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Neurodivergent Student Panel: Part 1 Challenges

REEL recently hosted a learning differences simulation at a local independent school. After experiencing firsthand the struggles of students with learning differences and disabilities during REEL’s simulation, the staff engaged in an engrossing Q&A with a panel of the school’s students. Here are some of the insights their neurodivergent and disabled students shared about how schools can best support them. Part 1 explores their challenges and Part 2 explores helpful supports.

What has been your experience at school as a person who identifies as neurodivergent or disabled?

Students pointed out that teachers may not understand that they can be high achievers AND neurodivergent or disabled. It may appear that difficulty with assignments or emotional distress comes out of nowhere. One student said, “I qualify as disabled and neurodivergent. I’m a high achieving student. But then some external stress or factor comes out of nowhere and I ‘fail spectacularly.’ I don't anticipate that my needs aren’t being met until it’s happening and then I have trouble getting out of that situation. I’m still working on that!”

Many students, especially girls, are not diagnosed until their teen years or later and so don’t fully understand their challenges. One student shared, “I was only diagnosed as neurodivergent in junior year. A short quiz in math led to a full-on panic attack in 7th grade. That kept happening and happening. OCD also manifested. If I lost my eraser, it was ‘game over.’ The likelihood is that many kids are not aware. Then when they realize, they feel they have to hide it.”

Even after being diagnosed, some students still struggle with sharing their diagnosis and using their accommodations. A student pointed out, “I don’t always use the accommodations I’m offered. It feels odd sometimes to communicate what I need and what I don’t.”

Some students do share their diagnosis, but feel it is misunderstood. One student described her frustration, “I have inattentive ADHD - but I hate that name. I don’t have a lack of attention - I have all the attention! My focus is strong. It is hard for me to switch tracks - I have to fight with my focus to get it to do what it needs to be doing.”

What are some challenges you have faced that may come as a surprise to teachers?

Several students shared that teachers may be surprised at just how hard they are working behind the scenes to appear neurotypical or put together. One student commented, “What might be surprising, people might think I’m put together, doing fine, a straight A student. But there's a lot of masking. Neurodivergent students cover it up - they do have challenges even if they don’t show it all the time.” 

Another student also mentioned masking, or using a lot of energy to cover up their neurodivergence and blend in: “I didn’t realize I was masking until I learned the word last year. I have tics, echolalia… I don’t want to offend the teacher and have students hear me, but I can’t help it. Eye contact is very difficult, but I know how to do it.” And lastly a student shared how much the energy to “do school” costs them, saying, “I’m overtaxed during the day. I’m missing out on life and the joy and meaning it could bring because I try so hard to do school.”

Students also pointed out that self-advocacy takes a lot of effort. One student emphasized, “It’s scary to ask for accommodations - what if they don't give it to you? It’s such a relief when teachers take the lead, they approach us, they lead it. When a neurodivergent student asks for help, teachers should know that’s hard to do. They’re probably having more trouble than you realize. Please take that seriously, assume that it is more. Support them!”

Another challenge that may surprise teachers is the exhaustion and taunting neurodivergent or disabled students face. As one pointed out, “I get so tired in comparison to others. What people don’t realize is that there is a lot of subtle discrimination. There is a lack of awareness of neurodivergence. People make jokes and everyone would laugh about it but it’s hurtful.” One student lamented, “People can get called out in class. I transposed 6 and 9 and my classmates laughed at me and my teacher didn’t redirect the class.”

Many 2e students have developed workarounds for their challenges, but these eventually aren’t as effective as the work in higher grade levels becomes more challenging. One student recalled how teachers thought she had stopped trying: “Not having accommodations until later in school, I developed strategies to get around things, trying so hard to do everything, and be ok, and it took so much more effort than anyone realized for it to happen. And then when it became impossible, it stopped working, people wondered what was going on. They asked, ‘Why did you stop trying?’ and it wasn’t that I stopped trying, but that my tricks just stopped working. I was very good at pretending to be ok until I wasn’t.”

Some students pointed out that they may behave differently than typical classroom expectations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention. One shared, “Sometimes teachers don’t think I’m paying attention if I’m not looking at them, but actually I am. Sometimes I am looking at them and thinking about other things. I need to doodle or do something during class because it’s too tiring to give full attention. My appearance doesn’t look like what’s happening in my head.”

And finally, students with physical challenges that aren’t visible shared the pain they have endured when forced to do school activities: “I live in constant pain. If there are physical activities on campus I’m not able to do them. If I can’t do something, I won't be forced to do it. In the past I have sometimes been forced to do it, and then later I suffer and am in incredible pain.”

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