Part 1: Why reading is difficult for me.
I have been a professional author for 10 years now, with my 10th book coming out next year, yet I am an author who cannot read.
It is only recently that I have come to fully accept this as a potentially permanent situation and learn to heal the internalised shame of this particularly frustrating dilemma. But to explain how this happened, I’m going to have to go back in time.
I learnt to read early. I was an enthusiastic reader. I had very specific interests in stories, especially anything with horses or animals or fairies and magic. I can decode text. I am not dyslexic. I was a good student and, generally speaking, excelled in almost everything (until senior years when I had exceptional highs and lows and nothing in between (I was never going to be mediocre, only top or bottom… but that is a completely different story).
However, despite being a good reader, I was always baffled at how quickly other (good reading) kids finished books. I distinctly remember thinking at a young age and beyond: I’m a good reader so why can’t I read as much as the other good readers? I was an accurate reader and I had high comprehension but I was not fast. I realise now that I compensated for a lot of this by being the best student. I did all the work. I spent whole days working on one project. The moment I didn’t get a near-perfect mark, I was asking for tutoring. I made copious colour-coded notes and taped them all over the house. I read out and recorded my study notes onto a cassette tape and played it back to myself while I slept. (I’m not even kidding.) In short, I worked and worked and worked (setting up a lifetime pattern of burnout).
As an adult, I’ve always been truly confounded by readers who say, ‘Oh, I loved it and finished it an a day.’
A day?! What?! How?!?
For me, even if I LOVED a book as hard as you could LOVE a book, to finish a novel in TWO WEEKS would be a fast rate for me.
Then I had my son and it all ended. I couldn’t read anymore.
What I didn’t know back then, which I do now, is that I am Autistic and ADHD and knowing what I know now, here is what I think happened. When I had my son (and I got book contracts, and I had to move house and renovate a house and wind-up a charity and lots more), my poor brain’s less-than-optimal executive functioning skills were pushed to levels they’d never been to before. Our brains are very clever, though, and mine worked this out and made the choice for me: my son was the priority. Essentially, my brain shut down a whole lot of other pathways in order to prioritise my child. Reading was cut from the list. I also now know I was in Autistic burnout, which I had been for most of my life since the age of 15 and burnt out brains have no qualms about dropping your hard-won skillsets.
For the past ten years, I have essentially convinced myself that this is a temporary problem. But reading ability has never recovered.
Reading and ADHD
Difficulty with reading is a common ADHD complaint. Every AuDHDer is different but for me, these are some of the ways reading poses challenges for me.
- I have ADHD impatience but I also have the strong Autistic need to finish something I started and do it really well (preferably perfectly), but having a slow reading rate means it simply takes me too long to get there and those conflicting drives create stress.
- The AuDHD brain craves novelty and keen interest. If the content hasn’t grabbed me by the second chapter, I’m out. I simply CAN NOT go on. (I do want to make it super clear here that often people think ADHDers have a choice in their behaviour… that if they just tried harderor if they just focused more they could get it done… but it doesn’t work that way. That’s a longer conversation for another day, all about transmitters and dopamine.)
- Inertia: once I get interrupted, it is difficult (sometimes impossible) to initiate the task again.
- My sensory processing difficulties (e.g. noise, smells, temperature, clothing, body position) are such high distractors that I can lose focus and have to start again.
- I can’t read off a screen. (I don’t know why exactly but I just can’t.)
- If I do get distracted, I need to go back and re-read passages or pages over and over because I need to feel that I have read it deeply and properly (I do not skim read!). This becomes tedious and fatiguing.
- Unfriendly font types and lack of white space are a problem. I have been reading about dyslexia-friendly fonts lately and exploring those but I don’t feel I’m knowledgable enough about them to say more about that at this stage.
- Having to be still is a big problem for me. Until recently, I had NO IDEA how much I fidget. Something is always twitching. This is challenging for long hours of reading. (I also can’t sit through an entire movie.)
- I will finish with a final (but exceptionally important) challenge, and that is that I am a highly visual and sensory reader. If there is trauma on the page, I don’t read that in a theoretical sense with a bit of sympathy… I FEEL it. Literally. In my body. In my organs. And I SEE it in minute detail in my head and it NEVER GOES AWAY. So often, I am traumatised by fiction and simply cannot read on.
I have been able to read more non-fiction in paperback form than fiction, which I think is largely due to the amount of white space, bullet points and diagrams that break up long-form text. It’s also easier to put down a non-fiction book (whose content is grouped in chapters and sections) and then pick it up again later because the next chapter doesn’t necessarily depend on having read the previous chapter, whereas reading fiction requires that you keep a lot of story-world and character information in your head in order to link earlier information to later information to make sense of the whole story.You can also often flick through non-fiction books and skip the bits that don’t have high interest, unlike a novel, which requires you to read all of it.
