Student Social Distancing Classroom with Mask

“The smallest change in my routine has always sent a swarm of butterflies straight down to my stomach.” ~ Kim Buckley

The recent coronavirus epidemic uplifted it and turned those butterflies into hornets of anxiety that have not gone away. While businesses are slowly reopening, COVID-19 still impacts our daily lives. 

The coronavirus has impacted everyone across the country. However, the pandemic has presented people with learning disabilities, like me, with several unique challenges. 

Author Background – Kim Buckley 

A doctor stated that I had  Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD) at 16-years-old.

This NVLD has impacted my motor, visual-spatial, and social skills throughout my entire life. Prior to discovering I had a learning disorder, a genetic specialist diagnosed me with Turner Syndrome, a rare chromosomal condition only affecting girls. Girls with Turner Syndrome are more likely to have NVLD, which resembles certain aspects of learning disabilities in the areas of executive functioning and many specific academic areas. 

Some individuals with Turner Syndrome can drive, but years of occupational therapy might be needed. I made the choice to not drive, not just for my safety but for everyone on the road.  There are other aspects to Turner Syndrome which are health-related. Ever since then, my parents and I have done our best to learn all we could about these conditions. 

For the purpose of this blog, I want to emphasize I have obtained a Journalism degree and moved away from home into a program for all kinds of individuals with non-apparent disabilities. These include people who are twice-exceptional, which means you are born with a disability but also have specific gifts and talents going above and beyond what others typically possess. 

What I have learned, and continue to learn through online courses and in-person classes with a reduced number of participants, sets me up to secure additional job skills that are in high demand. I continually improve skills like maintaining work-life balance, developing and obtaining a career path, identifying careers which use my strengths, and maintaining jobs in the workplace. 

I moved my life from Nebraska to attend the Life Development Institute in Arizona in order to become as independent as possible. Since my move, I noticed a lot of changes. I began to see myself as a leader and felt more confident in balancing life more independently with my own apartment living, a daily schedule, and a self-development plan with a link into a career that fits my goals.  

When COVID-19 First Spread

However, when the coronavirus started to spread, I made the decision along with my Theracoach, (Veronica Lieb-Crawford),  to return to Nebraska and live with my parents until there was more information on the pandemic and what schools, businesses, and the impact on health crisis overall was going to have day to day on all of our lives.

I packed my bags in 2 days and then embarked on a 3-day drive with my mom to Omaha. After settling into a routine in Arizona, my regimen was completely upended. While I am back in Arizona, I am still trying to navigate what I feel is an entirely new life. 

As I mentioned, my having NVLD, as well as Turners Syndrome, created problems with executive functioning. My challenges include organization, planning, and remembering details, making it harder for me to prepare for this situation. Since I can’t drive, it placed a great deal of stress on my parents to obtain all we needed as a family.  

Life Development Institute supported those needs and the program started implementing strategies during this crisis on how to address them independently during this time and in the future. While I received some of this weekly with my Theracoach, as well as online and virtual classes, again it is so much more helpful when I am in the full and personalized ground-based program. 

Adjusting to the new normal…

Though we had our classes at the Life Development Institute through online and virtual courses, it was not the same. It became more difficult, even with help, to complete assignments without in-person instruction and peer classroom interactions (this was prior to the virtual). I missed the actual personal contact and the virtual connection was not the same once this began. 

People with NVLD love to talk and learn best by listening to instructions and having things explained in different ways, or in some cases constantly repeated. We also observe the interactions between others, even though we often miss social cues, because we have learned to memorize other non-verbals which help us in certain environments. Not having verbal confirmation meant I needed to read each individual direction multiple times to make sure I was comprehending it correctly. 

Life Development Institute requires students to wear masks in the classroom when at the program (upon the return of residential students), and not seeing the full expressions of people has caused issues for me. I have problems understanding what people are saying, and we often find each other and instructors (some of whom have NVLD as well (which is why this program understands so well how to help) must ask them to repeat themselves. 

Also, as suggested above, I early on learned to memorize facial expressions in order to help me understand what others might be feeling, or their reaction to a comment. I have noticed an increase in my social anxiety because it is harder for me to fully communicate with people in the Arizona community. I encourage people to be patient and demonstrate understanding with others as I also believe wearing a mask is important for safety reasons.  

My Theracoach and I have discussed it is not humanistic use our disability as an excuse to not wearing a mask, even if we are struggling with many issues (not just communication) regarding the mask to protect us and others due to our disabilities.   

I had to adjust to a new way of communicating. Goodbye to face-to-face communication. Hello, phone screens and computer monitors. Since people with NVLD have challenges with social interactions, communicating mostly through technology meant navigating new rules. 

I found myself losing focus more easily during online and virtual classes. I also got frustrated with technology when it does not work and relying on my computer for virtual learning resulted in me focusing more on the problem than actually fixing it. 

You’re not alone in your disability…

The reality is, I am not the only person with a learning disability impacted by coronavirus. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, more than 2 million public school students have been diagnosed with a learning disability. This only accounts for students in K through 12. Imagine the adult impact not just in college, but in the workplace. 

For people like me who have a learning disability, the best thing to do is to come up with a new routine. Knowing when something happens reduces anxiety, which people with learning disabilities are at higher risk of having. Many of my classmates have done this, though they still are dealing with feeling frustrated and uncertain during the pandemic. 

During this time, people with learning disabilities can learn more about the resources available to them. For instance, I used a text-to-speech app on my computer which read instructions out loud and forced me to slow down and focus on my school assignments. 

Recently, I have returned to Arizona and the Life Development Institute! The program enacted a comprehensive plan since we know more about the virus, and I couldn’t wait to see staff and my peers. I am highly encouraged at the thought of working more directly on my goals. 

Don’t give up!

While the country is coming together, let’s not forget those with learning disabilities. I urge teachers and parents, employers, and co-workers, even friends and family members to show compassion and understanding to those students and individuals who have difficulties adjusting to this new normal. I also encourage friends and neighbors to reach out and offer to run errands or get things for people like me who cannot drive.   

Others have told me I may not be able to do certain things due to my NVLD, but I have not let that stop me from learning and growing. I am not going to let this crisis get the best of me. 

While in self-quarantine, I’ve learned that people who have disabilities are just as resilient and determined to get through this time of massive uncertainty. Just like the majority of the world, we all have some type of challenge, not everyone has a disability, but we have challenges.  If you need support, look for a mentor, a coach, a compassionate friend.  

Do not be a victim, ask for the help, then use the tools.  You will come out okay in the end!  That is what I have found and continue to find!  Together with my program, my Theracoach and my supportive family and friends, as well as my resilience and follow through, I know in the end I will survive. And my goal to be a professional writer will one day be achieved!

Written by: Kim Buckley