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Academic Coaching & Writing

VIII. Is Dyslexia or ADHD Affecting Your Writing Process?

Oct 22, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

If you’re like most academics, you’re probably asked regularly to make accommodations for students with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These conditions, of course, don’t just affect students. The truth is that dyslexia and ADHD tend to occur in creative people with high IQs—people, in other words, who may be inclined to seek careers in academia. And both conditions can have a big impact on your writing process.

A single blog, of course, can’t address the complexity that characterizes these common glitches in cognitive processing. But it can introduce recent research that debunks myths about them. And, more importantly, it can suggest to those of you who have dyslexia or ADHD how you can work with (rather than fight against) the way your mind functions best.

What Are Dyslexia and ADHD?

Both of these labels are umbrella terms that cover a wide range of cognitive traits. Though scientists and educators debate exactly what defines dyslexia, they agree it is marked by problems in auditory and/or visual processing of phonemes (the sounds or building blocks of language that we represent with letters). Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Dyslexics are teople poo!” As it humorously suggests, when reading or writing, dyslexics tend to invert letters and drop words from sentences or put them in the wrong order. Spelling is often a problem, as are mistakes in recording numbers. Despite these difficulties, many dyslexics are gifted in verbal reasoning and creativity. Most, however, need more time to read and write than non-dyslexics.

ADHD, similarly, is complex and can present challenges that appear strikingly different from each other. People who take in and process stimuli in their environment very quickly may seem hyperactive and jump from one idea or task to the next and have difficulty finishing any one thing. Others with ADHD may be overwhelmed by the tremendous richness of details that they cannot help but notice and become overwhelmed and seem to “space out.”

The most important thing to understand about both dyslexia and ADHD is that these glitches in cognition are just part of a very complex picture of brain function. And, of course, levels of severity vary greatly. In other words, unlike pregnancy, you can indeed be a little dyslexic or have mild ADHD. The good news is that these conditions tend to coincide with unusually strong aptitudes in other aspects of cognitive function. Recent studies, for instance, suggest that dyslexic adults consistently demonstrate the ability to quickly grasp the “big picture,” and like people with ADHD, tend to be highly creative.

Coping With Dyslexia and ADHD

Of course, dyslexia and ADHD are distinct conditions. In other words, having one does not mean you necessarily have the other. But I’m discussing them together for two reasons. First, dyslexia and ADHD are often “co-morbid,” which is just a gloomy way of saying many dyslexics have ADHD too (although one condition may predominate). Second, despite the different cognitive glitches that underlie these disorders, many of the same strategies work to improve the writing experience of authors.

Create structured writing times and writing spaces. Planning daily sessions (or at least five sessions a week) dedicated to working on your research and writing is critical. Establish a space for your writing insulated from distractions, unplug from email and other media, and ask those around you not to interrupt during your regular writing hours. These sessions need be no longer than an hour or an hour-and-a-half, however. In fact, they’re likely to be more productive and satisfying if you avoid long stretches of trying to focus on writing.

Build time for transitions into your schedule. This is probably the most vital, but overlooked, part of establishing an effective writing process for people with dyslexia, ADHD, or both. It’s understandable to want to move quickly from one item to the next item on your to-do list. But people with ADHD and/or dyslexia are often either fatigued from intense focus or hyper-stimulated. Seamlessly moving from one activity to the next proves difficult. The solution is to build transition time—10, 15, or 30 minutes between activities—into your calendar. You might use that transition time to stretch, take a quick walk, have a snack, and then check your calendar for the location and time of your next meeting before you set off.

Design and maintain systems for keeping track of your research, notes, and drafts. Research librarians at universities are often available for consultation with scholars about the latest software to record and track citations and notes. Whatever system you use to organize your work, dedicate time (such as an hour once or twice a week) to updating your files in that system.

Beware of becoming too regimented. Perfect adherence to a rigorous schedule doesn’t always mean success. In fact, it’s likely to make you eventually feel resentful and resist regularly sitting down to write. You are not a robot, after all! The real goal is finding the right balance between periods of intense focus and periods of rest or play. Working with your brain, rather than against it, means allowing a little room for unstructured, seemingly purposeless activities or lines of thought. Build in times for wandering—for pursuing tangents that your curiosity pulls you toward.

Experiment with auditory technology for composing. Try out some of the speech recognition software available now—like the Dragon program from Nuance, Inc.—that transcribes speech into writing. This technology can give your visual processing centers a break from staring at the shifting black squiggles you create and replace as you draft. Another suggestion is to read work out loud. This is a simple and effective way to hone your attention, especially if you happen to be stronger in auditory, as opposed to visual, processing of information.

Experiment with settings on your word processing program. Try different ways of formatting your writing on the page. For instance, to make reading a little easier as you draft, set your word processor for left justification only (rather than left and right justification). Just see if that simple change doesn’t make editing easier and less tiring.

Consider using a proofreader. Many professional authors find using a professional proofreader or copyeditor a way to save time and reduce frustration in the editing process.

Don’t skimp on exercise or sleep. Despite the intellectual gifts that often accompany these conditions, there’s no escaping the fact that people with dyslexia and AHDH often have to work harder than others. As lauded novelist John Irving admits, “I have learned that if you have to concentrate twice as hard, you get twice as tired, twice as soon.” (quoted in Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, p. 348). That fatigue cannot only make the process unpleasant, it can diminish the quality of your work. So, even more than other writers, people with dyslexia and ADHD need to take breaks after an hour or so of concentrating. For the same reason, refreshing your mind and body with exercise and adequate sleep is not a luxury. It’s an essential foundation for sustaining the quality and quantity of your work.

If behavior modifications like the ones suggested above aren’t enough, consider consulting with a medical professional who specializes in treating adults. Some people with ADHD find medication highly beneficial, but those drugs also can have side effects. And medication alone rarely completely resolves the problems. You’re more likely to achieve the maximum benefit from using a combination of approaches.

Finally, realize that as a professional researcher, you are in a better position than most to figure out the best path for working with your dyslexia or ADHD. Use your imagination, research skills, and expertise in designing and measuring experiments to find solutions that work for you.

The next and last blog in this series explores the flip side of dealing with challenges to writing by describing how writers can experience the wonder of “flow states” and “eureka” moments.

Recommended Reading for More Information

Moody, S. (2006) Dyslexia: How to Survive and Succeed at Work. London, England: Vermillion. 

Shaywitz, S. (2003) Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf.

Surman, C., & Bilkey, T. (2013). Fast Minds: How to Thrive if You Have ADHD (Or Think You Might). New York, NY: Berkeley.

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