I’m talking to her and she’s fidgeting. She’s talking and tapping away with that pencil. The orange-yellowish blur is driving me crazy and I want to grab her wrist to make it stop. Finally, it stops. Now I’m answering her and she’s looking at my left ear, then over to the right somewhere, then at her book, then back at me, then out the window…. My voice trails off because my brain tells me she’s bored; she’s stopped listening…..Well, maybe not. OK, what she’s saying makes sense. Maybe she WAS listening, after all, but really, she could at least TRY to appear interested in the conversation.
A young Kayzie Sutton may have been aware of similar conversations playing out in the minds of many people she interacted with on a regular basis. They simply didn’t know, and neither did she, that tapping a pencil and looking around had unconsciously become some of the various actions necessary for her brain to even keep up with a conversation, let alone process the message and form a response. In elementary school, she never understood why she couldn’t “get it” like the other kids did. Every day involved the mental gymnastics of using foggy interpretations of what was on the blackboard to piece together answers quickly enough to avoid being singled out as the “slow one”. Then she would go home and try to make sense of it all over again, attempting homework assignments that only prolonged the confusion.
In high school, extra-curricular activities provided an easy but legitimate excuse from class, and study groups were spent learning how other students arrived at answers so she could repeat it on tests. She continued to endure arduous, excessive hours poring over homework to barely get less-than-stellar grades. She remembers not “…comprehend[ing] why as much effort as I’m putting into something, the yield is…so minimal” and even more sadly, thinking that “only stupid people work this hard to only get a D.” Add to this crumbling self-image the odds stacked against her: she was a black girl from a single-parent family in a low-income neighbourhood being taught by teachers ill-equipped to recognize different behaviour as anything but delinquent. Things finally came to a head when a senior-year teacher deflated her with the “revelation” that she wouldn’t make it in university, so shouldn’t bother applying. To someone who had always wanted to be a doctor and whose mother had made post-secondary education non-negotiable, it was the ultimate crushing blow.
The diagnosis of dyslexia-attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) early in Kayzie’s communications/psychology program at York University was a sobering “aha” moment that pushed her further into depression. Now her long-term fears were “confirmed”: she really was stupid and incapable of becoming a doctor. After all, if high school had been so difficult, how could she possibly get through university? At least now she could understand why letters danced on a page and words in a sentence seemed to change order at will. Now it was clear why written words had to be mentally registered as pictures with lively characters and vibrant colours to be even remotely understandable and finally, the struggle to spell even common words made sense. Fortunately, however, no dyslexia-ADHD could match Kayzie’s natural spirit of determination or dislodge her non-negotiable goal to succeed in life. She would have to turn this oppressive monster on its head and convert it into fuel for the journey going forward.
The mindset shift started during the completion of her TV/broadcasting program at Seneca College and blossomed well into her naturopathic medicine program at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). Having embraced her unique combination of dyslexia and ADHD symptoms, she was now learning to juggle it with a full course load and a very active extra-curricular schedule. The academic challenges continued and support services were available, but institutional bureaucracy often provoked a fight to access them. CCNM was new to students with learning challenges, so she had to educate and advocate (sometimes creatively) to get necessary accommodations such as note-taking assistance during lectures and the option to submit assignments in alternative formats. Justifying such concessions was often a struggle, but the experience made her pivotal in shaping the highly supportive learning accessibility program available to CCNM students today.
As time continued, she grew into self-acceptance and “loving [her] brokenness”. Where initially she had questioned how a perfect God could make such an imperfect creation, she began to embrace her imperfection as preparation for a career in naturopathic medicine. Constantly being reminded of her imperfection had made her very comfortable asking for help and would make her hyper-sensitive to the needs of her patients. Her space would be as inclusive as possible and she would arrange her sessions to give her patients as much time as they needed. The very thing that had shackled her to frustration, confusion, and shame in childhood would bring out the empathy and passion for healing so critical in a healthcare professional, and the “square peg” who had survived a “round-hole” education system was well experienced in finding creative solutions.
At present, Kayzie is in the final stages of qualifying as a registered naturopathic doctor in Ontario, Canada and plans to start practicing by year end. She is still learning how to navigate the neuro-typical world but is now better in touch with what she needs to function in daily life and the tools available to meet those needs. Her diagnosis is no longer a burden but rather a regular reminder of the perseverance, internal strength and sheer grit necessary to accomplish any great feat.
The message of her story, she says simply, is to:
“be sensitive when someone tells you he or she is neuro-diverse. Listen to the person. It takes courage to share that I experience the world differently and that I need extra support because of the way my brain works. Don’t minimize it [with statements] like ‘Yeah, that happens to me too sometimes!’. Just ask, ‘How can I support you?”