Neurological Disorders

In order to have a better understanding and awareness  of mental health on campus, it is also important to review some common neurological disorders that students may be living with.

Neurological disorders are diseases of the brain, spine and the nerves that connect them.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. ADHD is usually diagnosed in childhood and lasts into adulthood. Sometimes, ADHD is diagnosed for the first time in adolescence or adulthood; however, the symptoms of the disorder must have been present earlier in the person’s life for the diagnosis to be made.

There are three types of ADHD, each with different symptoms: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, and combined. Most people living with ADHD have a combination of the inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

People with predominantly inattentive ADHD often1This may be an overarching comment that needs to be made, particularly when related to mental health.:

  • Experience difficulty paying close attention to details so will make careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • Struggle to sustain attention to complete tasks or leisure activities
  • Experience difficulty to listen when addressed directly
  • Experience difficulty  following instructions and so may fail to finish tasks at school, home, or  in the workplace
  • Experience difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Avoid, dislike, or express reluctance about engaging in tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • Lose things necessary for tasks or activities
  • Forget details about daily activities and are easily distracted by extraneous stimuli

People with predominantly hyperactive/impulsive ADHD often:

  • Squirm in their seats or fidget with their hands or feet
  • Leave their seats when expected to remain still
  • Move excessively or feel restless during situations in which such behaviour is inappropriate
  • Experience difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly
  • Talk excessively and blurt out answers before questions have been completed
  • Find it difficult to wait their turn; interrupt others

How is ADHD treated?

Stimulant medication is effective in most cases to help reduce (often dramatically) the signs and symptoms of ADHD. Psychotherapy (which may include Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) is employed to help improve time management and organizational skills, develop more effective problem-solving strategies, and enhance self-esteem.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that covers a broad array of symptoms. Individuals with high-functioning Autism (previously known as Asperger’s Syndrome) often have unusually strong, narrow interests and average-to-superior intellectual functioning. Few students with ASD will self-identify. Of those who do, not all will require formal classroom accommodations. Individuals with ASD are most comfortable with predictable routines. Conversely, they may be quite disturbed by changes in familiar and expected routines, whether inside or outside the classroom. Students with ASD may exhibit deficits in language and communication, social interactions, and/or behaviour. Common characteristics of individuals with ASD are:

Behaviour:

  • Interrupts the speaker; attempts to monopolize conversation
  • Discusses tangential information in answering questions
  • Engages in self-stimulating behaviour (e.g., rocking, tapping, or playing with “stress toys”)
  • Poor self-care (e.g., diet, sleep habits, appearance, or hygiene)
  • Rigid fixation on certain concepts, objects, patterns, or actions (e.g., music, art, math, or science)
  • Reacts to sensory assaults; unable to filter out offensive lights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch
  • May be argumentative

Language/communication:

  • Difficulty understanding metaphors, idioms, or hyperbole (very literal)
  • Difficulty understanding jokes, nuance, or subtleties of language
  • Uses odd phrases
  • Difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions, or voice tones/inflection
  • Difficulty modulating own voice (often loud)
  • Difficulty understanding instructions (but may appear to understand)
  • Talks at length about what s/he knows, usually facts

Social interaction:

  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Seems distant or detached
  • Difficulty making friends, prefers to spend time alone
  • Difficulty initiating, maintaining, and ending a conversation
  • Difficulty understanding social norms, mores, cues, or concept of personal space
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s emotions
  • Difficulty managing own emotions

Associated features/comorbidity:

  • Motor clumsiness, fine-motor impairment, difficulty with writing (dysgraphia)
  • Difficulty with visual processing, dyslexia
  • Deficits in organizing and planning (“meta-cognitive” deficits)
  • Depression
  • Attention-Deficit Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

When in distress, a student with ASD may miss classes or assignments, and might not discuss the matter with educators. The student may also appear agitated or anxious, become argumentative, or exhibit angry outbursts. Some students may appear more dishevelled and engage in self-soothing behaviours, such as rocking on their feet or foot-tapping.

How to support students with ASD

You can support students with ASD by providing advance notice when changes are anticipated.

Students with ASD are subject to the same rules as anyone else. If inappropriate behaviour occurs, address it in private. Describe the behaviour and desired change as well as logical consequences if it continues. Students with ASD often don’t realize when they are being disruptive. Ask the student how s/he would prefer you to address behavioural issues in a group setting. For example, establish a cue to indicate when the student is monopolizing group time. Your campus counselling service, health, or disability services offices can be useful resources for further information. If you believe the wellbeing of the student is at risk, and/or the well-being of others in the class, please do not hesitate to seek help from others such as the disability/accessibility services, counselling services, your colleagues and/or police services.2This may be an overarching comment that needs to be made, particularly when related to mental health.

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Mental Health Challenges