A Hereditary Problem?
We know that ADHD is highly heritable. Interestingly, both my mother and maternal grandmother were also great readers until they hit a point in their life where they said they simply couldn’t read any more. I’m guessing this was about when they hit burnout and their executive functioning took a long walk up a mountain to rest.
So What Do I Do?
Firstly, I read almost exclusively on audio. If it’s not on audio, I can’t read it. (So please, publishers, can we have everything on audio at all times? It’s an issue of equity and access for all.) For example, with tremendous irony, I am waiting to ‘read’ Sally Rippin’s book, Wild Things (which is ALL about kids having difficulty reading, which my son does too) but I can’t read the book and so I am impatiently waiting to get it on audio at the end of this year. Oh, the irony 🙂
Over the years, several people have said to me that ‘audio books are cheating’ or that ‘it doesn’t count as reading if it’s not a book’ or that ‘it’s lazy’. Loves, this hurts.
Some people have very rigid beliefs and ideas. I mean, if a blind person listens to an audio book, would you tell them it was cheating?! No, because (a) what does that even mean?! (b) I doubt you are that rude and thoughtless because it is perfectly okay for someone to access a story in whatever way supports them best; and (c) story is story! It still teaches you empathy, history, culture and mood. (Hello, our Indigenous populations thrived for many thousands of years on oral storytelling.) You can still visualise the story in your head. You still cry and laugh and shudder and gasp. You’re still transported to other worlds, relax and get excited. Your brain is still working; it’s just working differently. (At which point, I’d like to refer everyone in the world to Chloe Hayden’s book, Different, Not Less.) To say it’s cheating or doesn’t count is such an ableist, elitist, privileged, crappy thing to say. Please don’t take away our joy, and don’t shame us for not being able to do what you can do.
Okay… taking a deep breath… and moving on.
Secondly, I HAVE pushed through a handful of paperbacks in the past decade in order to review them or support author friends but it is agony and NOT because their book is agony (their books are great!) but because it is just so difficult for me: it takes so much energy. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, which I guess is how kids with reading difficulties feel too. Big, huge, warm, fuzzy hugs for all the kids struggling with this right now. It gets better, I promise.
Thirdly, in my book club, there are two of us who need books on audio (one of us with ADHD and one of us with vision requirements) so we will only choose books that are available in formats that suit us all. Easy.
Where to From Here?
I am now taking ADHD medication. Will my reading ability (as slow as it was) come back? Only time will tell. And maybe when I finally get hold of Sally Rippin’s book I will know what to do 🙂
I am learning, though, to be kinder to myself. Neurodivergent individuals hear, read and absorb a staggering amount of negativity in their lifetime. We become exceptionally good at taking on this criticism and turning it into our own internal voices.
I have been carrying a big load of shame about being an author who cannot read. I’ve also had to start saying no to requests for cover quotes for books (something I see as a tremendous privilege and honour, and something I know is extremely important to authors) because I simply cannot read the manuscript. (It can take me a week, or more, simply to read my own manuscript during editing phases.)
I am learning that, as much as I might want to, I will never be able to keep up with a lot of stuff that goes on in the publishing world and that I will never be able to contribute as much in terms of reading and reviewing and talking about others’ work as much as I want to because I am atypical. And I’ll never be able to travel as much and speak as much and be as productive business-wise as I truly want to be. Honestly, that makes me pretty teary.
Difficulties with reading and writing (and learning disorders, ADHD and Autism) may contribute to poor self esteem but what I want to do more than anything is be a role model for my son, to help him learn to undo the damage that’s been done to his sense of self through the schooling system (side bar: we are now homeschooling) and know that some of us (actually, quite a lot of us in the world) do things differently because we need to and that’s okay. What’s not okay is that we don’t yet have full supports in place as normal access rather than them being ‘extra’ or ‘special’ supports.
But I am nothing if not a hopeful person who sees a problem and tries her best to change it. So here I am, talking about the stuff I still find hard to talk about because as Glennon Doyle always says, We Can Do Hard Things.
In #2 of this series, I will look at the ways ADHD has negatively impacted me as an author. In #3, I will look at the ways ADHD has positively impacted me as an author.
*Autistic burnout (Sidebar: I run Autistic & ADHD Retreats on Burnout on the Sunshine Coast, just in case you know anyone who needs a retreat.)
P.S. I’m just going to finish here by encouraging anyone who thinks they have a child with a neurodivergence of any kind to seek early assessments and support as soon as possible. It is much more difficult to rewrite your understanding of yourself and your brain, and learn what supports you need in life, and to avoid myriad damaging flow-on effects and co-occurring conditions when you are in your 40s than it is when you are still in primary school. We need to know why we struggle. We need to learn how to navigate this world.