In third grade a learning specialist pulled me out of class and said, “you’re reading at an 8th grade level, but you can hardly spell. Don’t you look at the words when you read them?”
I was nonplussed. Was it possible to read the words without looking at them? I chalked her question up to the inscrutableness of adults.
In retrospect, her question actually betrays a conflation between two separate skillsets: it is possible to be able to decode words and still have trouble spelling them just as it is possible to be an excellent thinker or researcher and still have trouble with the writing process or writing itself. And yet it echoes situations I see all the time where graduate students hear or say to themselves, “You’re so smart—why don’t you just get this dissertation done?”
The problem is that smart and done, like reading and spelling, are not causally linked, especially if you bring challenges like dyslexia, ADD, OCD, or slow visual processing to your writing desk.
It’s not accidental that my areas of cognitive strength overlapped with the tasks my corner of the university demanded, namely large chunks of writing. Most of us play to our strengths, academically speaking. However, my strategy of simply avoiding my areas of cognitive struggle (I am the only Ph.D. I know who skipped the math section on the GRE) is not available to most students since the university demands significant writing from virtually everyone.
Additionally, after a lifetime of receiving messages about what we are “good” and “bad” at, it is not easy to change our perceptions of ourselves as learners. Nevertheless, I have come to love working with scholars for whom writing is not necessarily easy or pleasurable. I am committed to helping scholars challenge their perception of themselves as “bad writers,” just as I have slowly come to challenge my perception of myself as “hopeless at math.”
When I work with clients who are struggling with writing for reasons related to neurodivergence or mental health, I operate from a place of empathy and shared problem solving. I help academic writers identify and overcome obstacles, access their intelligence in written form, and learn how to work with rather than against their cognitive and affective needs. I help students advocate for themselves and mobilize the resources they need to be successful.
I am excited to share all of these strategies in a new online mini-course, How to Thrive as an Academic with Writing Challenges Related to Neurodiversity or Mental Health.
Download our extensive resource sheet on neurodiversity and mental health for academics here.