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How Did the Pandemic Affect Neurodivergent Individuals?

business woman wearing mask looking stressed

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic created unique challenges, and even some benefits for neurodivergent people.
  • Constantly changing guidelines and reduced access to regular interests and schedules caused difficulties for many individuals.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging in different ways for all people, this time has presented additional hurdles to people who are neurodivergent and may be at increased risk for pandemic-related mental health problems—including higher rates of depression.

Neurodivergent people already faced difficulties before Covid-19—including higher rates of anxiety—but the pandemic added strains when social-distancing increased isolation, routines shifted, screen-time increased, and executive-functioning skills were maxed out.

While it's true that lockdowns and quarantine offered an escape from the ableism of the outside world, many didn't have the support they needed to remain well during this time. And just as we've all started to adjust to life with COVID-19, the world is beginning to re-open again—requiring neurodivergent people to quickly shift back to the way things were despite having difficulties adjusting to change.

What Is Neurodivergence?

The term neurodiversity highlights that all people’s brains work in different ways. To view neurological, cognitive, and learning disabilities or diagnoses through the lens of neurodiversity is to acknowledge that people with neurodivergent experiences represent many diverse variations within normal human experiences.

Neurodivergence refers to atypical neurological development and experiences. It affirms a variety of diagnoses and differences, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hyperlexia, sensory processing differences, Tourette’s syndrome, and more.

Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW, a Philadelphia-based therapist with Rainbow Rose Therapy, says that living with neurodivergence in a world designed by and for neurotypical people is like being in a classroom with the same tasks and instructions as everyone else—but without the same materials.

What’s more, it’s not obvious that you were given different materials than the others, so it can be challenging to know how to ask for support when everyone else seems to be handling the assignment just fine. This can lead to isolation, self-judgment, and feelings of invalidation.

Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

There are a million ways to be neurodivergent, and even within specific neurodivergent identities, there are still a lot of differences that neurodivergent people experience as they process the world.

— Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

Lyric Holmans, a neurodiversity specialist who is autistic and has ADHD, was not diagnosed until they were almost 30. Holmans explains they lacked the language to talk about or seek support about their experiences.

They previously assumed everyone experienced the world with the same discomforts but could control their sense of overwhelm and hide dysregulation more easily—so they forced themself to cope with overstimulation.

They explain that the term neurodiversity was coined to contradict the dominating narrative that neurodivergent people are broken. The term combats that outdated perspective by normalizing neurodivergent experiences and affirming the need to support, encourage, and empower neurodivergent people.

Nirenberg adds, "People flourish when we nurture them and meet their needs, and people struggle when we leave them in the dark. A neurodivergent person can't change how their brain works, and they shouldn't have to. We should make space for all different types of people and celebrate that our differences create strength."

Coping With Change and Uncertainty Is a Challenge

Although increased anxiety has been reported across various populations throughout this crisis, a recent study determined that neurodivergent people were more likely to worry about their jobs, pets, access to food and medicine, and safety during this time.

The intense amount of uncertainty created additional strain, and neurodivergent people were reported to feel additional stress about changing recommendations for COVID-19 protocols—even noting the need for more autism-specific guidelines.

Many people who are autistic or have sensory processing disorder have aversions regarding sensory experiences—such as taste, texture, and scent. Some have a tendency to rely on the same foods and other items to avoid pain and discomfort associated with an overwhelming sensory experience.

Pre-pandemic, Holmans utilized delivery apps for their shopping so they could avoid the bright, fluorescent lights at stores—but during early stages of lockdown, appointment windows were less available. Also, the foods and brands they needed were also inaccessible when stores were short on stock, but lacking access to these items is more serious than adjusting to the absence of a favorite brand or preference.

Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

Food sensitivity, aversion, and textural issues are a big symptom of neurodivergence. When a neurodivergent person says that they can't eat two foods if they touch or can't handle certain and flavors, we don't mean that we dislike those foods. We mean that they cause stress.

— Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

Nirenberg highlights that it wasn't simple to try new foods during pandemic shortages, as trying to conquer a food aversion or sensitivity can cause gagging, throwing up, or meltdowns. More than that, they say that forcing neurodivergent people to eat these foods not only invalidates their experiences but can lead to eating disorders.

They add that sensory experiences with touch can be hard to navigate too, creating conflict between personal beliefs that masks are important during this time and the personal need to be free from sensations that cause pain. Some people with sensory processing issues stayed home more frequently than others for this reason or struggled more than others during times when masks were required.

Nirenberg explains that when neurodivergent people feel overstimulated, exhausted, highly stressed, or burnt out, it can be physically painful in addition to emotionally taxing. Neurotypical people often diminish these experiences, but the stress encountered during those moments is intense and real. Even though the cause might be something a neurotypical person doesn't understand, the stressful experience is no less valid.

New Routines Were Difficult While Working From Home

For Holmans, working from home throughout the pandemic means not having to deal with sensory overload, and other autistic people were similarly relieved by this aspect of quarantining. But for many, the jolt in routine also meant they now lacked access to their special interests—activities that are pursued with intense passion and sometimes double as coping mechanisms. This was distressful for many autistic people who had special interests that required time spent away from the home.

