Invisible Disabilities – Why They’re Challenging and How to Turn Them into Superpowers

Invisible Disabilities - Why They're Challenging and How to Turn Them into Superpowers

Invisible disabilities are just that…invisible. It’s one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome when identifying and treating mental health issues and learning differences.


Before I get started, I do want to clarify my stance on the phrase ‘invisible disability’. I use this term throughout my article so that people can find this post if they are searching for information connected to that terminology. It is however very important to me that people understand that disabilities are really just differences.

As we all know every person has strengths and weaknesses. Life is about leaping over hurdles and expanding our world. Each and every human being has challenges that are unique to their personal circumstances. It is my sincere goal to help people reach for the stars and make their dreams reality.

Over the course of my career I’ve seen just that – if they get the help they need. That being said, there are way too many people who fall through the cracks and are expected to accomplish tasks that are outside their current abilities simply because caregivers, family members, educators and doctors fail to recognize their challenges.

So, what are invisible disabilities? In a nutshell, it’s when someone suffers from a neurological or physical condition that impairs physical movement, interaction with others, career progression or academics. Unfortunately, these issues may not be immediately apparent to others.

A great example of an invisible disability is ADHD or ADD. One of the most common misconceptions about people with attention deficit is that they’re disinterested or possibly less capable than their peers. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, I’ve found most of my patients with ADHD or ADD have extraordinary gifts that shine through once they learn to deal with areas of weakness. With assistance, people with ADHD and ADD become very successful members of society.

Some other examples of invisible disabilities are:
• Social anxiety
• Depression
• Fibromyalgia
• Closed head injuries
• Epilepsy
• Diabetes
• Cystic Fibrosis

Let’s be frank, it’s tough to comprehend what you can’t see with your eyes. For example, a teacher would never pressure a person with a broken leg to join track & field. That’s obvious – but what’s not so obvious is the student living with social anxiety. They’re expected to attend class and give presentations like everyone else. Unfortunately, there is little understanding or accommodation when it comes to this type of challenge. Students with social anxiety can achieve as much as anyone else, but like all students they need the right support to reach their full potential. Their ability isn’t the problem, but anxiety without appropriate support or understanding can be. 

There are no cold hard figures for Americans with Invisible Disabilities. This is because they’re not “seen”, or are underreported. We do know however, that there are millions of people who aren’t getting the assistance they need.

To give you a little insight, in 1997 only 7 million of the 26 million categorized as having a severe disability needed a wheelchair, a walker or crutches. The point is, things aren’t always what they seem.

Education & Identification

Too many people are missing out on the help they need educationally, medically and psychologically – help that would ensure their future success. Some of the most important information educators, parents and healthcare professionals can have is a list of red flags to help them identify those who are in danger of slipping past unrecognized. Here is Laura Eskridge’s list  of red flags for age related learning disabilities:

1. Preschoolers: Difficulty pronouncing words, rhyming, learning basic letters, numbers, shapes and colors.

2. Kindergarten – 4th grade: Difficulty connecting letters with sounds, understanding basic words, remembering facts and consistent reading and spelling errors.

3. 5th – 8th grade: Difficulty understanding and comprehending reading materials, has a tough time following oral instructions and comprehending spelling strategies.

4. High School & Young Adults: Spells the same word differently depending on circumstances, has difficulty answering open-ended questions, understanding abstract concepts, misreads information and has a tough time focusing on details.

Here is the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental health red flags:

1. Withdrawal
2. Problems thinking
3. Increased Sensitivity
4. Apathy
5. Feeling Disconnected
6. Illogical Thinking
7. Nervousness
8. Unusual behavior
9. Mood Changes
10. Drop in Productivity
11. Changes in Sleep & Appetite

Let’s Destigmatize Challenges

Aside from lack of detection, one of the biggest problems is denial. For many it’s easier to just get by than it is to admit there is something more going on. That’s why education is so very important.

The truth is, all of us have challenges. The beauty of neuroplasticity is that the brain changes until the day you die. With simple exercises, you can quite literally alter your world. An invisible disability doesn’t have to DIS-able you. In fact, it can be your superpower.

9 Simple Solutions for Better Mental Health

Here are 9 tools I use to help patients overcome weaknesses and uncover their strengths.

