For those of us who are autistic, ADHD, dyslexic, or have other learning difficulties, the prospect of midterms, finals, or the end of a 9 weeks is intimidating. There are almost always big projects due, exams to cram for, or essays to write. Around this time of year, the novelty of a new school year has worn off and we are well and truly in the trenches. So what can we do to motivate ourselves and keep up with it all?
In this post, we will explore some of the common struggles that neurodivergent individuals face when trying to keep on top of school work. Traditional advice about using planners, anticipating deadlines, and special note-taking doesn’t always work, but why is that? And what can we do instead? Read on to learn more about how your brain works, how to create ND-friendly study spaces, and other tips and tricks to stay on track!
So many of us struggle to keep on top of things, but why is that? The most common struggles I see are often executive functioning difficulties, anxiety, sensory sensitivities, varied learning styles that aren’t always compatible with traditional academics, and just plain feeling overwhelmed. Let’s dive into them one at a time to understand why academics can be more challenging for the ND student!
Executive Functioning – or, Do The Thing
Neurodivergence, most times, comes hand-in-hand with some kind of executive functioning difficulty. Executive functioning, or EF, is the “do the thing” process in your brain! It’s not just one skill, but actually builds on a whole lot of them – time awareness and management, self-monitoring, emotional control, planning and prioritizing, organization, task initiation, and more.
Basically to “just do the thing,” you have to be able to visualize the finished product to know what you’re working towards, keep your focus on the task long enough to get it done, understand how to break down parts of the task into manageable bits, prioritize and put the different steps in order, know how long things will take and plan accordingly, keep track of how you’re doing and adjust when needed, and be able to get the whole process started in the first place!
If you are a person who is already struggling to keep up with day-to-day life, having to manage all of the above steps in order to do homework, study for a test, or work on a project can be really overwhelming. And often, people may have lagging skills in one or more of those areas, or a need to build up more capacity and ability in those things.
Maybe you’re a person who is GREAT at making lists (organizing, planning) but then gets lost on where to start (prioritizing). You might have a perfect mental idea of what your finished project or essay will be and no trouble keeping it in mind (planning, working memory) but can’t seem to just sit down and get started (task initiation). And sometimes the entire idea of the process is so overwhelming that you get extremely anxious, angry, or depressed!
It can be very helpful, if you’re struggling with a project or assignment, to try and identify what EXACTLY you are having a hard time with. Is it breaking things down, not knowing exactly what the teacher wants to see, getting things going? There are many ways to improve different EF skills, and it really helps to be able to target your challenging areas by knowing what to work on. There are many online resources, your teacher may be able to help, and I also offer EF support as part of my coaching and mentoring packages!
So many of us ND folks struggle to keep our attention where it needs to be if we are uncomfortable, anxious, or on edge. Because of the way ND brains, especially Autistic and ADHD brains, tend to work, we often don’t have the ability to filter out sensory input the way neurotypical (NT) people can. Think of that one light in your classroom that buzzes at just the wrong frequency and gives you a headache, or the fan going in the back of the room that you just can’t tune out, or the seam of your sock that feels like a rock in your shoe.
If we can’t get comfortable, then we can’t focus! Be aware of your surroundings and again, try to identify the things that are giving you problems. Some of the most common adjustments people may be able to make is lowering or changing the lighting in their study space, using noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, even wearing sunglasses to help tune out visual stimuli.
Others may need to move and wiggle to stay focused! And guess what – there is no rule saying that you can only study sitting at a desk! Obviously this can be more difficult in a classroom setting, but when you are at home, I really encourage you to try changing up the space in which you study. Get a rocking chair, spread out on the floor, stand at the counter, even do homework in the (dry) bathtub for some novelty!
Varied Learning Styles
Different brains need different inputs to work well, and many people learn in a variety of ways that differ from the traditional lecture-style learning and sit-down deskwork. It can be really hard to study written material if you have dyslexia, binocular vision dysfunction, or trouble reading in general, and it can be near impossible to focus on a lecture if your body needs to move in order to process new information!
There are various accommodations available in schools at both grade school and college level which can help support different learning styles. Some simple accommodations like being allowed to stand at your desk, use of a wobble cushion or bounce band, or brain breaks can help you stay engaged better and longer in a classroom environment. Depending on your needs and diagnoses, you may also be entitled to things like having access to lecture notes or having an assigned note taker! This is much more common at the college level, but can be implemented in grade schools under certain circumstances.
