Nelson Beats the Odds: Author of the ADHD Comic on the Power of Encouragement

A reflection of his own experiences of being diagnosed with ADHD and a learning disability, Ronnie Sidney speaks up for underrepresented special ed students in his creative and witty narrative, Nelson Beats the Odds. Entertaining, heartbreaking, but ultimately triumphant, Sidney’s comic book sheds light on the difficulties students placed in special education face.

The story revolves around a young boy named Nelson who is starting his first day in middle school. Sidney illustrates Nelson’s behavior in the classroom, aligning with the classic signs of ADHD: inattentiveness, disinterest, and frequent daydreaming. Nelson’s parents are devastated to learn that their son has a learning disability. Nelson quickly learns what it means to be “different,” and begins to hide the recent developments from his friends.

The problems outlined by Sidney are troubling, but unfortunately a common occurrence to students diagnosed with learning disabilities. For instance, Nelson feels embarrassed and ashamed with his condition, but with the support and guidance of Mrs. T, his special ed teacher, he learns to accept himself and tackle the obstacles that are thrown his way with confidence.

Sidney stresses the importance of early encouragement and support from teachers with two different characters that result in different outcomes. Mrs. T empowered Nelson and helped him realize his potential whereas Mr. Stevenson said hurtful things to Nelson to put him down. Sidney quotes Channing Tatum, a well known actor who has ADHD, “Not having early success on that one path messes with you…” to further drive his point. With Mrs. T and his parents giving Nelson the support that he needed, he was able to prove Mr. Stevenson wrong and accomplish the goals he set out for himself.

However, the reality is that this kind of support is not always available to students when they need it the most. Sidney wrote Nelson Beats the Odds to communicate a problem with the lack of awareness and ability to deal with learning disabilities, especially in students of color. Let us continue to work toward the goal of greater understanding so that more students can beat the odds, just as Nelson did!

1. What do you hope for educators and students to take away from Nelson Beats the Odds?

I hope that students take away the idea that anything is possible. I want them to know that no matter how bad things may get, always believe in yourself. I want educators to know that the relationships they build with their students can be used to encourage them to learn. Nelson's teacher, Mrs T., established a relationship with him and then used her leverage help him push his boundaries and grow.

2. Who inspired you the most when growing up? Did you have a favorite teacher?

My parents and grandparents. I saw how hard they worked and how much they sacrificed. Their mission in life was to create a better future for me and my sister. My former special education teacher Mrs. Tobey is the greatest teacher alive. She is so awesome that I asked if I could include her as a character in my book (Mrs T.). She encouraged me to tell my story and I did.

3. What is one of the biggest misunderstandings about learning disabilities?

That kids are incapable of learning and helpless. Ideas like that are what handicap students with disabilities. I refused to believe that I was "learning disabled" and made it my mission to prove to the world that I was just as capable as the smartest kid in school.

4. How did you make the transition from a social work professional into an author?

I have no idea. After honoring a group of former teachers after I received my Master of Social Work degree from VCU, I was encouraged by my former special education teacher to tell my story. I had invited her to my graduation and we reconnected on Facebook.

I had no idea how to write a book so I did what most Americans do when they don't understand how to do something: search Google and YouTube.

5. Do you think the education system has changed for the better or for the worse for special needs students since you were in school? How so?

I think the education system has changed for the better. When I was growing up, special education was very stigmatizing. A lot of kids were placed away from their friends in exclusionary classrooms. I was placed in exclusion in the 8th grade and it was one of the worst days of my life. I talk about the experience in my book. In promoting my book I've had the opportunity to speak to special education students, staff and administrators. I spoke with one special education student and he appreciated special education. He told me that his mother was in special education as a student and now she's a college professor.

I also had the opportunity to hear about some of the marvelous work the Virginia Department of Education and Marianne Moore are doing with the IMDetermined program. They are giving special education students the right to self-determine. That is a luxury that I didn't have growing up. I felt like I was swimming against a current when trying to select classes that prepared me for college. The one thing that I feel like still needs to be addressed is the disproportionate amount of African American students being placed in special education. Black and Latino students who've been diagnosed with disabilities have higher dropout rates, and are suspended and expelled at higher rates.

6. What’s one lesson you learned in special education that you wouldn’t have learned in regular education?

I learned how to embrace vulnerability. I didn't tell anyone I was in special education, not even my closest friends, until I enrolled in Old Dominion University. It was something I was very ashamed about. Once I accepted the fact that I learn differently, love to talk and can very energetic, I started to love myself again. This journey is something that I wouldn't have learned in regular education. The adversity that I had to overcome strengthened my resilience.

7. What is one piece of advice you would give to any teacher about working with special needs kids?

Special needs kids are masters at putting up masks to hide their vulnerabilities. I wore a few masks, some were behavioral and others were wearing expensive clothing. When teachers took interest in me and saw my potential it made me feel good. Taking interest in a student and finding out who they really are is critical. Mr. Rogers said, "frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story." Listen to your student’s story, develop empathy and challenge them to become greater.

8. Can you tell us a little about Creative Medicine and what projects might be next?

Creative Medicine: Healing Through Words, LLC is a business that I initially started to facilitate therapeutic writing and dialogue groups for offenders. I turned the business into a publishing company after I started working on Nelson Beats The Odds. I'm currently working on my second book, Nelson Beats The Odds: Tameka's New Dress. The book is about a character who appears in my first book named Tameka and the story behind her beautiful African-styled dress. Tameka's mother is addicted to drugs and her stepfather is arrested for abusing her and her siblings. She has to moves in with her grandmother and encounters a bully at her new school. The Nelson Beats The Odds book series has two goals, showcase the resilience of our young people, and address social justice issues. I believe that graphic novels are the ideal platform to use because they reach a wider audience.

Ronnie Sidney, II, MSW, is a father, therapist, author, app developer, professional speaker and entrepreneur. He received a Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University and works as an outpatient therapist for court-involved youth. Ronnie is the author and publisher of Nelson Beats The Odds and the creator of the Nelson Beats The Odds Comic Creator app. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, or Facebook.

--Sarah Liu, Teach.com