1.  Solid sleep hygiene.

There’s no replacement for good sleep; this is the time your brain takes to repair the ravages of daily stressors. Be sure to get your beauty rest. It’s a quick and easy path to better mental health.

2.  Brain training.

This is a no brainer (pardon the pun). Strong brains have a much better chance of overcoming challenges. Cognitive fitness is a must. You have probably heard of lumosity.com. They have 50 free cognitive games for you to sample. Brains need exercise as much as bodies do.

3.  Physical activity

Humans are complex organisms. There isn’t a single part of our physiology that doesn’t interact and communicate with the rest of the organism. Simply put, a healthy fit body supports a healthy, fit brain. Walk, run or maybe practice some yoga. t doesn’t matter how your body moves – just that it moves.

4.  Mindfulness exercises

Being present is very important. 99% of anxiety would cease to exist if we didn’t worry about the past or what we imagine might happen in the future. The present is a pretty cool place to hang out and be well. I highly recommend meditation and there are many scientific studies to back me up. If you want some more information click here.

5. Stress management.

… And I don’t mean squeezing tennis balls or drinking herbal tea. The key is to get to the root of what is causing stress in your life. Once you do that then you can commit to a plan to eliminate it. Maybe you need a new job or to ditch toxic relationships. Whatever it is, now is the perfect time.

6. Nutritional assessment.

This is my favorite soapbox. Respect yourself enough to honor your body, mind and soul with only the best food. One rule of thumb is to try to stick to eating things with three ingredients or less. For example, what is a Cheeto? I’ve never seen a Cheeto tree, have you? If you can’t grow it, best to avoid it.

7. Pursue creative endeavors.

This is the best channel for whatever ails you. Paint, sing, dance, cook, write, carve, sculpt, fly a kite – do anything to channel negative energy into something beautiful.

8. Talk, talk, talk.

Whether you seek counsel from friends, family or a therapist – talk! The expression, pain shared is pain halved is so very true. Humans are relational by design. When you are heard by a compassionate, caring human your burden is reduced.

9. Equine therapy.

Hang out with horses. They have a very special bond with humans. Not only do they mirror human emotions, but also they’re very sensitive and intuitive creatures. Interaction with horses is very powerful therapy.

If you suspect you (or someone you love) might have an invisible disability it’s important to know that that with some simple tools, it’s possible achieve success in areas you never imagined; and most importantly, on the other side of every disability is a superpower.


About the Author: Dr. Lynn Fraley

Dr. Lynn Fraley is a Clinical Mental Health Professional in the State of Washington, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the State of Idaho and is certified by the National Board of Counselors. She has worked with child and adult survivors of all types of abuse, chemical dependency, divorce & blended family structures as well as more severe and long-term mental illnesses. Her primary areas of focus are cognitive rehabilitation, individual psychotherapy & paediatric developmental issues. She has also been designated as a certified expert, by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and holds a specialty board certification in Sexual Abuse by AAETS

3 Comments

Janet B

My 13 year old son has suffered with ADHD all his life. He has been treated by teachers and principals like an intensionally bad kid and a criminal. He is very intelligent but is failing every subject and skipping out because of this treatment and prevailing attitude as well as being bored out of his mind. His father is a complete narcissistic alcoholic who mentally and emotionally abuses him by blaming him for everything as well as a myriad of other ways.
He is going through a psych-ed assessment in hopes of getting the teachers to recognize his ADHD as real and valid and treat him with compassion and understanding instead of disdain. He’s on meds and has been moved to a new school but it’s a battle for him to go to school and for myself everyday advocating for him at doctors, pediatricians, psychologists never mind the school and his “father”. It floors me that he is blamed and punished instead of people trying to find out WHY he’s acted out or done something. They jump straight into discipline mode when maybe he needs a friendly ear, a hug or some food. I have ADD to a lesser degree so I can relate to him and of course I love him fiercely 🙂 even though he is hard work most of the time… Basically I think the whole world needs to slow down and people need to make more time for each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, cut some slack and remember that people are generally doing the best they can at any given moment – especially children!

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Ritcha

I think Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is one of the worst invisible disabilities. Could you email more articles on how to deal with OCD. Even the person suffering from OCD has to suffer from hatred of his own family, who consider him a burden, but its difficult for him to purchase the expensive medicines.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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