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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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