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Neurodiversity and COVID19

Eight years ago, The College of William & Mary became the first American university to teach neurodiversity. We taught the biology of neurological difference, and the culture that is emerging among people who are different.  Today, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic touches upon both those areas. 

Those of us who identify as neurodivergent recognize that our brains are a bit different from those of “average humans”.  Most of the time, in school, the focus is on how our diversity shapes our college experience – how we fit in; how we are accommodated or how we accommodate to the space; how we think and how we learn. We talk about the many ways different thinkers benefit humanity, and we also discuss techniques for minimizing disabilities many of us live with.

The current COVID-19 outbreak presents the neurodivergent community with some unprecedented challenges, and I’d like to offer some thoughts for confronting them. 

Critically, recent surveys have shown anxiety and stress to be two of the top psychological problems our students grapple with.  In this time, we should all be sensitive to the fact that neurodivergent students are uniquely vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression, and we may suffer more than most as a consequence. Those of us who have social disability may not show our distress as readily as some others, and it may be easy to overlook.  I urge family, friends and supporters of neurodivergent students to be mindful of this, especially now. 

Neurodivergent children who exhibit atypical behaviors are often mocked and bullied. One result:  many neurodivergent adults have poor self-image and high sensitivity to perceived threats. COVID-19 is a real existential threat to all humanity, but neurodivergent people may internalize its threat more than most.  Psychologists say we are prone to catastrophize, meaning we anticipate disaster all out of proportion to the reality of a given situation. 

We might get a poor grade on an assignment and inflate that to, “I’m going to flunk out of college and be ruined.” Later, we might have a mishap at work, and that becomes, “I’m certain to be fired and I’ll end up broke and homeless.”  While those extreme outcomes may be possible, in most cases they are very unlikely. Yet that is often where our minds tend to go. Faced with a real threat like COVID-19, many of us feel a weight of impending doom. This pandemic may seem like the end of the world.

As neurodivergent individuals, we should be aware that our interpretation of events may be excessively negative, and our judgement may be impaired as a result. In the worst extreme, suicide risk may be heightened. Those who live or work with us should be aware of that and recognize that we may suffer more than most people in times like this, even as our pain is invisible.

Many neurodivergent people have intense focus, particularly on topics that capture our attention. When our focus becomes early American literature, or physics, or biology . . . we can be stars in academia.  If our focus switches to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy for us to become overwhelmed by the relentlessly negative media coverage. What was a strength to us in school becomes a liability now. 

With that in mind, when we feel anxious about the coronavirus outbreak, we should remember these points of perspective according to the most recent information:

  • News stories often lead with bad news, like “60,000 may die in USA.”  When reading that headline it is easy to lose context.  The United States is a land of 330,000,000 people. The forecast deaths are terrible, to be sure, but they are less than one tenth of one percent of our population.
  • Even in centers of pandemic like New York, the current estimates predict less than 50% of the population will be infected this spring. In most of the country the pandemic is not expected to infect more than a few percent of us.  
  • If you do get sick with COVID-19, odds are more than 75% that you will recover without hospitalization.
  • If you are hospitalized and under 65, odds are still more than 90% you will make a complete recovery. However, when you read the headline, it says: 1 in 10 hospitalized middle age patients die.  The negative perspective attracts views, but the positive interpretation is healthier for us to internalize.

While the exact numbers for people infected, casualties, and rates of hospitalization are revised daily, one message remains the same: The vast majority of us will be all right. Yes, the disease is scary. It can be deadly. But the risk to any one individual - especially one of college age – is small.  It is the random lethality of COVID-19 that makes is so terrifying. Many young people have no symptoms at all if they become infected. A few become very sick, and against all odds, some die. What determines who will be barely affected, and who will die? No one really knows. What are your odds, as an individual? No one knows that either. 

Order and predictability are important to many neurodivergent people.  There is nothing orderly or predictable about COVID outcomes. The more a person desires structure in life, the more that uncertainty may trouble them. I don’t have an answer for the unknowable but understanding and compassion can help us cope.

With all that in mind, neurodivergent people should be attentive to how our neurology may shape our interpretation of events, sometimes to our disadvantage. Those who live with or support neurodivergent people should be sensitive to our greater vulnerability in this time.

That said, college students are in one of the lowest risk groups for COVID-19 mortality. Scary as the disease is, the threat for young adults (as we understand it now) is slight.  The greater risk is to older people. For those who want more about my take on COVID-19, I am posting updates on my public Facebook page, JohnElderRobison.

Though the pandemic has shuttered our college campuses, online studies are continuing, and I am available via the W&M email for students with questions. I can also meet virtually by video chat.

My best wishes to everyone in this difficult time.