent or something like that. It was super high. But then I got, like, a 75 in the class because I didn't do any homework.
Laura: Oh, that's interesting. Because I was actually just going to ask you, why do you think that you would rush through homework or dislike homework? There are so many reasons that kids with ADHD can struggle with homework and one of them might be that they're just not interested in the topic and don't want to deal with it. But you were really interested in history.
Yasmeen: Yeah, I was super, super interested. I loved history and, like, I was good at memorization and everything like that. It was just the thought of having to sit down for another two hours after I just sat down for eight hours of school to then do an assignment that was due the next day — I just could never do it. And so I never did. Or, like, if I knew, like, I had history for seventh period and I had lunch at fifth period, I would do my homework in fifth period so that it was ready for seventh period. But sometimes it just never aligned and I didn't do great in the class. But my teacher was always, like, kind of baffled by that.
I remember her saying like, "Yasmeen, you're really smart and I want you to pass. I actually want you to get a really high grade in this class because I know you can. But the homework." And I just, I, I just couldn't do it. I, I don't know what, what it was.
Laura: It sounds like it was fatigue, right? Like during the school day, kids with ADHD that may put all of their energy into, like, focusing and doing everything that they need to do. And then by the time they get home, they're, like, totally drained. And, it’s like, you gave everything that your ADHD brain could give during the school day and you just needed a break.
Yasmeen: Yeah, definitely. I feel like it was a little weird for me because I felt like I, in a sense, was almost, like, masking a lot of the symptoms. Like, I couldn't sit down, or I just had to talk to somebody and distract them while I'm also distracted. Or, like, I would just do things that I guess people would consider weird. Like, when I was in school, I always just, like, used to talk to myself or, like, come up with, like, weird scenarios in my head and kind of, like, daydream a lot.
And other kids would notice that, and they would call me weird or they’d be like, "What are you doing?" And so I experienced that a lot when I was growing up. And so I felt like I had to, like, basically portray normal. And I remember that being, like, super tiring for me because I was being someone that I wasn't, and having to almost be like a chameleon in school to like, make sure that people know like, "Hey, I'm normal, guys. I'm not weird. Yeah, I don't talk to myself." And I got bullied a lot when I was in school. And so again, that's sort of where that hiding kind of came from where it was like, "OK, I need to be perceived as normal because at least if I'm perceived as normal, I probably won't get bullied a lot, or I probably won't get asked, like, weird questions and things like that." And so I felt, like, in order to, like, maintain some form of social connection with my other peers, I sort of had to morph into what they believe or perceive normal is. And so by the time I got home, I was so exhausted from the school day.
Laura: I'm sorry to hear you got bullied, Yasmeen.
Laura: What was the school like that you went to?
Yasmeen: I went to public school here in New York, and a lot of the schools I went to, many of the families were lower income, pretty diverse in terms of, like, race and gender. But it was only until I want to say maybe in middle school is when they started putting me in sort of, like, magnet classes or quote-unquote gifted classes.
And, like, in high school I started to be in sort of, like, honors and, you know, IB and AP, and then the racial makeup of the classes and sort of diversity slowly but surely started to sort of disappear. I think for me, that was sort of a big reason why I kind of got overlooked in school because it was just, like, "Well, you know, their grades are good and they don't have any socio-emotional issues, so I think they're good." I felt like that's how a lot of teachers kind of looked at me. And at some point I kind of get it because it was just like, there were other kids who needed much more, like, attention and much more help from, like, parents and things like that. And for me, it was kind of like, "Well, OK, they don't do homework. They can't really follow instructions, but they're passing class. So that’s what matters."
Especially for the type of schools I went to, like, you know, grades of students determined, like, the sort of funding you can get. And so, for them, as long as you're passing and as long as you're, you're not sort of a danger to yourself or to your other classmates, we just don't have enough time to, like, really look to see if there might be something else that's there.
Laura: What was your family's perception of all this?
