Issue 17: The Dystinct Journey of RJ McLaughlin

The story of RJ, a young videographer who transformed his challenges with dyslexia, OCD, and ADHD into strengths, using them as catalysts to carve a unique path in the world of content creation and storytelling.

Zahra Nawaz
Zahra Nawaz

Table of Contents

This story was published in Dystinct Magazine Issue 17 September 2023.

To an outsider, videography appears to be a field governed by precision, sharp visuals, and on-point storytelling. However, for RJ McLaughlin, the journey behind each video goes deeper. His diagnosis of dyslexia, OCD, and ADHD could have been seen by many as overwhelming barriers. Instead, for this rising talent, they acted as a catalyst that led him to his passion and purpose in life. With each shot he frames and every video he edits, RJ's narrative is not only about creating visual stories for the world to see but also about overcoming personal challenges and using them as a unique driving force.

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The 20-year-old is a passionate content creator and social media influencer pursuing his studies in digital filmmaking at Ramapo College in New Jersey, USA. With his ventures in videography and social media platforms, RJ finds not just a creative outlet but a means to ease some monetary stress he faces as a college student. For him, every like, share, or subscriber isn't just validation of his work; it's a step towards a more secure future. Through it all, his gratitude is evident. "I am in a very fortunate position," he admits, "but it's always good to have as many hands contributing."

Sometimes, the earliest signs of a child's unique way of processing information come from the most innocuous events. For RJ, it was something as simple as his name plaque. In Pre-K, when most kids were learning to scribble their names, RJ returned home with his name written upside down and backwards. It might have seemed like just another childish quirk to an outsider, but for his mum, it was an early indication that RJ might be perceiving and interpreting the world a bit differently than his peers.

In school, RJ faced what his mother termed as the "triple whammy." He was diagnosed not only with dyslexia but also with OCD and ADHD. Particularly during his younger years, the OCD was intensely challenging, necessitating visits to cognitive behavioural therapists. RJ's journey towards understanding his capabilities was initially rooted in confusion. "First grade was the first time I was told something was different," he recalls. Fortunate to have a mother experienced as a case manager who worked closely with children with learning disabilities, RJ had an early advantage. "I majored in special education in college and went on to become an LDT-C (Learning Disability Teacher Consultant) on a Child Study Team, but that did not prepare me for having a child with a reading disability," shares RJ's mum. She kept a close eye on RJ's development during his preschool years and consistently advocated for him and supported him throughout school, a factor he credits for his academic success later.

I majored in special education and went on to become a Learning Disability Teacher Consultant on a Child Study Team, but that did not prepare me for having a child with a reading disability,

While RJ was diagnosed in first grade and benefited from support systems at school, a deeper understanding of his diagnosis dawned on him only somewhat later in life. He was frequently whisked away to the resource room, absenting himself from the regular class sessions for about 40 minutes, particularly during spelling lessons. "Probably in third grade, I started to be told what it was," RJ shares. He reminisces about those days in elementary school when reading bins were categorised from levels 'A to M'. While most kids moved forward, RJ found himself lingering behind, often wondering about the fairness of it all. "I would think to myself, this is so hard. I'm putting in all this effort and barely seeing any progress. Everyone else is on level M, and my friend Cole is already on level Z, but here I am, stuck on level B."

Although he faced questions from his classmates, the environment wasn't hostile or judgmental. He felt comfortable enough to casually mention he was doing a spelling exercise, and then, being the charismatic individual he was, he'd throw in a joke to redirect the conversation. However, the battle RJ was waging was internal. It wasn't the blatant shame we often associate with societal judgment but a subtle self-consciousness about standing out. Though he had a supportive network around him, he knew he was different and that perhaps it was safer to keep some parts of him concealed.

RJ had a unique knack for focusing on his strengths, notably his verbal comprehension and communication skills. This gave him an edge, enabling him to convey and assimilate ideas adeptly. Teachers often noticed his antics in class, labelling him the 'class clown'. He'd engage in playful mischiefs, like undoing paper towel rolls and setting them on the school's air conditioning, drawing laughter from his peers. These humorous escapades weren't just random acts but strategic moves by young RJ; he had figured out that making others laugh was his strength - his coping mechanism.

RJ's innate sociability set him apart from his peers even at a young age. He might share a joke with one group and kick a soccer ball around with another. In the schoolyard's ever-evolving dynamics, RJ had the unique ability to place a "foot in each door", endearing himself to many and ensuring he was never confined to just one circle. RJ took pride in the genuine connections he shared with his schoolmates and his ability to make everyone around him laugh.

