Having ADHD doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for STEM

As a result of being diagnosed with ADHD, I recently found myself taking a closer look at my experiences with the disability as an educator. A recent study found that college students with ADHD are at an elevated risk of dropping out, and unfortunately, I can see why. Many of the traits associated with ADHD are framed as problematic behaviors, leading to a vast number of folks spending much of their academic lives misunderstood and unsupported. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

ADHD is the result of a deficiency of norepinephrine in the brain, which might cause inattention, problems with organization, impaired executive functioning, and restlessness, among other effects. Students with ADHD might struggle to pay attention during a lecture or have difficulty getting started on tasks (hello, executive dysfunction), and it’s all too easy for educators to mistake these symptoms for a lack of care or interest in the subject.

And therein lies the issue. When students exhibit traits of ADHD, rather than being called in and supported, educators are much more likely to see them as “problem” students.

When students exhibit traits of ADHD, rather than being called in and supported, educators are much more likely to see them as “problem” students.

Internationally acclaimed science communicator Dr. Raven Baxter shared on the ADHD for Smart Ass Women podcast that she was often punished as a child for exhibiting ADHD traits in the classroom (and then she was placed in both special education and the gifted and talented program). All too often, the issues caused by students’ lack of norepinephrine are seen as proof that they’re incapable of what’s expected of them. It’s this separation of the cause from the effect that leads students with ADHD to be left on the sidelines.

This is a problem throughout academia, but I worry most about its effects in STEM. Science and math often require a lot of experimentation, calculation, and careful focus, and when the root cause of ADHD goes ignored, students ultimately suffer and feel unwelcome in their fields. A recent study found that, as both attitude and achievement are integral to students choosing to major in STEM, increasing access to STEM fields for young people with ADHD and/or autism can encourage them to pursue STEM careers. As Dr. Dara Shifrer, the lead researcher on the study, pointed out, “STEM faculty and STEM employers write off lack of representation of people with cognitive disabilities as inevitable, perceiving them as having no potential, but they don’t consider the roles of attitudes and don’t consider their contributions to those attitudes. They’re part of the reason why people don’t feel like they belong.” 

This perceived inevitability of losing students strikes me much the same as so-called “weed-out courses,” which are often used in pre-med programs to signal to students who struggle with certain coursework that they don’t belong. Rather than looking into how we might improve retention with a different approach from academics, we simply dismiss these students as having a lack of potential or capability.

When educators send this message—that a student who struggles in some capacity, whether due to their neurotransmitters or a particularly tricky course, is just not “cut out” for STEM—we lose valuable researchers, teachers, and communicators. 

The thing that hits me the hardest is not just that these students are being pushed out of fields they love, but that academia and academics are teaching them that the reason is some failure on their part—an issue with their character. This is why it’s so problematic to mislabel symptoms of ADHD as laziness or disinterest: academia is communicating to those students that the issues they’re having are because they simply aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right, aren’t putting in the right amount of effort or caring enough. 

The number of students I’ve had come to me to warn me that they simply aren’t capable of chemistry, that they struggle because they’re “stupid” or “bad at math” or whatever story their high school chemistry teacher told them, is heartbreaking. Everyone is capable of chemistry, of science on a broader scale, and to teach students that their struggles are reflections of themselves is infuriating. Nothing makes me sadder as an educator than hearing a student say they’re “too dumb” for this course. 

If you’re reading this and you’ve ever felt that way, let me assure you: there is no such thing. You are absolutely capable of anything you put your mind to, and if that means you need supports or accommodations that you just haven’t found yet, then that is okay. Disability services exist for a reason, and as someone who’s used them many a semester, take it from me when I tell you they can work wonders. And I’m not alone—when discussing her own use of disability services, Dr. Baxter described them as having “meant the world to [her] as a college student.”

You are absolutely capable of anything you put your mind to, and if that means you need supports or accommodations that you just haven’t found yet, then that is okay.

And to academia at large: stop moralizing students’ struggles with their coursework. There is nothing wrong with a student who takes longer to grasp an idea or needs more patience with something new. If someone is sitting in your class, struggling to focus, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t interested in or capable of handling your material. And even if that struggle isn’t coming from ADHD, it is still a reflection of circumstances—not character. 

Even when their brains operate differently than yours, your students are still people who don’t just decide to struggle for no reason. Please, encourage your students to recognize that their challenges don’t make them stupid or incapable or whatever else they’ve been told they mean. Instead, develop environments where learning and growth are celebrated, no matter how long or difficult the road is to get there.

Katie Walsh
Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh is an independent and creative teacher, chemist, and journalist. As a disabled, queer woman, they are focused on designing and implementing justice-oriented, accessible spaces, where folks are encouraged to work within growth mindsets and be excited about learning. Alongside her work in the classroom and in the lab, Katie is also a strong advocate for silenced voices and identities, working with non-profits and social change groups.

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