How a Student who Learns Differently is Impacted by the Pandemic

Submitted by Jennifer Diaz-Martinez, student at Reading Senior High School, on behalf of the Telling True Stories project supported by WITF and Report For America.

Time passes by, but Ezequiel’s is frozen. Every tick of the clock drives him closer to his dreaded reality. In less than four hours, the project that will decide his fate as a sophomore in Reading High School is due.

Will Ezequiel have to say goodbye to AP World History?

This question has managed to give him more headaches than he could count with both hands. This assignment, given to him over the summer, has been dwelling in the back of his brain for months, awaiting the moment it will be dealt with at last.

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He had to read an assigned book and create a summary of every chapter. Now that the deadline is approaching, anxiety pushes forward and floods his senses.

Ezequiel has autism and ADHD; he has a gentle personality; he is kind to everyone despite having difficulties understanding them at times. And he loves video games—the protective form of entertainment that offers him the feel-good hormone serotonin he has difficulty producing. Playing video games has become an escape from the stressors filling up his head every day.

Ingrid Valerio, a mental health clinician from the Family Guidance Center, was kind enough to offer some insight on how neurodivergent individuals like Ezequiel often fixate on activities they enjoy.

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“Their struggles tend to root at the most basic function of our brain,” Valerio said. “In a way… it almost serves as a protective factor against stressors related to the social environment.”

In an effort to harness a feeling of comfort, he focuses on the intricate fictional gaming worlds designed specifically to send soothing signals to his brain. School and his project are reduced to a small spec in his mind he’d rather keep ignoring.

Neurodivergency vs Neurotypical

Neurodivergent comes in many ways, but usually it refers to a difference in mental needs and processes. People with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia all fall under the neurodivergent umbrella.

In general, being neurotypical makes hurdles and problems easier to get over, as they don’t deal with the many social and communication troubles neurodivergent people do. To this day, many do not realize the real difficulties of what is living a neurodivergent life.

“It takes a lot of mental strength for me to actually get to the state of mind neurotypicals are by default,” Ezequiel said. “Because of this, I’m always exhausted and feeling burned out.”

Society’s neurotypical expectations of work are harmful to neurodivergent individuals, especially students who are already struggling.

Ezequiel explains that often, he ends up pushing himself to a point of exhaustion, gets discouraged after not reaching the neurotypical ideal, and experiences an implacable surge of burn-out.

For Ezequiel, who is a part of Reading High School’s Gifted and Talented Education, these expectations fall on him like concrete blocks.

Ezequiel’s problems don’t revolve around the due date, but his environment. The feelings of teachers and staff not understanding his position. Expectations specifically shaped around a group of individuals he will never be like, is mentally draining, he said.

“You’ve had months,’ they’d tell me,” Ezequiel said, regarding his AP assignment. “And then I’d feel even worse, because it makes me realize just how much their expectations aren’t structured to take me into consideration.”

Valerio also shared some information regarding the understanding and empathy towards neurodivergent students.

“Patience – all adults, teachers, caregivers, anyone involved with the youth,” she said. “And the youth themselves needs to practice patience while engaging in self-care activities to avoid feeling burned out, she said.”

Ezequiel and Valerio also emphasized the importance of caregivers in the life of a neurodivergent individual to be understanding towards them. A lack of understanding, particularly in school, is a big source of stress for neurodivergent students. School has always had a pace it followed without interruptions for rest.

That was… until now.

Neurodivergency in a COVID world

While the virus is a big stressor for students in and of itself, a lot of neurodivergent students attest to the help it has offered them.

“Online learning has allowed me more freedom, and a sense of peace away from merciless teachers and lessons,” Ezequiel said.

Thanks to the lifted stress of no longer having to attend school in-person, the students have been able to navigate through life with less weight on their shoulders. The assignment for AP World History in particular, was pushed back by several weeks, giving Ezequiel’s mind enough time to adjust back to school.

On the other hand, the lack of information about neurodiversity may lead some to see it as an excuse for students to goof off or blatantly disregard the instructions given to certain students.

“The new schedules at school and intervention periods help me be calm enough to do work.” Ezequiel said. “Seeing teachers be mad about the new policies makes me feel like solving my issues is just a hassle to them.”

Getting tagged as the class clown, lazy, or someone simply trying to goof off, while they’re doing nothing but feeling stressed and burned-out, does nothing to solve the problem. Ingrid Valerio describes why that is.

“Students with ADHD get labeled as lazy or defiant, without considering the ongoing races of thoughts and impulses that cause difficulties with quick judgment of consequences,” Valerio said.

The curriculum or your student’s mental health?

Mental health was not a part of the conventional curriculum in classes, and was seldom mentioned during in-person lessons, but during Covid, school has become more flexible, and a light has been shone into the spiral of complexity that is mental health.

Teachers are more understanding, and school is less demanding and grueling – done in an attempt to keep students sane in these times of uncertainty, this is exactly what neurodivergent students had needed through their entire school career.

“After a long and fumbly discussion with my teacher, I heard some beautiful words I thought I would never be told. ‘I’ll give you another month, because I know that life is hard right now.’” Ezequiel said. “And it was almost enough to make me tear up.”

“All this time, all I wanted was for my teachers and the adults in my life to understand my struggles. Who knew it would take a whole pandemic?”

Thanks to an intervention by Ezequiel’s support group, the school had given Ezequiel an extended time period for the assignment.

Working through it with patience, seeking to understand it — and not being afraid to take breaks due to the reassurance of those around him — Ezequiel finished the assignment two hours before it was due, maintaining his place in AP World History for the rest of his sophomore year.

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Jennifer Diaz-Martinez
Jennifer Diaz-Martinez
I'm a sophomore going into junior year, I love writing. I write for Reading High School's yearbook as an editor. I am also a part of the Telling True Stories project. I'm also an artist, and in the future I hope to write a novel, make a game, animate a show, SO many things! Maybe not all of them at the same time, but I hope I can do at least one of those things. Neurodivergent issues are very important to me, because as the oldest sister of a child with autism, with a Hispanic family that does not understand the concept of it, I've grown up seeing it be mistreated. I have the urgent need to try and explain to others the importance of clearing up stigmas and taking care of your neurodivergent family and friends, as well as allowing them the space and time to speak up against their mistreatment. This is only the bare minimum, but Ezequiel and I hope to be able to make a difference.
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