Yasmeen: It's interesting. So my family are from the Caribbean. My parents are from Jamaica, and so kind of like two different worlds. And so even if they did sort of hear from teachers that like, "Oh, your child has trouble, like, sitting down and paying attention and has trouble listening to us and focusing," and things like that. My parents kind of just chucked it up to me being a kid because it's like, "Oh yeah, we see that so much in Jamaica." And so they didn't quite understand it. And so if there was maybe a teacher who saw that, like, maybe there was something going on with me, if they were to try to explain that to my parents, my parents would have just been like, "Oh, uh, it's kind of an American thing. You know, Americans love to like overdiagnose things and diagnose people with things. You don't have that; that doesn't exist, because we don't have it back at home." And I was like, "No, you do probably have it at home." And I get it, they didn't have that language, but I do wish that they sort of took some of it with validity, because I felt like if they did, it would have been much easier for me in terms of them sort of helping me to get, like, sort of the services I need versus me, you know, when I'm 12, like looking up WebMD and looking up, "Why can't I pay attention?" And I hear it a lot from, like, other immigrant households where it's, like, the first-generation kids, you know, we have to be our own advocates because our parents sometimes need advocates themselves.
Laura: Your self-awareness is pretty amazing. At 12 years old, you're looking up "Why can't I pay attention?" I definitely wasn't doing that when I was 12, and, listeners, it has nothing to do with the fact that the web was not very robust when I was 12 years old.
There are a lot of feelings around that. We talk with a lot of people who think about, like, their parents. And again, I always say this, like, it's no judgment. Our knowledge of ADHD has come such a long way. And you're on the front lines of that as a user researcher. Can you tell folks a little bit about what you've learned about ADHD diagnosis, particularly in the Black community, through your research?
Yasmeen: Yeah. So we recently did research specifically with Black and Latinx parents and also Black individuals. One of the things we heard a lot was this idea of, like, an overdiagnosis and an underdiagnosis. A lot of times, behaviors related to ADHD that are seen in Black children, they are more seen as, like, disruptive, but when it's not sort of related to quote-unquote disruptive behavior, when it's, like, sort of just, like, an inability to focus or things like that, it's usually sort of overlooked in a lot of Black students.
And so there is sort of this weird, almost ironic sort of dichotomy between, like, focusing on this disruptive behavior in order to, like, punish, and then not providing, like, help and services for people who are exhibiting, like, behaviors that aren't related to this idea of, like, disruptiveness. And, you know, in the end, it just doesn't help the Black students in general, because you're constantly policed in school, but also not getting the help you needed. And we saw a lot of that. And also this idea of just kind of, like, passing kids through the education system, even though they still require help and still require some form of accommodation.
I remember there was one person who we talked to who just felt like they were kind of getting passed through school because teachers just didn't have the time, the resources, or honestly just didn't care enough to provide him the help he needed. And then once he sort of entered into college and entered into the real world, he was, like, struggling so much because he never was able to get the help he needed or develop the strategies he needed in order to, like, be in sort of an environment where you are sort of your own advocate and you need to seek out these resources. We don't just provide them to you. It ends up being like a real detriment to a lot of Black students once they're sort of aged out of, like, our K–12 system and they kind of have to figure it out on their own.
Laura: In your work, do you ever feel like you relate to any of the stories that come up, and if so, is that cathartic at all? How does that make you feel?
Yasmeen: Yeah, a lot of the interviews I conduct, it always feels like I'm sort of looking back at myself. And it really gives me sort of the opportunity to really, like, reflect back on, like, my life and how that sort of came up for me and also feeling, one, seen, and two, that I wasn't, you know, this wasn't my fault. Because a lot of the time, issues around not getting that help tend to be a lot more systemic than we sort of realize. And so, yeah, it’s sort of amazing to kind of do this work because I get to help out other people while also learning so much more about myself and, like, you know, also forgiving myself for things that I couldn't really control.
Laura: That's pretty incredible that the way that your work and your life and your experience have kind of intersected in that way. It's powerful.
Yasmeen: I'm so grateful to, like, be able to have that story of experience, because I don't think I would've been able — or I think it would've probably took me a lot longer — to actually look to get a diagnosis if I hadn't had that chance of, like, constant reflection.
Laura: Have you been in contact at all with that professor from your junior year?
Yasmeen: Oh no! I have not.
Laura: I’m just curious.
Yasmeen: Yeah, I'm still kind of a little salty with the B-minus I got in the class, but, you know, if he's listening to this, thanks, I guess.
Laura: Well, I mean, Yasmeen, this has been wonderful. Thank you for being here with me today and talking with me.
Yasmeen: Yeah, of course. I think this was fun.
Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "ADHD Aha!" on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about the show. We rely on listeners like you to reach and support more people. And if you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. You can go to u.org/ADHDAha to find details on each episode and related resources. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash ADHD Aha.
Understood is a nonprofit and social impact organization. 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: Justin D. Wright created our music. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And I'm your host, Laura Key, editorial director at Understood. Thanks so much for listening.
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