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Columns

To Be a Neurodivergent Harvard Student

By Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe, Crimson Opinion Writer
​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe ’24 is a Neuroscience concentrator and Crimson Editorial editor in Mather House. Her column “Adhdventures” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Today, er, tonight, I want to pull back the curtain on the writing process for the words you’re reading. Today (Saturday) was a bad executive function day, meaning that it took until 11:20 p.m. for me to even open this document and start typing. And then it took another five minutes for me to muster the energy to write the next sentence.

ADHD is something that I’ve had for as long as I can remember, even if I didn’t know that I had it. It’s something that affects every facet of my existence, even if you’re not aware of it behind these words, or even if I do everything I can to make sure that you don’t notice it (old masking habits die hard). People seem to think of neurodivergent identities as ones that exist sporadically, confined to their own boxes — when in reality, especially for neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism, they always exist, since they’re fundamentally part of who we are.

So today, I want to go back to where it all began for me writing this column: being neurodivergent at Harvard. Having bad executive function days here. Existing at Harvard.

Part of the ability to continue stems simply from not knowing what possibilities for better existed. As Kris King ’24, who is autistic with ADHD and comorbid learning difficulties, wrote in a statement to me, “It is because I never experienced true accessibility I was able to survive at Harvard. I did not know that I deserved better, that I could have better. This is the responsibility of no individual, but rather a system that is inaccessible at every. possible. turn.”

Add to the fact that, as Jailene Ramos ‘24 points out, “Harvard is a major stressor.” Ramos, who has ADHD and clinical depression, continues, “Despite all the things they say, all the things they try to advertise, Harvard very much is not a safe space for BIPOC FGLI students, definitely not, and it probably won’t be for a long time.”

Upon coming to Harvard, I realized that my life was extraordinarily unsustainable. I was fully nocturnal, so overworked that I was missing meals, and my raging perfectionism had reached new levels that I didn’t even know were possible from the stress of doing a week’s worth of assignments in a night.

Yet, despite my struggles, it took me far longer than expected to provide myself with the space to acknowledge that it might not just be me because of how intense and unhealthy the work culture is at Harvard.

By second semester, I had a bad enough breakdown that flipped the switch from “my study habits are quirky and unorthodox,” to “I really need help. I can’t go on like this.”

If anything, knowing I’m neurodivergent has allowed me to take the time and compassion to forgive myself for bad executive function days or crashing for the second night in a row while writing a piece (it’s now Monday morning).

Maya P. ’24 summarizes Harvard’s lack of inclusivity, especially for neurodivergent students: “Harvard's really intense,” and “it's not very inclusive of people who operate in other ways.” Maya, who has ADHD and an excoriation disorder, explains: “Even though there hasn't really been anything explicitly said to me, I definitely feel like I've been forgotten about by a system that's supposed to be inclusive of everyone.”

Though I and other neurodivergent students don’t hear it enough, we belong here, and we deserve to have similar opportunities and support to attain success, even though that’s far from the reality.

It’s not that we’re not successful — as Maya explains, “My grades have been fine because I always managed, but I’ve been managing at the expense of my well-being.”

In this regard though, we deserve to celebrate our creativity, our inventiveness, and our solutions to find ways to attain success with limited support and additional barriers. As Maya notes, “there are definitely things that I think I'm better at purely because I've been forced to become better at it to compensate for other lapses,” from learning how to synthesize large amounts of information quickly or develop the skills necessary to get three psets done in one night by oneself, as Maya used to last semester.

I know that no matter how much I write, no one will ever exactly be able to understand my or others’ experiences with neurodiversity. These are just a handful of stories from Harvard students who identify with neurodiversity, and that’s all they are. And really, it doesn’t have to be about everyone else. If this piece makes one more person acknowledge their accomplishments or provides others with the validation I once felt when I read about a student at Yale discovering they had ADHD, that would be plenty.

As I wrap up the draft for this, nearly 36 hours later, I’m still in my pajamas, still sitting on my bed, hunched over my laptop in my disaster zone of a room. Yet, even if I am not as hyper-productive as Harvard typically necessitates, my ADHD and I — on both good and bad executive function days — still belong here all the same. And you do, too.

​Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe ’24 is a Neuroscience concentrator and Crimson Editorial editor in Mather House. Her column “Adhdventures” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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