From the time she was young, Alyssa Denis, a Mount Royal University student studying health and physical education, knew something was wrong when it came to how she learned. Her attempts to read, write or study were often thwarted with massive obstacles.

“People with disabilities in general, we have to work 10 times as hard to achieve the same results as somebody else, and we get half the recognition.”

Denis, at 31, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

According to registered psychologist Cheryle Sherwood, ADHD is a neurobiological neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts individuals and their functioning across their lifespan.  

Sherwood says that what makes people with ADHD different from others is a chemical reaction occurring in their brain. She adds that there is not enough dopamine and adrenaline hormones present between the neurotransmitters.

She says ADHD varies in every individual. Sometimes people with ADHD are rarely impacted, whereas, other individuals are impacted severely.

“The DSM — the Diagnostic Statistical Manual used by clinicians and psychologists —does point out mild, moderate or severe diagnoses,” Sherwood says.

For Denis, her diagnosis works its way into every conceivable task.

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At school, Alyssa Denis and her service dog, Moxie, get ready to work on academic assignments at Calgary’s Mount Royal University campus. She chooses an isolated room to limit distractions due to her having ADHD. Photo by Mollie Smith.

For example, when she tucks into an academic project, whether it be in a quiet place or a busy place such as the library, she must ensure everything is in order.

“I like to be comfortable and not have tags itching on my neck, and different things that would distract me. I like to take off my shoes, get comfy, find a spot where I can sprawl all my stuff out just how I want it, and have my headphones in.”  

Music is a key part of her preparation.

“Listening to pop music, it kind of balances out the ADHD part of my brain a lot so that I am not as hyperactive on the outside and that I am not looking at more websites. It helps drown out the sounds of people flipping pages or coughing or talking or whatever they are doing.”

When it comes to writing, she says she seems to procrastinate more than her peers. Then, at the last minute, she is able to exploit her ADHD and get the job done.

“I get into hyperfocus mode. I will literally sit there, no breaks, nothing, unless it is my bladder about to burst. I will look up and nine hours have gone by,” explains Denis.

DenisWorking 3Alyssa Denis gets easily distracted in busy areas, especially at Mount Royal’s Wyckham house due to her ADHD diagnosis. Photo by Mollie Smith.

Whatever her process, she says getting sidetracked is commonplace.

“For me, it takes a lot longer because I find ‘oh, website, website, website’ when looking for sources. I get distracted. I go through the rabbit hole.”

At the end of her searching for sources, she says she can end up with quadruple the number that is required. The stress can be unbearable.

“It kills me. It is so much. The stress. I get anxious about it. I have actually gotten to the point where I get such bad anxiety because I don’t know what I am doing. I just feel so lost. There is so much distraction. I become paralyzed.”

Denis works with a strategist to help her maintain focus. She also calms her anxiety and other health issues, which includes lupus, by interacting with her service dog, Moxie.

Reading for Alyssa Denis is a challenge, even in quiet areas on MRU campus, due to her ADHD. Video by Mollie Smith.

Reading is another challenge.

When Denis is required to complete a textbook reading for class, she again states that she must be in an environment with zero distractions.

“I try and highlight things, but knowing what parts are important is a struggle.”

And when it comes to non-academic material, like fiction, she becomes hyper-focused.

“That was my escape as a child,” says Denis. “I was an only child. That was my favourite thing was reading works of fiction or works that I am interested in. I could read a book in a very short period of time.”  

ADHD Research: A snapshot

In 2016, the Journal of Attention Disorders conducted a study on habits, motives and strategies of college students with symptoms of ADHD.

The study sought to examine the overall patterns of motivation and study habits that may lead to greater or lesser success in college for the young adult ADHD population.

The research findings saw that students with ADHD learned the material better when motivated to do well in, or to pass, the class. However, that motivation was linked to a fear of failure. ADHD students also used a “surface approach.” In other words, they would scrape the surface without much luck when going deeply into the content.

For Denis, who’s been in school for more than nine years, the ability to master studying for exams continues to be a major challenge.

“I always end up leaving it so that I am not as prepared as I would like to be for exams. I’m trying to sit down, to take what’s important and put it in one little document,” she says.

Although, Denis does acknowledge she is extremely hard on herself, and that self-induced pressure helps her to maintain a strong academic average.

“In a way, I am trying to make up for having my distracted disorder thoughts. It started off as me wanting to prove that I could do it. It then kind of grew into this big beast of a thing making sure I get straight-A’s and a 4.0 [GPA].”

When working in a busy area, such as Wyckham house at MRU, ADHD student Alyssa Denis cannot get any work done due to several distractions that surround her. Video by Mollie Smith.

Strategies and resources that help

Luckily for Denis, she has academic accommodations from MRU’s accessibility services to help her succeed as a student.

University statistics show that in the 2017-18 academic year, she was one of 1,292 students who used academic accommodations. Out of those students, 388 individuals were identified as having ADHD.

The Centre for ADHD Awareness of Canada posted a document listing 10 ways to achieve success for university or college students with ADHD.


– Register your strengths
– Stay on top of your strengths
– Get up and get started
– A place for everything and everything in its place
– Get organized
– Plan, plan, plan
– Learn how to learn
– Set up accommodations
– Be your own advocate
– Don’t forget to play

Denis acknowledges that, for her, having ADHD is a disadvantage, but appreciates what it is has inspired her to be.

“I wouldn’t be the person that I am without this experience. I am a very strong advocate for people. I love and am very passionate about what I do and believe very strongly in helping the disabled community.”

Editor: Alexandra Nicholson | 

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