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  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

The Challenges of Being A Neurodiverse Archeology Student

My name is Isabelle Johnsen, and I have ADD(/ADHD?), depression, and a processing problem. What does this actually mean for me?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means it centers around how a person's brain develops differently during key stages of development. With neurodevelopmental conditions, there is no ‘normal’ state of mind to compare your symptoms to, as it looks different for everyone. Along with ADHD, a person may experience symptoms of other neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism, Aspergers, Tourette's syndrome, OCR, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. In the UK, 2 out of 3 people who have ADHD have autistic spectrum traits (ADHD Aware 2021). People with ADHD may have additional mental health issues, such as depression, insomnia, or general anxiety disorder. Many times it goes undiagnosed during childhood and adulthood: “... it is highly common for adult ADHD to be interpreted simply as anxiety or depression” (ADHD Aware 2021). Furthermore, new studies (including the Berkley girls with ADHD study) are demonstrating that people with combined ADHD, meaning both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive ADHD, in adolescence are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. Furthermore, “there is thought to be a two-way relationship between ADHD and trauma, where the vulnerability of someone with ADHD predisposes them to traumatic incidents and likewise traumatic events exacerbate ADHD traits and influence development” (ADHD Aware 2021).

It wasn’t until very recently that I started to understand my learning disabilities (thanks to a little book called “I’m not Crazy, Lazy, or Stupid” by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo). In fact, I still don’t fully understand how my brain works. However, I know now that the interpretations I had as a kid about my own brain aren’t true.

I had been bullied throughout my life, either for my learning disabilities or the fact that I was and am overweight. As a young child, I remember telling my mom that I was allergic to old books because I got a headache whenever I tried to read from them. When I was in elementary school, I remember a girl had made fun of me for not being able to read and told me it was because I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I had to be put into extra tutoring constantly, and despite my extra efforts, my work didn’t show in my grades. Many times my tutors got frustrated with me, which only damaged my ability to learn from them. In 9th grade, a bunch of kids made fun of me because I spelled Shakespeare wrong on the board. When my best friend found out about my GPA in 12th grade, she thought I was joking with her. At the end of high school, when I got into Tulane University, a random mother pulled me aside at the country club and told me “not to forget to study” because of Tulane’s reputation as a party school. I was constantly underestimated because I wasn’t learning in the same way everyone else.

Although these may seem like only a few cases and trust me there are many more that I could discuss, they taught me to internalize the way my brain works differently from everyone else. And although many people told me it was ‘just’ ADD, and to, essentially, get over it, I felt like no matter how hard I worked, I couldn't get my brain to JUST BE like everyone else's. I worked so beyond hard but played it off like I was dumb. I was so scared of letting people see how hard I was working, especially because in terms of grades, there was little to no improvement. The only time I started to see my grades get better is when I started medication, which then came with a whole new set of problems (social anxiety, extreme fatigue, not eating, bad physical reactions, etc) that separated me from my neurotypical peers in middle school and high school. I was so beyond insecure, of not only my body but of my brain. I threw on a facade that I didn’t care… I hid my passion for learning because I was too afraid that others would judge me for it, not because it was ‘uncool’ to love learning, but because I was worried that people were going to call me ‘too stupid’ or ‘too slow’ to be someone who was in love with learning.

The interpretations I made about myself as a kid and as a young adult make it hard to see myself as the growing, intelligent, and passionate young woman I had the potential to be. It didn’t matter what grades I got or where I got into college, I still felt like everyone still saw me as the stupid little girl who couldn’t score higher than a 30% on her spelling tests in first grade. It was no longer what others thought of me that was the issue, it was what I thought about myself. It wasn’t until my first archeology class, Greek Temples and Festivals, that I felt my passion for learning really connect with a specific subject, and all of a sudden, things began to click. It felt like my world changed. All of a sudden, my years of nerdy pleasure reading about mythology could connect to something in the real world, a passion I could express. I felt a click between what I was studying and what I was excited to learn about. I was still doubtful of myself, but I kept taking classes with the same professor who taught Temples and Festivals. That same professor saw me taking her classes again and again and she saw as I began to gain the confidence to ask questions in front of the class and even seek her out at office hours just to ask more. She began to push my skill set and I could tell she saw my potential. One day, she told me “You know… you can actually do this kind of stuff as a career…” and thus began my obsession with being an archeologist. This mentor took me with her to help in the field, continued to push me academically, and she introduced me to like-minded peers who further inspired me.

For the very first time in my life, it felt like these people saw my ideas as real contributions and I started to gain confidence in my own brain. It felt so amazing to have people see me not just as “smart” but as actually intelligent. I am so lucky to have met my mentor and my archeology partner at a time in my life where I needed people to believe in me and see me. I am also very fortunate that the best teacher I ever had and my archeology friends continue to push me, give me advice, and support me despite the fact that I am no longer at Tulane.

By the time I got to the University of Oxford for my Msc in Archeology, I had begun to understand that my neurodivergent brain could actually be like a superpower if I stopped forcing myself into the cycle of trying to force my brain to work like everyone else's. Especially for archeology. Because I process things differently, I asked questions in a different way and about different things. Although many students at Oxford might not understand my seemingly roundabout way of studying, writing a paper, or my learning process, most of them have the respect that the results speak for themselves. I feel like my peers and tutors respect my questions and validate my ideas even when they challenge them. Going to the best school in the world not only validated this potential but also gave me an opportunity to understand how others who were also in love with archeology went through their own versions of hell to get to this level of competition within academia.

In many ways, Archeology saved my self worth and gave me many things I missed out on growing up: mentors to look up to and who saw my potential, peers to believe in me, the confidence to start believing in my own intelligence, and passion that made me feel as if I was part of something greater than me. It even gave me a supportive partner who fell in love with my passion. My love of archeology taught me how to push myself towards academic achievements that I would’ve never thought possible of myself when I was a kid. I learned to start to believe in myself. I learned how meaningful my life could be. I learned how to fight for my own voice back.

People may not know how hard I fought to pursue an archeological career/life: I have given and continue to give my blood, my sweat, my tears, my brain, my heart, and my sanity to archeology. And she gave back so much more. I will continue to fight for the opportunity to teach archeology, in the hopes that one day I get to see another little girl fall in love and be saved by her.

Works Cited

“ADHD and Mental Health.” ADHD Aware, 28 Nov. 2021,

“ADHD, Self-Harm, and Suicide.” CHADD, 23 June 2021,

“Neurodiversity and Other Conditions.” ADHD Aware, 28 Nov. 2021,

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1 Comment

Kitty Gruber
Kitty Gruber
Dec 18, 2021

Thank you for speaking up about this topic, and as a similar neurodivergent individual, it's amazing to hear a similar perspective to my experience!


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