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As a writer, disability is my greatest strength

Student struggles to organize thoughts while working on a computer.

As someone with learning and thinking differences, I know how important it is to find a career path that works with — rather than against — my brain.

I’m working toward a BA in journalism, and I recently started freelancing. I would describe myself as a “lifestyle, culture, and wellness writer.” And I mostly write from a first-person perspective.

I have ADHD with slow processing speed and poor motor coordination. But my disability — even the worst parts of it — serves as a catalyst for my craft.

I often rely on written communication to paint an accurate picture of my abilities and to convey the nuances of my personality. Some of my articles directly address my disability, cutting into the misconceptions and false assumptions surrounding it. Other articles illuminate the aspects of my life that get overshadowed by my disability. My neurodivergent thinking helps me to see connections that others may miss. And my word processor gives me space to streamline my scattered thoughts into incisive stories.

I was one of those kids who went through pronounced phases. When I was 5, I wanted to become a veterinarian because I liked dogs. When I was 9, I realized that I was more interested in behavior than biology, so I switched to wanting to be a dog trainer. When I was 11, I wanted to become an illustrator, because I liked to doodle. I never thought I’d be a writer, but the signs have been there all along.

At the beginning of seventh grade, I started writing personal essays. One essay in particular started as just another Microsoft Word document. I had outlined how I felt about certain things. I’d known for a long time that I had a disability, but I was oblivious to how it affected my daily life. That all changed once I was shunned by my classmates.

From that point on, I became more intentional about seeking professional help. And I thought it was a good idea to write out what kind of support I needed. Before I knew it, I had a 10-page booklet detailing my experiences, thus far, with a disability.

I was proud of what I’ve created. So I shared it with my English teacher, who loved it. When I mentioned that I might still make changes to the booklet, she offered to meet with me after school to help me edit.

The first time I met with her, she told me that a lot of what I wrote resonated with her, because she has an autistic family member. Occasionally, she asked me questions, prompting me to elaborate. I didn’t always know how to explain something, so she ended up writing a couple of sentences for me. She didn’t try to argue with my opinions or change my tone; she merely translated.

From this my confidence grew, and so did my target audience. That audience widened from a circle of trusted adults to everyone at school — including my peers. I kept writing, and soon I had a 100-page manuscript that I planned to self-publish on CreateSpace. I was hoping that I could publish before I graduated from eighth grade, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I had a mental health crisis and ended up in the hospital. After a series of panic attacks, I made the decision to give up on the book. My mind went quiet. It was a sense of serenity that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.

When the panic attacks subsided, I came up with the idea of starting a blog. I wanted to document my life in real time. So I told my friends that the whole book thing didn’t work out, and I convinced my parents to let me start a blog.

While working on the introductory post for my new blog, Openly Autistic, I stumbled across an article that explained ADHD and DCD. And when I Googled these terms, I was stunned.

These descriptions accurately captured years of my personal struggles. From this article, I learned that both autism and ADHD can cause a person to interrupt others. A person with autism might interrupt someone because they don’t know when it’s their turn to speak. But a person with ADHD might interrupt someone because their thoughts are racing. As I learned more, I talked more with my parents. And they agreed to have me evaluated.

It was true. I had ADHD.

When I started college, my ADHD became increasingly debilitating. I went from waking up at 6:30 every morning to put on makeup before classes to not brushing my teeth for a week. I spent most of my time and energy trying my best to complete the bare minimum coursework. I rarely wrote beyond what was required for my classes. My first semester — held on Zoom — was a disaster. I had experienced a traumatic event, and shortly after, I reached a breaking point with my barely managed ADHD.

But then I started writing again. I had the chance to write the article I’ve always wanted to: a piece detailing my experiences with a disability and its impact on my day-to-day life.

I wrote what would later be published as “This Is What I Want People to Understand About My Disability” for Collective World. In its beginning stages, it was an essay and it flowed so nicely. I had spent at least 100 hours writing it. It was clear and concise. But for some reason, I still doubted myself.

Everyone told me I was a gifted writer, but my disability made me feel like an imposter. Anyone could write a decent article if they spent 100 hours working on it, right? Anyone. So what made me different?

I tried to remind myself that my neurological differences directly impacted how I wrote. Organization isn’t my strong suit, and my academic accommodations always included extended time.

I didn’t want to be good at writing for someone who is learning disabled. I didn’t want to be good at writing given my circumstances. I wanted to be good at writing period.

But what does that even mean — to be good at something?

My originality is my greatest asset. People find my writing interesting. My experiences serve a purpose beyond filling in diversity quotas or tugging at heartstrings. I have ideas that only I can come up with. No one can replicate my voice.

Looking back, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. As an entry-level writer with a disability, I face rejection on a regular basis. But I don’t let that discourage me. My writings always find a home. Always.

This for/by piece was brought to you by Understood.

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