Many books are available in audio format, and there is read-aloud software out there for things like PDFs and web pages. In addition, a simple conversation with your teacher can go a long way towards helping them understand that you will retain information much better with concrete examples, or with an opportunity for some hands-on learning.
At home, try and figure out what you remember best! We almost always retain information better if it is tied to more than one sense at a time, so try listening to a lecture or reading new material while swinging in a hammock or rocking in a chair, reviewing new facts while balancing on one leg or jumping up and down, or eating something extra minty or spicy while reading a new chapter! This is part of why colorful notes can be so helpful for some people. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Anxiety and Overwhelm
I’ve found that these two challenges often come hand in hand. ND individuals tend to all have some level of anxiety, which is completely natural when you are surviving in a world not built for your brain! In addition, hard tasks tend to bring back all of the things we’ve struggled with in the past, making a relatively simple assignment turn into a spiral of doom.
A veteran educator named Brendan Mahan coined the term “wall of awful” when thinking about the kind of anxiety that ND folks, especially ADHDers, tend to have when it comes to facing challenging tasks. In short, the task before you calls up all of the failures and hard times you’ve struggled with before when dealing with anything even a little bit similar. Each past failure or negative emotion is like a brick that contributes to an emotional “brick wall”, preventing you from moving forward. I think this is a really accurate representation of how a lot of times our past failures feel cumulative, especially given how we tend to have much more negative self-image and self-talk than our NT counterparts. We build up a wall of shame, guilt, and anxiety, and it becomes really hard to overcome!
A really important step is learning to embrace how your brain works and try to steer clear of shame narratives that convince us we are never going to succeed. You have every chance to succeed; you just need different supports than others might. Once you figure out what those are, and allow yourself to lean on them without self-recrimination, things get a lot less overwhelming.
I encourage you to have a safe, supportive, and encouraging person to talk to when you start to go down the shame spiral. It could be a friend, a parent, a therapist, even an online gaming buddy. Having positive and uplifting voices that accept you as you are and give encouragement can go a long way towards defeating the guilt and shame narrative in your own head.
Identify and celebrate your successes, even the small ones! We tend to struggle so much more with just getting through daily necessities – honestly, many days I count just getting out of bed as a victory. It’s not a given that I’m going to be able to shower, do a load of laundry, even take a few minutes to sit and relax on any given day. Identifying and celebrating those successes helps battle the shame spiral, and also goes a long way towards acknowledging just how much effort goes into doing All The Things every day.
Another big tip I have is trying to inject some dopamine into intimidating tasks or repetitive routines! Many times our brains don’t respond well to the work-then-reward paradigm, and it can feel defeating before you even begin. But if you can engage in your special interest, listen to some favorite music, have a snack or treat, or otherwise get yourself excited about something BEFORE you sit down to study, you are actually a lot more likely to be able to get started and stay engaged.
Accommodations, Awareness, and Acceptance
There are some other supports and accommodations that help to address the above challenges that might be quick and simple to implement. I love visual timers to help keep track of your time, choice boards or write-on spinny wheels to help give you a starting point, or little envelopes or a drawn “path” with candy, fidgets, or other fun treats to engage with while you work to provide some steady glimmers while you work.
In general, the biggest and best support for you is going to be self-awareness and acceptance. The less you let yourself get drawn into negative internal dialogue, shame spirals, and reminiscing on everything you’ve struggled with before, the more energy you have to put towards building new skills and staying on task. Following your brain’s shifting interests can help you get into The Zone when it comes to getting work done, rather than trying to stick to a rigid schedule of how you are going to finish things in what order. And being able to express your doubts, fears, and frustrations to a non-judgmental listener can help you feel like you’re starting to break through that Wall of Awful one brick at a time.
To learn more about how to work with, not against, your ND brain, contact me to learn about workshops, ongoing classes, and one-on-one services! I am available for mentoring, parenting support, and IEP advocacy as well as trainings for schools, therapists, and other professionals.
Remember – your way of learning is a strength, not a limitation. Embrace the power of personalizing your routines and spaces, and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Your study space and habits should be adjusted to support your unique brain! By celebrating and nurturing your neurodivergence, you can set the stage not only for academic success in the short term, but a lifelong love of learning. So go ahead – create space and routines that fuel your passions and support you through challenges, and watch yourself flourish to your full potential!