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

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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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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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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