The Student
Voices
Getting Diagnosed With ADHD At University: What I’ve Learned
by Lucy Beck, 29/03/21

The average age of diagnosis for a child with ADHD is between 6 and 12 years old. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 18 and a first year at university, and now that I’m nearing the end of my time at university, I’m reflecting on the experience. 

It was at some point during my first year at Edinburgh that I was hit with the realisation that I “couldn’t study”. I couldn’t exactly explain it, but I just knew that when I tried to sit down and write an essay, or even do the reading for a tutorial, is was like my brain just didn’t know how. I’d hardly ever do the prep work for classes, and it wasn’t long before I started skipping them altogether. I didn’t really think too much about it until my grades started slipping. As stupid as it sounds – I couldn’t understand why that was happening. It didn’t make sense. 

Being a fresher, I had just completed my A Levels the summer before, and when I thought about it, I wasn’t really able to revise for those, either. Thankfully, I chose subjects I was good at and still managed to do well, and because my behaviour wasn’t a problem, the teachers never noticed and the issue flew under the radar. 

Getting to university, however, was a huge shock. My grades were poor from the get-go, something anyone who knew me would have said was so unlike me. At first, I chalked it up to me being lazy, and then I started seriously doubting my own intelligence. I questioned whether I even deserved to be there. I was scraping passes, essays were usually started the night before, and turned in late or not at all. I didn’t dare tell anyone how poorly I was doing. It remained a shameful secret, especially as all my peers seemed to be doing well. 

In the end, it wasn’t my academic performance that sent me to the student disability service. It was other problems – struggling to sleep, maintain eye contact with others, listen to conversations without interrupting. A friend began recognising signs, and encouraged me to make the appointment. I had a few sessions with the educational specialists during which I was assessed,  and as first year was ending, I was finally diagnosed. 

Except… it didn’t really feel like something I’d been waiting all my life to hear. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the condition, and it would be a long time before I was able to fully connect the dots between my experiences and this strange new label. What I also didn’t realise was that getting a diagnosis was only the first step. 

Most people associate ADHD with hyperactivity – with someone who is loud, very physically active, and perhaps even rude. Although it can present this way – most often in male children – in girls and women, ADHD can look very different, and for this reason it goes underdiagnosed.

Because I didn’t see myself represented in the stereotype, I felt like an imposter. There have been so many times when I’ve felt as though I didn’t deserve the disability adjustments the university puts in place for me. I’ve had countless rounds of extensions, special circumstances and extra time, and it’s probably taken me the majority of uni to get to a place where using them doesn’t make me feel ashamed and guilty. 

Telling friends and family was scary for the same reason. Again, because I always did well in school, and because I don’t necessarily fit the stereotype, I thought people wouldn’t believe me, or that they’d think I didn’t deserve the help I get from uni. Sadly, sometimes, I was right.  

In third year I went to France on Erasmus, and dropped out half way through for a whole host of reasons I now recognise were mostly exacerbated by ADHD. I had to spend a year at home feeling the lowest I ever have, and then retake my third year. Not wanting to let my condition ruin my degree altogether, I came back to uni with a resolve to take action, and finally forced myself to get a referral to somewhere where I could be put on medication. I’m currently on the waiting list for group therapy, and I learn more about my condition every day. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned has been the importance of self-compassion. It’s taken me the last four year to learn to stop beating myself up over how my brain works but now that I can, dealing with it is so much easier. 

I encourage anyone who thinks they might have a learning difficulty to seek support from the student disability service. And if you see me getting special circumstances again this semester, mind your business.    

Image: carlacastagno Via Getty Images