For as long as I can remember, I always knew my brain was different. Things didn't come as easy to me as I assumed they did for my peers. I thought I was lazy or not as bright as them. I always felt I needed to work harder and was terrified to ask for help. Flash forward a few decades and SURPRISE! It was because I have ADHD and my brain is different AND things can be more difficult for me. I have become pretty good at masking my needs, little rituals, and behaviours that are “different” or considered “weird” by my friends and family. Masking is something many neurodivergent people do to hide their true selves to assimilate into the neurotypical world. As you can imagine, it can be exhausting pretending to be someone you are not all day, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Masking can also take a physical toll resulting in frequent headaches, and an overall feeling of unwellness and dread. Masking, however, was not absolute and my true self would peak through at times which made me feel uncomfortable around others. People have always called me quirky or weird as an endearing sentiment, but as someone who truly does feel weirder than the rest, this can weigh on my mind and self-esteem. Now in my 40s and working at OBA, I can accept my true self and be valued for all those “weird” things I do. The little girl from my past would be so proud to see how far we have come!
Advocating for myself and my needs has never been easy and I would risk failure and missed opportunities simply because I was too embarrassed to ask for what I needed. During my days in school, I would often be filled with anxiety during tests and too embarrassed to ask for more time or clarification for questions. I would also (and still do) get very distracted by voices and sounds in the classroom, and in the 90’s accommodations were rare or unheard of. It would have centered me out from my peers, so hiding things was just easier. In my personal life, I often forget important dates which is frustrating for those in my life, this is not intentional. I just forget! Since I am very easily distracted, I often appear as though I am not listening, when in fact I am processing what the speaker is saying as well as the many sounds I am unable to filter out. This puts a strain on my personal and professional relationships which has weighed heavy on my heart all these years. I am still learning how to advocate for myself, however, at OBA I feel comfortable and supported to speak up and tell Kathie, and my coworkers what I need to be successful and content.
Things that are difficult for me and the things I simply need to get through the day have certainly changed over the years, but some remain the same. Loud noises, forgetting important dates, crowds, or the perception of rejection and disappointment can severely impact my success in professional and personal relationships. Our needs don't magically stop when we leave elementary school. So why do we stop accommodating people's needs as they get older? When we are small it is in people's nature to support and help, as we grow older the expectation is to know the rules and fall in line with the rest. With each passing stage in a child’s life, their needs change and we, as their support system, need to adapt and change as well. Being compassionate and believing our kiddos when they come to us and tell us what they need is key. In elementary school, kids may need visuals with pictures or close proximity to their teacher or parent when completing tasks. Headphones, quiet workspaces, deep-pressure activities and the ability to sit in a special chair are just a few of the accommodations a child may need. As they grow and enter high school, those visuals may change to a To-Do list, more space from teachers and parents BUT still having them close by for comfort. When they move on and are out in the world alone they will still need these things. Heck! I need at least four visual cues for events in several different formats so I don't forget! We don't stop needing access to these things because we get physically bigger. Our brains are still diverse. Don’t be afraid to ask your child, your coworker, or your friend if there is something you can help with if you notice them having a tough time. The worst thing they can say is no - we are trying to teach and raise empathic beings and that starts with us. Checking in can open the door to a bigger conversation and could potentially change the projection of a young person's life. Accommodating is inclusion and inclusion helps foster acceptance of our true selves and a better quality of life.
The revelation of intrinsic inclusion wasn't something that came naturally to me. It took a lot of years and experience working with children and their families to understand what children need. It took a lot of inner work to realize that I was one of those children who needed accommodations and with that opened the door to being truly accommodating in the work that I do. Accommodations are just a part of the day in the Living Skills program - visuals, timers, and transitional warnings are built into our program. Letting the students know we are here for them, and whatever they need is key to their success. We are preparing them for the world outside the OBA walls and that includes sticking up for themselves and advocating for what is fair. It is hard to speak up to your peers and teachers and tell them something isn't working for you or you need something extra. The importance of having automatic accommodations in the classroom and creating an environment for them to practice independence in accessing what they need is critical to these teens. In a few years, they will be out there amongst the sometimes cruel world, and we want them to leave with courage and confidence in themselves to speak up for what they need. Small changes that you can make may mean nothing to you, but they might mean the world to someone else. People with Autism, ADHD, etc. are not out there demanding unreasonable accommodations, just small adjustments that make their work/life easier at no cost to you.
Accommodations are not isolated to the world of neurodiversity, everyone can use compassion and support. Be the hero you needed when you were young and check in on your people. Everyone deserves a seat at the table and to access the tools they need to get there!