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 is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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