Everything I Know About Self-Advocacy, I Learned from Willie | ADDA


By Laura K. Champion

My name is Laura and I have ADHD. I’m a chaotic mess of underestimated brilliance. My ADHD allows me to think outside the box. It helps me troubleshoot the impossible. It lets me act on impulse and land opportunities most miss. And it lets me rise again when I’ve fallen so far, I’ve forgotten there is a sky with stars above.

I’m thrilled I’ve found my tribe, you of beautiful chaos and endless possibilities. and my shoulder to cry on. You are my tribe, my people, my brothers and sisters… my validation.

The ancestral tradition of telling stories lets us make meaningful connections with people. Telling stories. Of how you won. Of how you lost. Of how you struggled and how you overcame. These stories open the stage for transparency and trust. We in the ADHD tribe face many of the same demons and have many of the same fears. We also share many of the same strengths, the same amazing gifts that make us the “Top Guns” in this world. I am a passionate advocate for those with disabilities. It makes my heart happy to see the underdog win, overcome and give back to keep their story alive. Those are the stories that give us all hope.

Everything I know about advocating for myself, I learned from a 10-year-old. I do psycho-educational testing to diagnose learning and intellectual disabilities. I also identify executive function deficits. Doing this work for 23 years, I should know a thing or two about advocating for myself! But no, it took a 10-year-old to open my eyes and trigger events that would change my life.

Willie was 10 in the fifth grade. He was receiving special services for his ADHD. I picked him up from his class, walked him to my office and we sat. He was a skinny little guy with dirty blonde hair. He wore a camo t-shirt, jeans and leather work boots. He was an outdoor kind of kid.

He was quiet, fidgety but looking confident. I gave him my spiel, “Willie, the reason I pulled you out of class today is to…” Willie stops me in mid-sentence. Willie says, “I know why you pulled me out. You pulled me out because I have an ADHD brain.” I asked him to tell me more about his ADHD brain.

A little professor, Willie stated, “Well, my brain is different. I think differently than other people. My teacher gets mad at me because she thinks I’m lazy, but I’m not lazy. It takes me a little longer to understand and to focus. Things like too much noise from students’ talking or bright lights make me not pay attention.

Other kids pick on me because I’m different. One boy yells in my ear because he knows noise bothers me. I push him away when he does that. The teacher sees me and gets mad. She doesn’t see the other boy yelling in my ear. It makes me mad because my teacher thinks I’m lazy and that I push kids around. But I’m not lazy. And I’m not pushing kids around. I’m just different.

I felt a moment of clarity. It was as if a great light beamed into MY ADHD brain and screamed, “Wake up!” I said, “Willie, I test high school kids and not one of them has ever been able to tell me how their ADHD brain works. I am so proud of you! Let me tell you a secret. I have an ADHD brain too and noise and light drive me crazy!” We high fived, got to work and finished in record time.

When I walked him back to class, his teacher asked me how he did. When I told her he did an awesome job she asked, “How did you get him to work? I didn’t think you’d get anything out of him”.

I said, “Oh, we think alike.”

I was new to the district and still learning the ropes. When I started, I told my employer I needed a space. I needed a place where I could organize my files and test kits. I needed a “home” for my system for task completion.

My “office” was a conference room where other people had meetings three days each week. On those days I had to pack my files, test kits and tasks. I loaded it all into my car for the drive to another campus. There, I searched for another office only to be kicked out of each one as well. I ended up working in the corner of the lunch room.

Trying to work, I would find I needed the one file I left behind. After an unproductive day, I would go home, only to work until midnight on the most critical tasks. By then, my Adderall had worn off and my executive functions were asleep. You can imagine what Willie’s report looked like.

My boss called me in to talk. On her desk was Willie’s report, marked in red with comments in the margins. Once she completed her list of ‘how you suck,’ she said,” Given your experience, I am very disappointed.

I sat for a moment to process. It was my birthday. My first thought was “I’m 49. This has to be the worst birthday of my life.” I felt numb. Then I thought of Willie. I could see him advocating for himself. I heard him explaining how his ADHD brain worked. My heart broke because I had failed him. All these thoughts happened in milliseconds, my ADHD brain sparking, sorting, analyzing, processing.

I looked up at my boss. I dusted off the shame and said, “Thank you.” I told her, “I’m the problem here. I told you I needed an office. But I didn’t say it loud enough for you to hear me. I didn’t advocate for myself in a way that would make you understand how it would affect my performance. It fell on deaf ears. It’s my fault. I take full ownership of that.”

Now here is the twist. I had known this situation was not going to end well. I had started looking for other opportunities before I met Willie. I’d already had an interview and received an offer. I said, “Actually, I’m glad you called me in. I wanted to talk to you about an amazing opportunity I’m taking.” The look on her face was my best birthday gift ever!

I took the new position. I communicated my needs to my new boss. I now have my very own little office working with individuals who are willing to hear me.

I made a commitment that day. I would learn to speak the words to be heard. I looked for a place I could accept and embrace my ADHD as Willie had. My search led me to ADDA. Because of Willie I’m home. I’ve found my tribe.

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