The twist of an orange bottle cap, a single capsule full of little white spheres, a gulp of milk — the routine is so ingrained in Copeland Carter, a junior studying computer engineering, that he hardly thinks about what he’s doing. But he does think about the time.
It’s 9:18 a.m.
He has eleven hours; twelve if he’s lucky.
“I’m constantly aware of when I take my meds so I can plan when I can do homework,” Carter said. “Because I know that ten, or eleven-hour cutoff is real.’”
For Carter, ADHD has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
The CDC defines ADHD or ADD — an outdated term now absorbed into the more general ADHD — as a neurodevelopmental disorder that often manifests as “trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active.”
“More people say ADHD, I’ve found, but I use ADD because it’s shorter,” Carter said.
An estimated 16% of current American college students have an ADHD diagnosis, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.
1,268 current BYU- Idaho students with diagnosed ADHD are registered with the university’s Accessibility Services Department.
“The majority of people that we serve are actually mental health, learning disabilities or things that you don’t see necessarily — so the invisible disabilities,” said Nate Reese, an Accessibility Services Administrator. “Under the legal definition, a disability is any physical or mental impairment that limits you in daily activities of daily living or functioning, such as schoolwork or academics. So, ADHD, if it impacts a student in these categories, does qualify.”
Accessibility Services assists students with ADHD by equipping them with tools and technology that help them learn in a way more accessible to them, such as e-textbooks and audio textbooks, preferential seating to help them focus in class, study buddies to help them stay on track and occasional extensions on assignment due dates.
The goal is to help students succeed without lowering academic standards of excellence or giving anyone a “free pass.”
“They still have to do the work like any other student,” Reese said.
Carter, for his part, had no idea this kind of help for students with ADHD existed on campus.
“I never even considered it,” Carter said.
Carter, after his first few semesters at college, instituted a rule for himself when working on homework: If there are five minutes of staring blankly at his computer screen trying to remember what he was doing for every two minutes of actual work, he knows it’s time to call it quits.
Like a lot of things in his life, Carter likens ADHD to computers.
“It’s like having a really fast processor with very, very, very little RAM (random-access memory) that keeps disconnecting,” Carter said. “So, you can think real well but your short-term memory is shot and just kaput out every once in a while.”
Carter doesn’t believe that ADHD holds him back in his schooling. In fact, he prefers to see it as a benefit.
“I’m way further ahead (in college) just because, when you’re ADD, when you’re interested in something it’s really, really hard to put that down,” Carter said. “A lot of times it’s not attention deficit, it’s attention misallocation.”
Carter’s silver Lenovo laptop contains folder after folder of neatly organized computer programming projects in four different coding languages.
His latest interest is artificial intelligence, and he’s working on what he calls “Ant-AI:” a computer program where red pixels (ants) scavenge for yellow pixels (food) and bring it back to the simulated tabletop.
“The goal is to get (the ants) to — by themselves — learn to go, wander, find food and bring it back to their home,” Carter said. “You can do that with a reinforcement learning algorithm, so you can do that with genetic algorithms and they’re really fun to play around with.”
Carter says that he’s acutely aware of how his brain works differently than most other people’s, but that is another plus for his college and future career success.
“(Having ADHD) means my brain is very well tuned to programming,” Carter said.
Carter employs many strategies to help him cope with his ADHD, including exercise (he’s an avid rollerskater), list-making and taking medication prescribed by a professional.
“Medication is not something to be shunned,” Carter said. “But, I mean, it’s not right for everyone.”
Anileah Gay belongs in the “everyone” category.
Gay, a freshman studying theatre, was nervous about dealing with her ADHD in college and living away from her family.
“Before I came to college, we tried medication to see if it might help,” Gay said. “But I was too ADHD to ever remember to take my medication, so it never made much of a difference for me.”
Gay registered with the university’s Accessibility Services. They helped her obtain e-textbooks for all her courses.
“That way I can read along and listen, which is nice, so I get less distracted,” Gay said.
Knitting projects are never too far from Gay — the fidgeting helps her mind focus.
Gay will often knit simple squares, she doesn’t usually do anything particular with the squares, but it occupies her hands during class, church or just about anything else.
“I’ve tried stuffed animals a couple of times, but that requires counting stitches and I always get distracted, so I knit squares,” Gay said.
Support from family and friends is key to helping her succeed, especially in academics.
Gay participates in Humor Code, a sketch comedy club on campus, and enjoys a tight-knit circle of friends that meet for daily scripture study.
“Being around good, supportive, encouraging people is just so important,” Gay said. “Join a club. Be around people.”
Any student with an official ADHD diagnosis can register for aid from the Accessibility Services here.