Mental Health Special Series
Trapped Behind the Mask: Neurodivergent student shares college pandemic struggles

Published by J.R. Williams on

While pandemic stress and fatigue have put more stress on college students than ever before, neurodivergent students like Jane, a pre-med major at UCC, especially have had their own unique set of challenges. A neurotypical person navigating the pandemic is now experiencing struggles similar to the level of upheaval a neurodivergent person experienced daily prior to the pandemic. The pandemic then just increased the struggle exponentially for those who are neurodivergent.  

Jane and her girls pack their bags and prepare for school.
The Mainstream

Neurodiversity refers to atypical neurological development and experiences in a variety of diagnoses including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, epilepsy, hyperlexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory processing differences and Tourette’s syndrome.

According to a Biomed Central study, since the pandemic began there has been “an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms in response to the pandemic for both the non-autism and the autism group.”  The Biomed study reported that “adults with autism showed a greater increase in worries about their pets, work, getting medication and food, and their own safety/security.  Adults with autism also felt more stressed about the loss of routines and the loss of social contact was difficult.”

Jane, who is also a Phi Theta Kappa member and single mother of lower elementary school girls, relates. “My first thought when stay-at-home orders began was, without a schedule, I will fall off the wagon”, said Jane.  A critical lack of structure, stability and external support systems was a fundamental blow for many students.  “Part of managing my neurodivergent symptoms naturally, with no support network, requires having a consistent routine.  With no place to go and endless flexibility, I knew my discipline and planning alone would not be enough to keep me on track for more than a term or two,” Jane said.  

Pre-pandemic, Jane had developed an intricate routine for managing her symptoms which included waking between 4 and 5 a.m. to give her mind the two-hour window required to overcome her sleep inertia, a biological preservation mechanism causing the mind to force the body back to sleep. 

“Sleep inertia can be dangerous and debilitating.  No matter how much sleep I get the night before, my mind has to go through this process and caffeine doesn’t help,” said Jane.

She learned to plan her day around this lengthy morning hurdle by waking up well before her children.  She then takes on mindless tasks like cleaning and exercising while the waking stages of her brain progress, before starting the morning routine with her kids.

“I then have to quickly transition into work, school or business mode because I will only have so much energy for social interactions and ‘masking’, something that has been made more intense with pandemic tension,” said Jane.

Masking describes the “artificial performance of social behaviors that are seen as more socially acceptable in a neurotypical society,” according to Sinduya Sivayoganathan, author of Understanding the Neural Divergent Perspective

It is a survival skill many neurodivergent individuals maintain in order to blend in and be treated the same as everyone else. “I’m very open about my ADHD and anxiety diagnosis, but no one knows I’m on the autism spectrum unless I tell them. I didn’t even know until I found the Aspien Woman article,” said Jane, who wasn’t even aware she was on the spectrum until the spring of 2020 at the age of 34. 

“After an early morning workout, school drop off, errands, school and work, I am exhausted and overstimulated from having to put on a performance all day.  If I don’t set firm boundaries between the outside world and family in the evening, then my home life, children and mental health suffer. We all need time to just be and be human, but decompression time can be life and death for neurodivergent types,” said Jane.

The life and death feeling Jane is referring to is called burnout, specifically autistic burnout. Sarah Deweerdt, a biomed science writer for Spectrum News since 2010, describes autistic burnout as “the intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some adults with autism experience.”

Deweerdt explains, “Many autistic people say it results mainly from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people.” 

This burnout is largely due to social cues, incentives and idiosyncrasies found in a culture that has nothing to do with facilitating transactions in and of themselves. Many pandemic rituals and regulations have made the cumbersomeness of these social niceties apparent to many neurotypicals as well.  It is commonly being described now as pandemic fatigue.

While all students can find organization and motivation challenging, neural divergent students also struggle with traits such as time-blindness.  Zeroing in on a specific task for an extended period of time can cause hours of uninterrupted hyper-focus. This can lead to missing important time-sensitive engagements and burn out which requires copious amounts of recovery time. Hyperfocus can also cause neurodivergent students to be so engrossed in assignments that they miss meals and to work into the early morning hours blissfully unaware of the passage of time.  “I am often late transitioning between classes if I study between class times,” Jane admits as an example.

Generally, people can assume those with ADHD do better in a restricted environment with limited distractions, but isolation can make it even more difficult to stay on task due to the lack of accountability, routine, and support. 

“I found being in the same space all the time allowed information to overlap as well as an increase in short-term memory lapses, you think something is done because you worked on it the day before,” said Jane.  

Not having designated times and places to be also meant losing the external calendar and clock that neurodivergent people often need to help plan and prioritize daily tasks. “Neurodivergents often lack object permanence, meaning what we can’t see does not exist in our minds. I have to see the people or things I need to do, or I might forget the task or person even exists until it becomes my own inconvenience,” said Jane. So losing daily routines like hiking on campus also meant losing daily reminders and fail-safes she had set up to keep her from accidentally dropping items off her to-do list.

“In spite of all the pandemic life and academic struggles, I am very fortunate to have access to UCC’s student support services like life coaching with Hanna CulbertsonTRIO and Accessibility Services. Without these services I would not be graduating this spring with honors,” said Jane, who has successfully managed to maintain a 3.7 GPA while at UCC.

Jane knows that people notice she is different. “It creates this scenario where it seems like people expect more of me without realizing I have so much working against me already. They want to capitalize on the benefits of my neurodivergencies and expect more of me without knowing I’m already giving 110% just to present myself without seeming rude to everyone who demands a certain set of social performances be maintained.”

Because of the potential for Jane to receive discrimination, she asked that we not share her full, legal name. 

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For more articles by J.R. Williams please click here.

This is one of eight articles in our special series on mental health. For the rest of the articles in this series, select any of the links below:

Editorial – One stress factor we have control over: our diet
UCC student discusses his college anxiety
Students, staff identify mental health treatment barriers amid rising need
Student Assistance Plan offers free virtual counseling services for UCC students, their families and roommates
Science-based coping strategies reduce mental stress, improve mental health
Poor mental health is costing employers billions
UCC students share their anxiety coping strategies