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Neurodiverse Students Were Hit the Hardest by the Events of the Past Year

By Nicolas Rontanini

We all remember when the pandemic first hit and we had to adapt to an unprecedented crisis and navigate a changing social and academic environment. We were all hit hard, but neurodivergent students—those who have been diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and autism—were hit the hardest. According to Dr. Lawrence Fung, the director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, during the pandemic about 20-30 percent of males on the spectrum experienced anxiety disorder, with a higher anxiety rate in females of 40 percent. Fung noted that some clinics have seen anxiety in patients on the spectrum increase 80-90 percent. A Nov. 13, 2020 “Teen Vogue” article stated the situation has caused some neurodiverse college students to drop out, while others contended with academic and social placements that left them disadvantaged.

The term neurodivergent was first coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, who also identifies on the autism spectrum. According to the website, the term was intended to challenge the notion that being neurodivergent meant being broken. As a neurodivergent student, my stress levels only elevated in response to the pandemic. When everything shifted to an online format, I not only had to adjust to altered academic structures, I had to completely revamp my schedule to accommodate it. Not to mention, the different methods of connecting with professors were difficult to navigate and frustrating if you didn’t hear a response. The pandemic certainly didn’t help my stress levels, but it also taught me valuable lessons.

One of the hallmarks of the pandemic was change, and this can be stressful for everyone. It’s especially difficult for neurodiverse individuals who, according to Verywellmind, were reported to feel more anxiety regarding several aspects of life, like safety, getting food or their job status during the crisis. I can definitely attest to this. Most aspects of our lives that we may have taken for granted changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Before this, we couldn’t have predicted the quarantine and the lockdown. We couldn’t have predicted our schedules and routines completely changing seemingly overnight. Even navigating the frequently changing CDC guidelines became a challenge of its own. All of these changes, especially for neurodiverse students, caused tremendous anxiety. The lack of structure the changes brought with them only amplified this feeling.

There was a need for a set of more specific guidelines for autistic individuals released by the CDC. As they noted, some people with developmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorder, can have difficulty with comprehending safety measures or saying if they’re experiencing symptoms. Here, the CDC provides tips to care for your physical and mental health, like eating healthy and contacting your healthcare provider in any treatment concerns you have. These are very helpful tips that, when carried out, can actually help you feel calm. But there is one thing they mention that is important for everyone, “recognizing what stress looks like.”

From when the pandemic first started, the rapid changes caused anxiety for many. As such, if you needed help, it became even more important to advocate for yourself. However, neurodiverse students often struggle with this. As Verywellmind noted, neurodiverse individuals often feel the need to mask what they’re feeling, either due to external social reasons or shame that what they’re feeling is somehow wrong.

I’ve felt this way before. When it seems like you’re the only one who feels anxious in a given situation, it’s easy to feel like you need to hide what you’re feeling. But it’s important to note that you’re not the only one who has felt this way. The pandemic stoked feelings of stress and anxiety in everyone.

So, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is going through this. It taught us to see those around us in a different light, and that feeling stressed is nothing to feel ashamed of. In response to an unprecedented public health crisis, anxiety is a natural feeling to have. It’s important to remember, feeling stressed isn’t wrong; it’s human.

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