How Dyslexia and ADHD Helped a First-Time Novelist
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How dyslexia and ADHD helped a first-time novelist

His young adult novel, The Taking of Jake Livingston, is a best-seller on Amazon. In this episode, find out how dyslexia and ADHD shaped author Ryan Douglass’ unique approach to writing. Ryan also shares how being Black and LGBTQ impacts his learning and thinking differences.

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Episode transcript

Eleni: Hi, I'm Eleni. And I'm a user researcher. That means I spend my days talking with people with learning and thinking differences. People with challenges like ADHD, dyslexia, and more. I listen to what they have to say and how they feel. And I make sure that their experiences shape what we do at Understood.

After speaking with literally hundreds of people and hearing literally thousands of stories, we realized how easy it is to feel alone. But we also realize that when people hear stories of others who learn and think differently, it can change everything. So we started to ask a simple question. Could it be that people find fulfilling jobs and careers not in spite of their difference, but because of them? 

We're making this podcast, "How'd You Get THAT job?!," because we want people with learning and thinking differences to have inspiring role models in jobs and careers who are amazing at what they do. And we want to help people see how to zone in on their own unique strengths at work.

Today, we're talking to Ryan Douglass, the best-selling young adult fiction writer from Atlanta. We talked about his struggles with ADHD and dyslexia early on in his career, and how that experience helped bring his story to life.

Ryan Douglass is a Black, queer writer from Atlanta, Georgia, with ADHD and dyslexia. He just published his first novel, which is a horror fiction best-seller on Amazon, which is super cool. That was my introduction for you. I would love you to share how you identify and how you would introduce yourself. 

Ryan: I'm Ryan Douglass. I am 26 years old, and I just came out with my first YA horror novel, "The Taking of Jake Livingston," which is out now through Penguin Young Readers. So I identify as Black, queer, non-binary, and a person with ADHD and dyslexia. I think the intro you gave was pretty good. I am a writer from Atlanta and I've been writing since I was very young, did a little bit of journalism when I was in college and got into that. And after college I was writing for a few digital magazines and also working on my first book. So I got my book deal a few years ago and the reception has been awesome. And yeah, that's right.

Eleni: I think that often there's an association with people with dyslexia not necessarily being drawn to like reading or writing. And in your instance, it was something that you were really drawn to. So I would love to hear what it is about ADHD and/or dyslexia that you think makes you a good writer. 

Ryan: So for dyslexia, it's one of those things that has always been a challenge when it comes to reading. But I just love the written word so much that it's just something that I was able to rise to and not get over, but experience books the way that I do without judging myself too harshly. Because I probably don't read books in the way that most people read them. I do a lot of mood reading, which is when I just — it's when you pick up a book and you read a few pages, because you feel like you're in the headspace of that particular book. And then you pick up other books. So I'll usually read five books at a time, and that's also the ADHD coming in. Cause it's, I can't focus on one thing at a time, but....

Eleni: Did you always like books, like even when you were a kid? 

Ryan: So I got really into picture books after reading a few Dr. Seuss books. And I started writing my own picture books and I was just like, I think the first thing that really caught my attention was the pictures. And then the rhyming and then the stories. And as I got older, I started reading chapter books and then I always read and I always felt like it was something that helped me communicate too. Cause I wasn't very vocal as a kid. So I started writing to express myself and it just never went away. It's just always been something that I've come back to express and escape.

Eleni: Mood reading. I've never heard of that term. Is that something, is that a Ryan-ism or is that a term that is out there in the world?

Ryan: Uh, I think it's out there. I actually heard that on Twitter. Someone was talking about mood reading and how people with ADHD mood read and that it shouldn't be stigmatized. And I looked into that and I was like, that's totally me. Mood readings. 

Eleni: I love that term. 

Ryan: Just read for the vibe.

Eleni: Yeah, that's really cool. I'm into that. OK, OK. So you mentioned reading and ADHD and dyslexia. You haven't talked about the writing side yet. 