However, when doubts crept in, RJ would remind himself of his unique gifts - No one could make his peers laugh the way he could. He also possessed exceptional skills and coping mechanisms that were distinctively his own. "If I master this, I won't just be on grade level; I'll also have all these additional skills I've developed over the years," he rationalised. With determination, RJ decided, "If I'm going to get this, I'll truly grasp it." His goal was to be on grade level, and with focus and lots of help from his mum and sister, he did achieve it.

I wanted to be on grade level. So, I just put my head down and went for it, Once I was there, I was happy.

RJ's mother played an instrumental role in ensuring he caught up academically. After being diagnosed and medicated for ADHD in fourth grade, the time post-school became pivotal for RJ's learning. His mother incorporated game-based learning methodologies that not only made his studies engaging but also less daunting. Rj’s after-school extracurricular activities, like jujitsu, made his summer breaks a season of intense academic focus. His mother utilised this time to help him bridge any gaps in his learning. The agenda was clear: to bring RJ back to speed with his peers.

Having an older sibling can often be a game-changer, and for RJ, his sister Bailey was exactly that. Bailey wasn't just his sister; she was his support system and an indispensable ally in his academic journey. Being three years ahead, she brought both understanding and a higher knowledge base to the table, helping him navigate the academic and social challenges arising from his multiple diagnoses. "My sister always had my back. There were times when I'd have meltdowns over things not going right, if I couldn't finish something or if I couldn't get the TV dial to an even number. She was always right there, comforting me and reaching out for help. This meant so much to me. Socially, she's been a rock too. I've spent time with her friends, and she's never hesitated to include me, which has been such a blessing. Even though I had my own circle of friends, having her support meant the world. More than just hanging out, she's been instrumental in making learning fun and always being there when I needed a pick-me-up. Whenever I had meltdowns, she knew exactly what to say. She'd lay out a plan, and just hearing her confidence would put me at ease."

A lot of my training, a lot of my learning was game-based. Mum did a fantastic job with gamifying everything.

RJ fondly recalls a childhood memory from fourth grade that ignited his passion for content creation and videography. In a backyard, with a trampoline and a spare bedroom serving as the backdrop, young RJ embarked on his first videography venture. Inspired by the playful idea of teleportation, he and his friend Jack devised a simple plan. With their friend Kevin's assistance, they simulated a teleportation act using just the stop and start of a recording. In RJ's young mind, it was an innovation. Their disappearance, followed by shouts of "I didn't know you were going to bring me here!" marked not just a fun video but RJ's first eureka moment in filmmaking. Young RJ mused, "If I can figure out such an illusion in fourth grade, imagine the potential for the future."

I thought, ‘If I'm able to figure out in fourth grade that you can appear to move, if you move from a camera and then restart the video, then I can do much bigger things when I'm older.’
It didn't make sense for me not to succeed. I had these books lying around at home about successful people with Dyslexia and ADHD.

RJ remembers a significant shift in his life in middle school. During this time, he grappled with the full scope of his conditions, leading him to a deeper introspection and a newfound determination. "I had a moment in around 6th or 7th grade when I was coming to terms with my situation. I vividly recall a time in my room when I had something like a panic attack. I thought, "Why am I different? What does this mean?" Growing up in an environment where everything was seen as equal — where effort was directly proportional to reward — my struggles with dyslexia didn't fit this narrative. This created a mental block for me. My OCD tendencies painted the world in black and white, where things should fit neatly. But this lifelong challenge with dyslexia was telling me otherwise. It said, "Life isn't always fair. Things aren't equal." I questioned, "Does this mean I'm stupid or incapable of success? But there were books at home, ones my mom kept, like "The Gift of ADHD" and tales of renowned individuals with dyslexia. These stories implied a connection between dyslexia and success. This gave me hope. I was constantly reassured that I was smart, and I knew deep down that I was. This challenge was just a hurdle, and I was determined to overcome it. It felt like a switch flipped in me somewhere. That's when I honed in on my ADHD tunnel vision, using it as a tool to focus intensely on my goals. I wanted to be on grade level, so I focused, put in the effort, and eventually made it. And the best part? I didn't have to give up any part of myself in the process. I could still be the funny guy, the one cracking jokes. That aspect of my personality played a huge role in shaping who I am today."

