By Josh Francis
In recognition of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, Psychology PhD student and neurodivergent researcher, Josh Francis has written about his experiences and personal journey through university which led him to his ADHD diagnosis. In this blog, Josh expresses his determination to raise awareness for neurodiversity by suggesting tools and recommendations to support others, and challenges some of the stigmas and myths associated with neurodiversity.
I struggled to write this blog post. When I sat down to write it I would keep questioning why I was writing it, not being an authority on either being a researcher or neurodivergent. Thoughts like these are common, known as imposter phenomena or syndrome, it is likely we have all felt them from time to time. But imposter thoughts occur, and reoccur… and reoccur again, much more frequently for those who are within marginalised groups (Bravata et al., 2020), such as neurodivergent people. And after grappling with these barriers for several failed writing sessions, I thought perhaps that would be the main topic of this article. Along with this, I will talk about my journey to diagnosis, the formal support available, and support from within the neurodivergent communities.
Despite a growing recognition of neurodiversity, those who identify as neurodivergent are still within the minority and susceptible to prevailing stereotypes about their personality or ability. I could probably add the following conversations to a weekly bingo card: “But if you can sit and read studies all day how can you have ADHD?,” “but doesn’t everyone struggle to focus on their work,” or a comment about hyper-focus being a superpower. Such stereotyping coupled with a lack of diversity within academia reinforces the imposter thoughts. Imposter phenomena becomes an internalised barrier to achievement (Clance & O’Toole, 1987), and a barrier to productivity something that can already be an issue.
Within my experience, neurodivergence can lead to extremes in terms of how a day feels, and how productive you can be. There are days when you feel full of energy, and capable of accomplishing anything. You work faster and more focused than any of your peers, going hours without moving or taking your hands off the keyboard. These days are rare. More days I lose focus midway through writing something or jump between tasks losing hours to task transitions. On these days you feel useless, hours will fly by without anything to show for it. Thoughts about not being good enough to be a researcher occur on these days. Leading to cycles where the thoughts make you feel powerless to do anything, and not doing anything to legitimise the thoughts. The days when you get stuck in these cycles feel like a chore at best, it becomes like getting tough food marks out of a pan. You struggle to keep at it, and the temptation to leave it is strong. At worst they become days when your brain, and body, simply want to shut down as you become consumed by guilt.
Not everything is doom and gloom however, and something that can really help is knowing that you are not alone. Before my diagnosis I had felt quite alone. In my hometown I had felt like I didn’t fit well, even when with friends. I thought perhaps it was my goals weren’t aligned and I imagined at university I would fit. And I did a bit more, but I was always the energetic one or chaotic one, even when framed as a good thing it highlighted the difference. I could be surrounded by people on the same course, with the same interests and still feel isolated. Only after my undergraduate degree did I meet someone, who happened to be a doctor, that recognised my behaviours as ADHD indicators. Even without a formal diagnosis, after going on forums and seeing other people’s experiences I almost instantly felt less alone in the world. I saw people describe things that I had felt like “time-blindness” or “doom boxes.” I now had words to describe my experience and some suggestions for what had helped others. Seeing my own experience reflected in others not only validated my experience but gave me a deeper understanding of my own thought and behaviour patterns. Now when I have bad productivity days, I do my best to be kind to myself, and understand it is not a reflection of my ability.
As for getting a formal assessment. I chose to get assessed mid-way through my MSc, partly because of the support it would open to me. Another reason was that the country I had been living in previously still did not have an official diagnosis for adult ADHD (and this was in 2020). The process of registering my diagnosis within student services was quite quick. The biggest benefit was the 7-day extension on deadlines I could get for essays. Especially because at times I would have multiple essays due on the same day. The extra week allowed me to focus on one essay and submit it on the deadline, and then the next week the other essay. In addition, I was allotted extra time for exams. The extra time was very useful as it helped alleviate the intense time stress I feel in exam conditions, allowing me extra time to plan and organise my answers, and time to recheck my answers to make sure I had fully read and understood the question.
I believe talking about neurodiversity is important, and especially within academia. Academia at times can feel like a monolith, something which only a certain type of person can gain entrance. Many neurodivergent people can feel that they are too unfocused and disorganised. And many traditional assessments support this. Writing logically planned and methodical essays, while being concise, can seem impossible to people whose brains aren’t designed to think linearly. Despite this however, there is very much a place in academia for neurodiverse people. According to the Office for Students’ 2020 report 14.5% of students identified as neurodiverse or disabled (Office For Students, 2020), while other reports estimate 20%. Such an amount is not to be overlooked, and through remembering that up to a fifth of those within universities are neurodiverse we can feel less alone.
Talking about experiences is also helpful for sharing ways to overcome barriers like days full of reading or writing with no motivation. My own tips/methods are not a cure-all, and they are mostly taken from better, more experienced people (I recommend the following YouTube channels: How To ADHD, Dr Amina Yonis and Productivity and ADHD). I follow academics on Twitter to help with my motivation, I recommend following neurodiverse researchers like @ZJAyres and the hashtags #DisabledInSTEM and #AcademicMentalHealth. I also read a lot of blog articles written by neurodivergent researchers and students eager to share their experiences.
But the following have helped:
- Text to speech software for reading – if I am reading visually and hearing what I’m reading my mind doesn’t wander as much.
- Blocking out spaces in my calendar for self-directed work and SPECIFYING what I am working on.
- Loud fast paced music can help me zone in on tasks
- Turning off notifications, including Outlook.
- Chrome plug-ins, like mindful browsing or Momentum, to cut down on distracting sites.
Mainly anything that helps me focus my brain on a single task and limit the temptation to swap to other tasks. Because transitioning between tasks, or having to re-remember what I was doing previously, is how I lose hours into the atmosphere.
Overall, there is a big need within academia for diversification (and sincere diversification). Not just for neurodiversity of disability, but for race, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, and much more. At Sussex we are more fortunate to have active communities and groups that are pushing for change and greater representation. In-terms of neurodiversity and disability, we have a student-led campaign group called “Access Sussex,” a Disabled Students Forum Discord server, and part-time Disability Officers within the SU. All of which provide opportunity for support and community within Sussex. In addition, many staff are open about their own something and the barriers they face, which can be validating to hear for many students. I really encourage anyone reading this blog to read more experiences of those who identify as neurodiverse, and support movements for change. The BPS has some suggestions for making universities more neurodiverse friendly (https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/celebrating-neurodiversity-higher-education). What we have is okay, but we need more opportunities, spaces to share, and representation to continue breaking down the academia monolith.
My name is Josh, I am a first year PhD researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. My research area is surrounding body image dissatisfaction within children, and investigating the impact of school transitions. My goal before finishing my PhD is to pilot a possible early intervention to alleviate body image dissatisfaction, preferably that can be delivered between peers within school.
Alongside my studies I am a student representative for PGRs in Psychology, and member of Access Sussex a student-led disability campaign group (https://sussexstudent.com/activities/view/access-sussex). And when I’m not working, I love playing board games, crafting, and buying too many house plants.
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: A Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
Clance, P. R., & O’Toole, M. A. (1987). The Imposter Phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women & Therapy, 6, 51–64. https://doi.org/10.1300/J015V06N03_05
Students, O. for. (2020, June 25). Disabled students—Office for Students (Worldwide). Office for Students. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/coronavirus-briefing-note-disabled-students/