Don't Dis My Ability
by Shawn Smith
Diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type at the age of 30, prescribed medication that gave his brain the jump start it needed to awaken from a life-long hibernation and took his thought processes from dial-up to high-speed. Shawn Smith is an extreme example of a middle-class kid who slipped through the cracks of the public-education system.
I refer to the pre-diagnosis period of my life as my “NeanderShawn” era. Life was a living hell in many ways. I struggled academically and socially throughout my time in the public education system. As I got older the expectations increased, as did my anxiety and depression. High school was the worst. It took me four years to finish three years of high school, 32 attempts to earn the 18 credits required to graduate – I failed grade 10 math four times. Each school year consisted of two semesters, and one semester I failed all four classes. I attended summer school every year in high school, including my graduating year.
My parents suspected there was something wrong with me in early elementary school. They noticed that I had gaps in my memory and was unable to retain basic information or instructions. They never had me assessed by a psychologist, not for the reasons I’d like to think — special education in the 1980s meant you were in a segregated classroom with other disabled kids taking the short bus to nowhere. Being in special education was like Hotel California: you could check in any time you liked but you could never leave. My parents didn’t have me assessed because, at that time, having a child with a disability was perceived as a reflection of poor parenting and they were concerned about being judged.
My folks were increasingly frustrated with my inability to get passing grades. No matter how hard I tried, this was never reflected in my report card. Every time I brought something home from school for my parents to sign, I would have a panic attack. I could envision their disdain and disappointment, which was very real. I can still remember the shrill of my mum’s voice when she yelled at me because I had left my mid-term report card on the table by the back door for her to sign on her way to work. I had six percent in typing and was failing all of my classes. Gulp.
It’s not that I didn’t try in school. I could do the same thing over and over, and then all of the sudden it was like someone turned out the lights. The process of what I was in the middle of doing was erased from my memory. My mind was blank. I could see the work I had done, but it looked like someone else had done it. Or I would forget my textbooks and notes at school. I would also forget when assignments were due and when I had tests. It was like I was being repeatedly blindsided To their credit, my parents tried the things most parents do. I had countless math tutors, each one as ineffective as the last. My parents tried grounding me. One semester in high school, when I failed all four classes, I lost everything. I was allowed to drive to work and back, and that was it. When taking everything away proved ineffective, my parents tried bribing my siblings and me. At first, they started offering us $25 for every class we passed. Towards the end, my parents had sold one of their businesses and offered us $100 for each class we passed. It didn’t matter if they offered $1 million per class; no amount of money was going to change the fact I needed help.
I became the world’s best worst liar. My parents constantly backed me into a corner where I felt that I had no other option but to lie: I knew that I was going to get in trouble, so I lied. The problem was that I told so many that I couldn’t keep them straight. Even when I was caught dead to rights, I would still lie. My parents couldn’t trust me, and the reins got even tighter. They started questioning everything I did, and my behaviour negatively impacted the entire house. Because I knew that I would get in trouble for my horrible grades, I would wait until my parents were in a good mood to deliver bad news.
My saving grace was football. I started playing my first year in grade 12. By my second year in that grade, I was an all-star. For the first time in my life, I had found something I excelled at. I received recruiting packages from every major Canadian university with a football team. I opened them one after the other and could feel myself slipping further into depression. The minimum academic requirement to attend university was 60 percent. My average hovered around 49 percent, which meant I couldn’t go to any of these schools.
Fortunately for me, John Abbott College, a CEGEP (college) located on the West Island of Montreal, began recruiting outside the province of Quebec for the first time in its history. The school was tired of losing, and recruiting out of province seemed like a great way to make their football team more competitive. The defensive coordinator was also the head registrar, and he snuck me in despite my grades being significantly lower than those required for admission.
My admission to John Abbott was dependant on passing at least one of the two classes I was taking in summer school. With less than two weeks to prepare, I was transplanted from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to Montreal. Oddly enough, my grades improved. I was able to take classes thatI was genuinely interested in. I developed strategies on my own. Before I could buckle down to get school work done, I would have to clean my room and get everything I needed organized. I also needed complete silence: any type of noise would jumble my thoughts, making it difficult to focus. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity John Abbott gave me and proud to be one of their success stories.
After graduating from college, I moved back home to attend St. Thomas University. I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree and a whopping 2.3 GPA in 2002. It took me a year longer than my peers, but I did it. Moving back in with my parents while attending university was hard, but I really appreciated my experience in college and drew from this to succeed in university.
Fast forward to 2008 and a ton of life experience in between. While working in the Northwest Territories, I was prescribed medication by a doctor. Within 30 minutes I felt a tingling in my brain. The pieces of the puzzle that was my life that had never seemed to fit now came together with relative ease.
In 2010 I went back to university to upgrade as a mature student, taking five courses and earning a new GPA of 3.7! In 2010, I applied to the master of education program in Guidance and Counselling at the University of New Brunswick and was accepted on academic probation. I graduated a year later at the top of my class with a 3.8 GPA.
In a relatively short period of time, I recognized that ADHD isn’t what was wrong with me, it’s what is right with me. What was wrong was not knowing and being shamed for something I had no control over. Now, rather than trying to fix what is perceived to be wrong with someone, I choose to focus on their passion and their gifts and use these as the context for communication and learning. As adults, we spend so much of our time trying to get kids to fit into our world without ever trying to explore how we can fit into theirs.
In 2014, I founded Don’t dis-my-ability Consultation Services Inc., which specializes in the emerging field of neurodiversity. For me, neurodiversity describes a group of individuals who have been labelled with a disability but for whom the label doesn’t quite fit because our assets exceed our deficits. We are modern day X-Men. Uniquely gifted and often misunderstood. Through my company, located in Fredericton, I provide psychotherapy and educational advocacy to neurodiverse individuals and their families. Many of these individuals are uniquely gifted, and I am energized by helping them identify and explore their passions.
Shawn with Dr. Temple Grandin and Shawn's celebrity brand ambassador, Eileen Grubba, at Trailblazing 2017, Fort Lauderdale, FL
A huge part of being able to help people is drawing from all my experiences: I’ve had 21 different jobs. I was a landscaper, and I worked at a fast-food restaurant. I was a doorman at a nightclub, a blackjack dealer in Nevada, a sheriff’s officer in Fredericton (where I worked two murder trials). I was a therapeutic foster parent in Maine and a youth and family counsellor in the Northwest Territories.
In 2015, I got involved in the local start-up community and really found my groove. I learned how to hone my message and also saw an opportunity to use my unique perspective to help other entrepreneurs. In 2017, I was recognized for my contributions with the National Startup Canada Resilient Entrepreneur Award. I am a member of and the provincial ambassador for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and a member of the College of Counselling Therapists of New Brunswick.
In just a few short years I have been able to establish myself in the field of neurodiversity. In 2017, I shared the stage with Dr. Temple Grandin, and in 2018 I was invited to speak at the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders. I am currently a guest lecturer and advisory board member for the University of Connecticut’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for the Include Program, which aims to recruit and retain neurodiverse students for the program.
My biggest challenge happens to be my geographic location. I have a tremendous opportunity to change perceptions of the charity, deficit-based disability model in New Brunswick. In a place like this, the sky really is the limit in terms of what can be achieved. And I will never stop pushing.
Don’t dis-my-ability podcast: ddmacs.ca/podcast
This article originally appeared in Volume 16 of [EDIT] Magazine. Click here to see the full issue.