Ryan: I think that when it comes to writing, it actually helps me with the word play. Like sometimes I'll write sentences that don't immediately make sense, but the structure of them is interesting. And then when I rework them, I can make them make sense. And it has like a — it almost gives it a poetic style because the words are arranged in an interesting way. So I think that's how dyslexia has helped. ADHD has really helped with the way that I focus. I ran in like nine-hour bursts at a time because I get into hyperfocus. Then it's the only thing I can focus on.

Obviously there are days when I feel like I can't write anything because I just get so distracted and then days when I'm just like so in the zone that nothing can rip me out of it. And I think that's helpful for productivity, even if it is hard to schedule your life around something like that.

Eleni: Yeah. Um, so you mentioned hyperfocus. I would love to hear a little bit more about how that feels for you in your brain and in your body.

Ryan: So it's two sides of a coin. Sometimes I just cannot focus long enough to finish a chapter. And then sometimes I get irritable when I'm in that zone and people try to bother me. I'm just like, why are you trying to bother me? Why don't you understand that I can't focus on anything right now? And people are just kind of like, what are you talking about? You can take a break. And I'm like, no, I can't.

The thing about writing a book is that there are so many things that have to be active at one time. You're focusing on the one book, but you're focusing on character, story, plot, scene work, setting. And sometimes all these things are just playing in my head. It's like when you're watching a movie, you're focused on the movie, you know. A lot of stuff is happening, but you're looking at the movie and that's what happens in my brain. And when the movie is really clear to me, I just have to put it down. And if it's coming to me, I just can't break out of that. 

Eleni: So, you know, you mentioned that hyperfocus really actually helps you with productivity, and you've figured out that what works for you is doing these longer nine-hour stints and just really absorbing yourself in that hyperfocus and in the writing. What led up to that realization?

Ryan: Over the years, I've just learned to honor the way that I work and focus on the fact that when work is getting done, that's the main objective. Because there's a lot of advice out there about how you're supposed to work. Not just right, but how you're supposed to work. How you're supposed to organize yourself.

And I think that some of that structure is really helpful for like outlining, and that's the one thing that I do have trouble with because I'm such a vibes person that like, when I have to sit down and like be meticulous, that's where I'm like, oh God, I'll never get through this. But I think just over the years, I realized that I just have to do it the way that I do it and the way that I get things done, and try to make everything else that I have to do and all my life responsibilities work around that. 

Eleni: I know that you've had other stints, like in other types of work. And I'm interested in how ADHD or dyslexia has come up for you in other settings, in other environments. And if that also contributed to you realizing what works for you and what doesn't. Are there any particular moments in previous jobs that you think have led you to where you are now?

Ryan: When I worked in retail, it was just a mess, especially at the beginning when I had to stock shelves, which seems like a really simple thing to do, stocking shelves. But I get lost in my head a lot. So there were moments when I was moving fast, and then there were moments when I would just get in my head and just go off on tangents and like outwardly I would be putting things on the shelf in slow motion. And I wouldn't even realize that until my supervisors would come up and say "You need more urgency, Ryan, you need to move." And they had to keep telling me because I was like, oh my gosh, I'm just spaced out. And that really made me realize, OK, this like fast-paced kind of environment is maybe not for me. Not because I can't work fast, but just because my brain was just doing that.

Eleni: So when your boss at the time came up to you and said "You got to work with more urgency, what are you doing?" how did that make you feel? How did you respond, and how did you come to a place that you were like, well, actually this environment isn't for me, like this isn't about me. This is just about the environment around me.

Ryan: Oh, gosh, it took me so long to come to that realization. I just felt so misunderstood, and it really sucks to feel that way. Like, even if you explained it, because you might be able to explain it, but you just feel like if they're not also dealing with something like ADHD, they're just not going to get it. Or if they don't know someone, like they're not close to someone who has it to where they're exposed to it. When you say it, it might become worse because they might make fun of you for it. It's not always something where people are like, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Let me help you." You know, you don't always get the response that you want to get. So it's hard.

Eleni: So Ryan, can you tell us more about the book? And also how perhaps how you wrote it is influenced by your ADHD and dyslexia, and also how you consume books yourself. 

Ryan: The book is called "The Taking of Jake Livingston," and it's about a teen medium, Jake Livingston, who can see the dead. And his sanity starts to unravel in his junior year because he's being followed by the ghost of a school shooter.

