More than a buzzword: How parents can help kids navigate invisible disabilities

You may or may not have heard of the term invisible disability, and what falls under its umbrella – especially when it comes to specific learning disabilities (SLD) – can be unclear.

Invisible disabilities can range from medical conditions like migraines and chronic fatigue syndrome – research suggests as many as 4% of children and adolescents in the United States are affected by the latter – to autism spectrum disorder and conditions that may not be obvious to teachers or the child’s peers.

Some definitions suggest the term covers everything except challenges made evident by an outward sign, like a hearing impairment made clear by a hearing aid, or difficulty seeing shown by wearing glasses.

An invisible disability is no less challenging or debilitating for kids than a visible one. As parents know too well, among the numerous special considerations for invisible disabilities are stigma and misperceptions. Parents and kids frequently encounter people who are doubting or skeptical the child has a disability. Even by teachers and administrators, some are accused of “faking” or exhibiting symptoms to get attention.

It can feel especially challenging when professionals suggest that signs, symptoms or developmental delays that seem obvious or particularly worrisome to you are instead described as normal, and not cause for concern. If you believe you or your child are not being taken seriously when they say they need help, it is important to act on this by seeking out another set of professional eyes and ears to assess the situation.

As you and your child navigate the process of finding solutions, here are some thoughts you will find particularly helpful.

A disability won’t always look the same

In social situations like classroom settings, a child’s teachers and even peers will make assumptions about behaviors that are shaped by their own biases as well as situational contexts. This can make invisible disabilities all too easy to misidentify. 

For example, a child that otherwise “seems” neurotypical and has a meltdown in class in response to stimuli – perhaps a peer clicking their pen repeatedly, or the sound of the bell or fire alarm – may be identified as misbehaving or vaguely written off as being too sensitive. A student with undiagnosed or unseen ADHD could be dismissed as unable to focus, disorganized, or just energetic, or one with chronic fatigue syndrome lazy for constantly putting their head down on their desks. 

In other words, instead of getting the help they deserve, a child is misidentified or even ignored. It then becomes even harder for them to fulfill their potential, particularly if this happens during early childhood education and then continues. 

As a parent, understanding possible misinterpretations of invisible disabilities and related diagnoses is key to not only effectively communicating with your child, as we discuss in this article, but also being the strongest advocate possible for them.

Get a second opinion if you need it

Along the journey to a diagnosis, trusting your gut is important when it comes to getting the exact support your child needs. So what happens when they’re simply not getting it, or if your hunch on something being wrong is dismissed? 

Under IDEA, you have the right to receive a second psychoeducational evaluation for your child at the district’s expense, through what is called an independent educational evaluation or IEE.

Psyched Services performs private psychoeducational evaluations, conducted by skilled psychologists. Psychoeducational assessments provide detailed information about how your child is doing compared with others their age. We use this information to better understand your child’s journey and develop a support plan that is responsive to their individual strengths both at home and in school.

Specifically as a resource for your child, you may also find our pocket coaching service to be of help. Parents and educational teams receive a targeted, easy-to-follow approach to tackle learning or social and behavioral barriers to a student’s educational success. You will work closely with our behavior specialists to create goals based on the child’s current strengths and needs, and implement daily action steps in a resulting plan. The name itself is a helpful way to think about it: steps easy enough to put in your pocket and take with you!

You are your child’s biggest ally

It is not only with teachers and school administrators that your support as a parent is invaluable. Our blog post on talking to children about invisible disabilities goes in depth with helpful tips, including confidence, an emphasis on strength, working collaboratively with your child, and using outside resources when they’re needed.

Of course, older children may just as often need to use you as a sounding board for their frustrations or feelings of being invalidated or unseen. When it comes to enduring stigma, this can make a significant difference in your child’s self esteem and ability to advocate for themselves when they become old enough. 

If you’re interested in talking with an educational psychologist about the impact of an invisible disability on your child’s learning experiences, Psyched Services are here to help. Schedule a call with us today for guidance and support that can help everyone in the family breathe a bit easier.

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