Campus / News / May 24, 2012

Against the odds: coping with learning disabilities in college

Having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) means freshman Erik Gustafson’s mind is in two places at once.

“[Otherwise], I’d just get a massive headache … but if I had my mind in two places at once, somehow it works out better,” Gustafson said.

Diagnosed twelve years ago with ADD, a learning disability “characterized by problems with attention, impulsivity, and overactivity,” Gustafson is one of the many students with learning disabilities enrolled in college. In a study done in 2008-2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 707,000 students “with any disability” have enrolled in two- and four-year institutions.

“I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s a really pretty butterfly,’ as a professor is trying to explain something. Or if someone is twitching a pencil, then I would pay [more] attention to that than [to] someone I should be paying attention to,” Gustafson said about what it is like to have ADD.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, learning disabilities are defined as “a group of varying disorders that have a negative impact on learning. They may affect one’s ability to speak, listen, think, read, write, spell or compute.”

“Imagine you’re studying really, really hard for something for 10 hours. That’s how my brain feels after one or two [hours] after doing that,” Gustafson said.

‘Coping with this’

At Knox, a chapter of Project Eye-to-Eye, a program in which college students with learning disabilities mentor high school and middle school students with similar situations, was founded last year. Co-founder of the Knox College chapter of PETE senior Cameron Posey was diagnosed with a processing disorder, which slows his ability to understand things. Despite having the most difficulty understanding reading and writing, Posey declared his major as creative writing and will soon enter a graduate program in screenwriting.

While he called what he has a “learning disability,” he said some people refer to their LDs as a “learning disorder” or “learning difference.” He was diagnosed with a learning disability his freshman year of high school but suspected it years earlier.

“Sometimes they would take us out of class and repeat the lesson to us,” Posey said, of elementary school.

Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law ensuring services to children with disabilities, was passed in 1990, students like Posey are able to receive proper accommodations for their disabilities.

Now in college, he said he still gets frustrated when he cannot understand as quickly as other students.

“But I’m coping with this,” Posey said.

As a college-age mentor for middle school students as part of PETE, Posey helps others with learning disabilities cope.

Posey said kids are receptive to the program. Mentors and mentees do activities related to learning disabilities, such as writing a poem about how it feels to have a learning disability. Posey believes that part of the motivation comes from having an older and attentive mentor with a learning disability who has gone to college and is encouraging them to go further than high school.

Accommodating at Knox

Despite having laws to ensure students receive support services for their disabilities, only 10 percent of students with LD are enrolled in a four-year college within two years of leaving high school, compared with 28 percent of the general population, according to

Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning John Haslem said the CTL works with students with learning disabilities on a case-by-case basis and is “very well-equipped” to do so.

“Even within classes of common disorders [of] say, dyslexia, visual-processing disorders, audio disorders, ADD, ADHD … there’s a great deal of variability,” Haslem said.

The CTL meets with students, gets the history of their experiences and acquires current documentation of their disabilities.

“That’s where the history and the conversation with the student is important because you’re trying to make a match between the needs of the student and institutional resources,” Haslem said.

Institutional resources and accommodations include meeting with Learning Specialist Stephanie Grimes of the CTL, hiring note-takers for classes, using a Kurzweil scanner to scan text so it can be read out loud and substituting graduation credit requirements.

Technological advancements like special scanners have grown to accommodate the increase of students with learning disabilities attending college. When Haslem began working at Knox, the number of students he served with learning disabilities was five, and now the CTL helps 65-85 a year.

Mentoring like ‘an out of body experience’

Compared to when he was younger, Gustafson said he has dealt with his ADD better now after not being sure of how to do things.

In classes, Gustafson said he writes down everything as notes to make sure he has full attention. His professors know about his ADD through his contact with Grimes at the CTL.

“After … over a decade of working with it, I’ve found ways to compensate. … Doing two things at once is one of them. I’m not sure why, but when I started venting, that also helped as well,” Gustafson said.

As a mentor for PETE, Gustafson said mentoring is interesting and has helped him a little bit.

“Have you ever written a paper and then put it down, and then you pull it up a year later and you’re like, ‘I wrote this?’ It’s kind of the way it is. It’s like getting an out-of-body experience, just looking at something impartial,” he said.

When he was diagnosed 12 years ago with ADD, he said his parents were understanding. Growing up, Gustafson knew other people with learning disorders, such as his closest friends, calling it not a bonding experience but happenstance.

Gustafson said ADD can and cannot affect his life drastically, depending on if he takes his medication.

“But when I do generally take my medication, it’s pretty smooth sailing. It gets a lot harder during really long days,” Gustafson said.

Interested in studying math, physics and Latin, Gustafson said these subjects are all like puzzles.

“And I like solving puzzles, putting pieces together and seeing how it all fits,” Gustafson said, relating this to his feeling of being in two places at once.

Not giving up

After falling behind in high school, sophomore Emma Storer self-diagnosed herself by looking up her symptoms, saying, “It became really apparent that I had ADD.”

“I tried explaining it to my parents and they didn’t believe me, actually, and we got in a huge argument about it,” she said.

After convincing her parents that she did have a problem, Storer was eventually diagnosed by a clinical psychologist.

“Once they realized it was true that I had [ADD], they were really supportive of me,” Storer said.

Growing up with ADD, Storer said she wished she had known someone who also had the disorder, which is why she became a mentor for PETE.

“There’s nothing wrong with me. I just needed a little extra help sometimes, so I was really excited to be able to be that mentor, to be that person to look up to for a younger kid with a learning disability,” Storer said.

At Knox, despite starting the term organized with multiple folders and a planner, Storer then forgets assignments and gets behind.

“It’s a really repetitive, frustrating cycle, and I always try to change, but I can never seem to,” she said.

Apart from academics, Storer said ADD affects other aspects of her life, such as when she takes medication for ADD.

“That gets me really anxious and tense, and I’m not the most fun person to be around when I’m on it just ‘cause I need to constantly be doing things because I have this boost of concentration I don’t normally have, so it kind of stresses out the people around me,” she said.

Despite causing some stress for others, Storer said ADD does not affect her socially.

“It sort of makes me feel like a stronger person to know that I can have ADD but still accomplish the things I want to do in spite of that, but sometimes it’s really frustrating and I want to throw my hands and give up because it’s too hard,” she said.

But what keeps her from giving up is setting goals for herself and realizing she “can do a lot of good.” Storer said her whole life has been trying to live up to her older brother, and “a huge part of it is wanting to make my parents proud.”

A political science major with a minor in biology, Storer wants to be a lobbyist and possibly go into public office.

“There’s just too much I want to accomplish to give up,” Storer said.

Sheena Leano

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