And this ghost wants to possess his body. So it's a coming of age story about a boy going to some pretty dark places and hopefully coming out the other side with a renewed sense of self. So it's like a superhero story, but it's told through a horror format. The seeing-ghosts stuff is an allegory for being spaced out and for having ADHD, and specifically having your traumas be the things that are distracting you

Eleni: Interesting.

Ryan: I don't think when I went down to write it, I was thinking "I'm going to do an allegory for ADHD." I think it just came out naturally in the way that you see this character navigate the world. And you can tell that he's not plugged in to conversations, like in the classroom, at home. He's always somewhere else in his own mind. And I think that using that angle really allowed me to put the experience of a queer Black teenager who was neurodivergent on the page in a way that satisfied horror readers and added an interesting angle to it. 

Eleni: And it sounds like there's a little, like a few parallels with what we were talking about earlier in terms of you coming out of the other side and coming to a place where you really own all of your identities.

Ryan: Yeah. So the story really is about finding the people who support you, and not allowing the people who don't support you to control your life and control what you do. And it's that journey that kind of gives Jake strength against his villain, who just kind of wants him to be so — he wants him to feel dispossessed of himself in a literal way, but also in an emotional and psychological way. So, his mission throughout the story — the villain's mission — is to basically ruin Jake's support system, bring him away from his family, bring him more anxiety as he goes into school. Cause he goes to like a mostly white prep school where he feels like he doesn't have a voice. So he's triggering that throughout the book to make Jake feel depressed, to make him feel like he shouldn't live in his own body anymore. And that's the point when the ghost can possess the vessel, according to the rules of the dead world in this story. So it was about how Jake has to fortify those things about himself and really believe in himself, because that's what unlocks his ultimate power to banish the evil. 

Eleni: Wow. I love that allegory. So you mentioned mood reading. Can you talk a little bit about how the way you read books influences your writing style? 

Ryan: Yeah. So it's very fast-paced. The chapters are pretty short, and they switch between the hero's perspective and the villain's perspective. Mostly because I can't focus on one character for too long. But it's stuff like this that's, like just ADHD, that when people read it, they're like, oh, this is intriguing. Oh, it's fast-paced. And it's just like me not being able to focus. And it's not that I — it is that I made these choices, but I just know that when I'm writing it, I know the things that I need to do to stay engaged and to finish the book.

So it's fast-paced because my brain is fast-paced, you know, and that's how I read. I read fast and I write fast, and it's nonlinear because I just can't stay in one place. So I think that, yes, it's, it's craft and it's done with intention, but it's also done because that's how my brain works, and the way that my brain works is how it translates on the page. And some people read it and say, "This pacing drives me crazy. Like I'm being beat over the head with events, like every chapter." I read a review from a teacher who was like "Every chapter is over the top. Every chapter is dramatic. Something crazy happens in every chapter."

You can't win everyone, but that's what I love about it. I like that it stimulates you. And I think that people with ADHD when they pick it up, they don't have to worry about reading long info dumps or reading a lot of exposition, because you're in it and you're just in it. And you can flip pages and it's not wasting any time. 

Eleni: You mentioned being black, queer, non-binary, someone with ADHD and dyslexia. I imagine that these identities intersect in like really interesting ways. And I wanted to share with you what I've heard through my research is that people with layered identities have like two different experiences. One of the experiences is OK, well I'm already othered. I'm already on the margins. So it actually makes it easier to embrace all of the differences. And the other side of that, which I hear a lot, particularly from Black folks, is I'm already struggling to fit in to, you know, a white-dominant work culture and like, feels like there are more things stacked up against them. And I would love to hear like how intersectionality shows up for you. 

You know, myself, I'm like someone in my thirties and I'm looking at the TikTok generation and I'm like, wow. Like, it feels like you really are owning all of your identities. And as you said, you just state them in a very matter-of-fact way. And like I'm a little bit envious. It took me a really long time to like embrace my queer identity. And it's really amazing to see you being like, so open about all of these identities. So, I'm particularly interested in how they intersect, you know, what it is like to be Black, queer, and someone with a learning difference. 

