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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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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