Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reading With An Attention Disorder

When I was about fourteen/fifteen years old, I was diagnosed with ADD — Inattentive Type. It was an incredible realization.  I finally understood why my mind was so dreamy — especially as a kid — and why schoolwork was becoming so difficult to manage.  I know a lot of people dislike labeling children (and adults) with "disorders," but getting this diagnosis was a godsend.  Being able to put a name to my behaviors was the first step in knowing myself.

There is some confusion about the difference between the Hyperactive and Inattentive Types of the condition. Hyperactive AD/HD is commonly understood.  Imagine a kid who can't stop moving.  Inattentive types, who fly under the radar more, can be quite still, however.  They often look dreamy and dazed, staring off into space, and are notoriously absent-minded.  They may have trouble completing tasks.  On the flip side, Inattentives, along with Hyperactives, can have immense focus — directed towards certain things.  This immense focus has a name — hyperfocus — and in my experience, it shows its head when I'm doing something I really enjoy.

Like reading.  It's not uncommon for me to start a book and not pause the activity until the final page has been read.  Many times I've read through the entire night.  I tote books along to restaurants and read while my family talks.  I read while walking.  While eating.  I don't use bookmarks, because I so rarely put a book down to come back to it later.  If I do return to a book, I can find my place again easily, because I remember the last thing I read.  I'm a very fast reader and can zoom through books with astonishing speed. Hyperfocus is kind of like a superpower.

I can do these because I have ADD and because I love reading.  However.  Like most people, there are some books that I don't enjoy reading.  Uninteresting textbooks.  Scholarly articles.  Most non-fiction. A lot of antiquated writing. Dry writing. Slow writing.  Bad writing.

In these cases reading in incredibly difficult!  The superpower is nowhere to be seen.  The words are slippery.  They fly out of my mind like my brain is treading on banana peels instead of words.  I struggle to get through one sentence.  Trying to keep my focus on the meaning of the words on the page is like trying to steer a car with sliding wheels.  I can't keep still; I slump in my chair, then shrug upright.  I get up a dozen times for snacks.  I cannot focus.

This is my experience in reading with ADD.  Like the disorder itself, it's a case of extremes.  However, I have learned a few coping mechanisms that I'd like to share.  These six tips are especially useful for academic reading.

1. Don't make yourself read. Make yourself get interested.

This is a backdoor approach.  When trying reading something, and having a difficult time, don't keep trying to force yourself to keep going.  Try to understand what you're reading and from there, try to get interested.  By getting intrigued by what you're reading, you might be able to access that incredible hyperfocus that people with ADD and AD/HD are blessed with.  Then, what was undesirable reading becomes a snap.

2. Pause and recap.

A lot of the times, I start hydroplaning while I read.  I skate over words and phrases and paragraphs without logging any of the meaning.  If you find yourself doing this, stop every paragraph or two and recap verbally what you just read.  That's right. Talk out loud to yourself.  When your mind is foggy, speaking out loud helps to crystalize your thoughts.

3. Take breaks with reasonable rewards.

People with ADD and AD/HD loooove breaks.  This is because maintaining attention against their will is exhausting.  Be kind to yourself and and rest periodically.  BUT. Don't start to do something that you really really enjoy, because your break might turn into full-blown avoidance.  For instance, if I treat myself during a break to reading a book, I might not get back to what I'm doing for a long time.

4.  Smart underlining.

My ADD frequently makes me pick up an activity and drop it mere moments later.  This is the case with highlighting and underlining.  I'll do it for a few minutes and then drop off completely.  A method of underlining that I've found to work is finding the topic sentence of a paragraph.  If what you're reading is good writing (and non-fiction), it ought to have a sentence in each paragraph that sums up what the paragraph is about.  Find this topic sentence and pin it like a butterfly.  This is also helpful when combined with tip two.

5. Read out loud.

Speaks for itself. (Haha!)

6. Get help.

Sometimes, your brain is just not up to the task of focusing. It happens.  Know when to get help.  If you can rely on some major kindness from family and friends, ask them to read out loud to you.  I knew a girl with AD/HD in college who had her boyfriend read her assignments to her over the phone.  For those of us without such a devoted paramour, your school's Disability Services ought to provide recordings of textbooks and course material if you ask for it in advance.  If what you need read to you is common enough, you might be able to find a voice recording at your library or online.

Hopefully, these tips and tricks can help someone out.  I know that attention disorders are actually very common, especially in the United States. When I worked as a tutor in college, I met with many students who struggled with ADD and AD/HD.  It was a joyful experience to be able to help people who also had an attention deficit get ahead in their reading — and writing — by using techniques that I developed myself, as a person with ADD.

For my final words, see ADD and AD/HD as a blessing!  It's easy to think of all the negative aspects — the disorder side — of an attention deficit, but there are many positives that come from a disordered and abnormal mindset as well.  People with AD/HD and ADD are frequently creative and great improvisors.  They can be talented athletes.  In some cases, they can be great readers!  All in all, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and its important to recognize both in ourselves.


  1. Great post, Ellen :). I will say that these tips are helpful for anyone struggling with strenuous academic reading :P.
    Also, I'm loving your blog's new look!

    1. Thanks Sierra! By the way, I'm incredibly excited about your new blog. I tried to post a comment on there, but I seem to be having technical difficulties. :(

    2. No worries, and thanks so much for visiting!
      PS: I've been missing you on Leafmarks lately. Come baaaaaack :P.

  2. This is brilliantly supportive and wonderful and excellent. I honestly never thought about how ADHD would affect reading
    By the by! I tagged you in the Sisterhood of the world bloggers award cause I think you're fab! It's here:
    Drop me a link if you do it! I'd love to read :D