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Five Things I Wish Everyone Teaching Online Knew about Neurodiversity.

I teach English Composition for a community college from my studio apartment some where in Chicago. My life in the time of Covid-19 is spent teaching online, checking in on both my students and my loved ones, and trying to make sense of it all. Meanwhile, I try not to consume too much NPR or chocolate- that part is going badly. 

I have both Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder. Emails after emails with their tiny black text against a white screen seem like a level of Hades customized just for me. The words dance and smear together, and I miss things. The phrase “didn’t you read my email,” has sent me into a shame spiral so large it would be a popular attraction at Six Flags. 

Still, I persist, because teaching is the thing I love doing. After finishing my lessons, reading my emails, and grading a few papers, I lay on the floor, checking Instagram because that is all that I’m able to do. 

The strange part about all of this is that I am a writer. I contribute to three publications, and I am fighting through a long-form project. Books are my great solace. I read roughly sixty books a year, and while half of them are audiobooks, the others are traditional paper copies. I read and write widely. 

I am not alone. Many of my students and even some of my fellow instructors have one form of Neurodiversity or another. Mood and personality disorders, learning disabilities, and autism are all common. Unlike my students, I have had years of practice and a hard-won sense of self-worth. My Rolodex of coping mechanisms is robust, if disorganized. My BS meter for when a problem is actually my fault, or when it is someone having a reaction is carefully tuned. 

However, many of those I teach do not have these skills yet. I have lost sleep thinking about them going online. Without warning they have been thrown into a learning setting where they are forced to rely mostly on text to get them through. Text which they struggled with in the first place. What can you do to help? Here are a few pointers from someone who has a brain like mine. 


  1. Please avoid big chunks of text: 

Dear reader, if you only read one point, in this essay, READ THIS ONE. The more diverse a class’s content, the easier it is to reach lots of students. Using the following is greatly appreciated: 

  • Bullet points 
  • Bolding important things 
  • Blank space between paragraphs 
  • Videos 
  • Podcasts 
  • Phone Calls 
  • Zoom meetings 
  • Pictures 

While there are no magic bullets, the multimodal approach makes a big difference. At the very least, make sure your PowerPoints aren’t black and white, reading on colors is easier for those of us with dyslexia. 

  1. Be aware of stimulus: 

As a person with ADD, I have trouble processing stimuli and determining which is essential and which is not. For me, the worst stimulus is TV. For some, television is white noise; for me, it is the madding time-suck robbing me of the ability to do anything else but stare at it. I turn into a raging, unproductive monster. 

However, I am lucky. I live alone. I can control most of the stimulus in my environment. I can turn off the radio, I can turn on a fan to drown out the sound of my neighbors blasting their music. I can change the lighting and adjust where I sit and how. I can do all of these things without impacting any one but myself. Many students are now learning from home do not have this luxury. The key here is awareness. Even though we instructors don’t have any control over our student’s stimuli, we can talk about it and be compassionate when it is an issue. 

  1. Trauma makes it worse: 

Research shows that traumatic experiences make the symptoms of learning disabilities worse. The sudden loss of normalcy due to COVID-19 is traumatic for all of us. We are all grieving the lives we once had. In addition, some students are now thrown back into situations that bring up other traumas as well. 

Many of those with a learning disability experience constant gaslighting and shame, and much of it happens at home. It is hard to be a student when it feels like one’s safety is at risk. 

  1. Structure makes it better: 

I was once the worst freelance writer that ever existed. While my writing was good, my time management was a garbage fire. At the time, I didn’t understand that I had ADD and would often underestimate how long something would take. 

Over time I learned that having a structure to my day was the best thing I could do for myself and now it’s one of the best things I can do for my students. I get more done, and there is more order. I feel as though I have a tiny bit of control as my mind constantly moves. During the COVID-19 crisis, order has gone out the window for many; often, our classes are the places where they find it. 

  1. Intelligence and neurodiversity are not related: 

Many of those who are neurodiverse have been called stupid, or sloppy, or lazy or worthless− do not join that chorus. The opposite is not true either. Not everyone with dyslexia is going to be Da Vinci, nor is everyone with autism going to be Temple Grandin. Neurodiversity is challenging because it is diverse. 

The best gift I have ever been given is to be accepted as I am. As you comment on work, comment on the work itself and not the student’s character. We do not know what we do not know. 

Lastly, it is essential to remember that it isn’t just the boys or troublemakers that have learning disabilities. It is often the silent one, the overachiever, and the one sliding by with no noticeable problem. You never know who you are helping on the other end of the screen, but they will be grateful all the same. 


Further reading materials:


Gretchen Lida

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer to Book Riot, Horse Network, and the Washington Independent. Gretchen is working on her first book. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.