Many who struggle with sensory overload benefited from more time at home, but it was countered by a critical lack of structure, stability, and external support systems. Nirenberg notes that because neurodivergent people often live with a sense of social isolation, adding physical isolation can doubly impact mental health. Adding in factors related to the shift in routine, lack of typical workplace or school accommodations, plus long hours and trauma exposure to essential workers all while reducing the support systems available will heighten difficulties.

Emilia Song, who has ADHD inattentive type, has always had challenges organizing and motivating herself—struggling with time-blindness, the inability to naturally grasp how much time is passing. She often hyperfocuses, zeroing in on a specific task for an extended period of time. But without a structured setting, she falls into a boom-bust pattern, continually squeezing a lot of activity into a short amount of time then requiring a prolonged recovery time after being productive.

As a content creator, Song is often able to find enough motivation to work on and finish one project but then becomes disorganized and cannot consistently meet her goals. This can impact engagement and financial gains. She says that pandemic isolation has made it even more difficult to stay on task, as she now lacks accountability, routine, and the support of others. Her days became a blur and breed procrastination, fueling anxiety.

Online Support Groups Provided Solace

Song says the shortage of providers even before the pandemic limited her options, but due to increased demand for support during COVID-19, she couldn't find anyone specializing in treating adults with ADHD who was accepting new patients. This exacerbated her problems.

Emilia Song

It was like all of the progress I'd made the year before vanished, and I was back in that listless state.

— Emilia Song

She underlines that neurodivergent women and people assigned female at birth are often misunderstood and are less likely to be diagnosed, as medical doctors and even mental health professionals often miss their symptoms. She was told as a teen that she was too smart to have ADHD because she was academically gifted, later evaluated for Bipolar II—a common experience for neurodivergent women—and eventually treated for generalized anxiety disorder.

Finding online communities for neurodivergent people has helped Song understand more about herself and find camaraderie. She added, “[The pandemic] gave me more time to understand how ADHD affected my life. I used to blame my anxiety disorders and moods on brain chemistry, but upon reflection, the other psychological issues that I've had all stemmed from how I never dealt with my ADHD.”

She adds, “I think that all of my other mental health issues stem from ADHD. I thought that ADHD was just a learning disorder for the longest time because there was so little support or understanding for inattentive type, especially for adults, but it affects every other aspect of your existence.”

But social media is easily addictive for average users and especially for those with ADHD, as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention make them more susceptible. Song needed online interactions during the pandemic to combat the effects of isolation—but the kinds of problematic and inflammatory exchanges that can take place there took a devastating toll on her mental health.

Nirenberg says that neurodivergent people are more likely to be bullied, and it's important to self-validate personal experiences even if others treat you harshly. Specifically seeking information about and community with other neurodivergent people is often affirming. If it's not accessible to join a group run by and for neurodivergent people, they recommend reading Reddit threads or finding other online forums to remember during hard times that you're not alone.

Learning More About Ourselves and Each Other Is Key

Masking, or hiding struggles, interests, and behaviors associated with neurodivergence, comes from internalized shame or outward social pressures. Although there are valid reasons for neurodivergent people to choose to mask when its needed, it's often forced by others, and either way, it has detrimental effects on mental health.

Nirenberg says, "Autistic burnout is a term that refers to periods of intense exhaustion and extreme lows that come from having to mask in order to operate in the world," explaining that masking also leads to low self-esteem, shame, a pattern of using denial as a coping tool, and the inability to seek help when it's needed. It also impacts physical health—leading to changes in blood sugar, digestion, and sleep.

Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

Autistic burnout usually causes increases in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, sensory issues, processing issues, and other mental health problems. It increases in the 'symptoms' of autism itself.

— Pixie Kirsch Nirenberg, LSW

One way to help neurodivergent people as they re-enter the world post-pandemic is to remove unnecessary barriers to comfort, learning, and self-care. Nirenberg explains that as an autistic adult, they experience fewer social restrictions than children in schools, who, for instance, are not allowed to fidget or get up from their seats in class. Learning what a person needs to effectively engage with a space is an important part of building a supportive and successful learning and working environment.

They explain that a variety of coping mechanisms and behaviors associated with neurodivergence are not dangerous or problematic. They're effective or affirming ways of interacting with the world. Allowing people to stim, doodle, fidget, move their bodies, or embrace other accommodations will promote a safer and more affirming experience.

Holmans says that learning about their neurodivergence has influenced how they now approach relationships, utilize tools for organization, and seek professional support to help them address their concerns. Nirenberg explains that learning about neurodiversity helps people recognize that their differences aren't bad and allows them to see—sometimes for the first time—that their brains can do meaningful things that other people's can't.

Professional mental health support is also available as long as providers have openings. This is useful for those who seek medications that help with anxiety, executive dysfunction, and other issues, or those who want to talk about their stressors and learn new coping skills. Nirenberg suggests somatic experiencing therapy to get more in touch with your body. This therapy encourages physical expression and movement to learn more about where emotions live in your body.

Nirenberg underlines that learning about and affirming each other an important part of moving into a post-pandemic world. They explain that no one should feel ashamed for needing support as the world re-opens, noting that neurotypical people should aim to validate and learn about those needs.

What This Means For You

If you are neurodivergent, know that your experiences and concerns are important. Support throughout the pandemic is available through peer networks. Ask other neurodivergent people where they're getting quality professional care if you feel you suspect that you're neurodivergent and would like an evaluation or need more support.

If you're an ally, neurodivergent people you value them by asking them what they need and helping them seek accommodations.

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