As he bridged the gap between himself and his classmates in terms of learning, there was a profound shift in his personal growth. RJ channelled his passion into social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. He candidly discussed his challenges through his videos, yet with a light-hearted approach. This authenticity resonated with many, leading to a significant following. "Right when I got back on grade level, I was open with sharing about dyslexia. I wasn't as embarrassed with it anymore because I conquered it. It was something that I was done with and coping. Over time, that stigma of 'this is bad' went down. I met people with it who spoke about it and the ways in which each of them dealt with their problems. Slowly, over time, I got more and more comfortable to the point where I was able to make funny, informational videos on it. It was bringing together my passion to make people laugh and my dyslexia. Kind of poke fun at something that I struggle with and that so many other people struggle with, too. It helps to normalise dyslexia while also keeping true to what it is - it is a disability, something that people are coping with and people have. Also, to break that stigmatism so people aren't as embarrassed or clueless about what's happening."

Find out what you're bad at and stay away from that, then find out what you're good at and gravitate towards that.

RJ's journey into videography is deeply rooted in his mother's sage advice: "Find out what you're bad at and stay away from that, then find out what you're good at and gravitate towards that." From creating whimsical videos to scaling up his projects, RJ began realising his innate flair for creating content. Using basic tools like iMovie on his iPhone, he found pleasure in the creation process, producing content that resonated with others, from spec ads playfully comparing Diet Coke with regular Coke to sharing funny ideas. Videography became a medium through which he expressed himself. It was as if the videos exclaimed, "Look at what I made."

The evolution was organic. RJ dabbled with sharing his creations on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. From posting silly sketches with friends to more thoughtful content by his junior year, his passion only intensified. With the onset of the pandemic and the impending decision to choose a college major, RJ was at a crossroads. Videography, already a budding interest, seemed like the obvious path. Investing time and resources into this craft snowballed into a full-blown profession, encompassing commercial work and more, a venture that felt incredibly natural and fluent for RJ.

I didn't get the job, but after that first call, I was able to kind of snowball from there building my confidence.
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At only 20, RJ has already made significant strides professionally. Mostly self-taught with support from friends and family, he runs a commercial operation that supports him as he pursues his digital filmmaking degree. RJ is no stranger to determination and hard work, often seeking new clients through cold calling. His initial attempt to pitch his services to a hotel might have been "a struggle" and didn't lead to a contract, but it boosted his confidence to reach out to more potential clients.

In his strategic approach, RJ emphasised authenticity, targeting brands that resonated with his personal interests. Rock-climbing brands became a focal point, eventually leading to a collaboration with Survivor, a small business in the sector. Expanding his scope, skateboard companies joined his clientele, each project amplifying his portfolio, enticing bigger brands to take note of his skills. It took him approximately 20 cold calls before securing his first client. RJ has now worked with five clients and is also set to add Dystinct Magazine to his client base, a commendable achievement given his age and the inherent challenges of launching a business from a dorm room.

Securing consistent work remains RJ's primary challenge. However, his meticulous nature, accentuated by his OCD tendencies, also presents significant hurdles. Often, he invests hours perfecting minute details in his edits, striving for his envisioned perfection. His roommate frequently steps in, reassuring him that most viewers won't notice those minute details and that his work already stands out. RJ admits, "Balancing my perfectionism with timely delivery is a challenge, especially given my tunnel vision."

Nobody's going to notice that this doesn't look the way that you exactly wanted it to.

While RJ's diagnoses occasionally posed challenges in his endeavours, he believes they also fuelled his determination and sharpened his focus. This unique combination has instilled in him a fierce work ethic, enabling him to hyper-focus on tasks and persevere through challenges. They've helped him remember that he has come a long way and that he can overcome anything when he puts his mind to it. While he acknowledges the daily effort to manage these conditions, he wouldn't wish for any other experience. It shaped him, moulded his character, and influenced his decisions.

As for the future, his immediate goal is to complete his college education while keeping an open mind about where his videography and growing traction on platforms like TikTok might lead him. With a solid foundation laid, he's confident about his direction.

RJ McLaughlin

Videographer | YouTube | Instagram | TikTok | LinkedIn

RJ McLaughlin

RJ McLaughlin

Extracts from Dystinct Magazine

Extracts from Dystinct Magazine

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Dystinct Journey

Zahra Nawaz Twitter

Founder of Dystinct


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