Ryan: I was able to say that I was gay in my early twenties when I went to college just because I was surrounded by a supportive environment. As for my blackness, that was a whole different thing. And I think it intersects in the sense that when you're Black and gay, you're dealing with like discrimination from your own community. I grew up in a really religious community and being gay was not something that was celebrated. I definitely think the pivotal moment was being around people who understood that we exist and that we're not going anywhere, and realizing that you don't have to be around people who make you feel like you can't be your true self. And I think that's a hard thing to let go of for Black people, especially because we're like, community is so important for us. And we have community spaces because we have to convene and we have to stick together in the face of white supremacy. 

But when you are gay, you know, there's like this whole language about the masculinity of Black men and how we have to be masculine. And I'm just not. And it's like, where do you belong? Do you belong in the Black community? Do you want to be in the gay community? It's that feeling of just not having anywhere to go. So I just have had to find other queer Black friends who are, maybe neurodivergent, who would just understand what it means to move through the world in the way that I do and just rely on those friendships.

Eleni: Totally. So how did you come to the point where you could be so comfortable with who you are? 

Ryan: On my journey to accepting myself, I just had to do a lot of research, first of all, and come to understand on my own why I didn't really fit in. And find other people like online or in real life who also didn't feel like they fit in, and just figure out what to do from there.

And I really do think that at the beginning of that journey, it's about accepting yourself, knowing what you can change, knowing what you can't change, not stressing over things you can't change. And just like realizing that this is also a part of me. And all of it is part of me. This might sound weird, but I think that Twitter is a really helpful resource for finding friends and like other people who are just unapologetically Black, gay, have thinking differences, have disabilities. 

Around 2016, when we had — that's when the big social justice wave was starting — I got on Twitter and I started following activists. And just seeing the way that they talk about their identities, that they talk about their disabilities, or just the way that they own that and the way that they claimed it and spoke about it and spoke about the movement really inspired me. So the online community, when you're isolated, can be a lifesaver. 

Eleni: Definitely. So what would you say to the young people listening? What advice would you give them if they were in the same situation?

Ryan: It's really just about communicating, owning your own flaws and your own behaviors in a way that kind of makes people understand it. And I think that when I was in those positions where I felt like I was doing something wrong, it made me choke up and it made me feel like, oh my gosh, I'm going to be fired. Or my gosh, I'm going to get an F. And I just was like, I'm a failure. And then it went on rotation in my brain. Oh gosh, I just suck.

But that's not the case. And there are ways to kind of explain what's going on. And even if they don't understand it, at least you try to explain it. And I think that's something that I wish I knew, and I wish I knew how to sort of say to myself at first — it's OK that this is happening. Just try to express it rather than just think, oh, they're right. I suck at this job. Cause that's when your mind starts going and you just become your own worst enemy. 

Eleni: And it's interesting if you state it in a matter-of-fact way, it leaves it open to the other person to ask more questions if they want to ask more questions and show curiosity and understand you, you know, like a two-way street. If you're feeling misunderstood, that's probably because someone hasn't made the effort to understand, right?

Ryan: Yeah. It's so much easier for me, not just with ADHD, but with all of my identities, to just state them and not overexplain. Because I know that people are not going to understand necessarily. But it's really not my responsibility, because there's so much info out there and anyone can look up things if they want to know. So I just am who I am and I say who I am, and it's up to everyone else to do the research. 

Eleni: So you've written your first book. What do you think is next for you? 

Ryan: So I'm working on several different projects. I think that the ADHD kind of becomes a detriment when it comes to the drafting process or like figuring out what I'm interested in enough about the world to translate it into a book and sustain a full narrative. And I'm actually, I think I might actually be a poet. I really had these dreams of having my stories put on screen. So that's kind of why I got into writing, because it's easier to put a novel on screen than it is to put poetry on screen. But I feel like I want to be able to bounce between genres and I don't always want to write young adult horror.

But I'm still kind of learning my style. And some people want me to write a sequel to Jake Livingston, but I feel like I, uh, my ADHD will not allow me to write any more of that because I was like done with it. I was like, I focused on this for too long now. I just want to, I want to be free. 

Eleni: Awesome. Thanks for spending this time with me, Ryan. It was so fun to have a conversation with you. 

Ryan: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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  • Eleni Matheou

    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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