Why Can’t I Break the Cycle: Autism and Internet Addiction

Some studies have found that there is an association between internet addiction and autism (Romano, Truzoli, Osborne, & Read, 2014). The question becomes how we understand the relationship between the two, and what we can do to effectively treat it. Contrary to common belief, non-social characteristics, such as engagement in repetitive and restricted behaviors, may lead to a greater likelihood of internet addiction (Shane-Simpson, 2015). However, I have noticed that there are a variety of different reasons why neurodiverse individuals struggle with compulsive internet use and treating them at their source is the most effective form of therapy. Like many addictions, it is often the symptom of deeper underlying psychological issues, such as generalized and social anxiety, as well as an avoidance of the offline world. Let’s explore a few of the risk factors and proactive solutions below.

            many neurodiverse individuals struggle with understanding the social nuances and body language necessary to establish friendships. Therefore, online gaming and chat forums offer a way to connect without the pressures of face-to-face interaction. While many meaningful friendships have started online, they rarely replace the depth and intimacy of in-person connection. However, online interaction may feel safer and more secure for neurodiverse people, although they may also be the target of scams and other malfeasance. Eventually, the world they construct online can come to replace the offline world. However, this can be addressed through increased exposure to offline activities that build competence, such as joining one small social group (dungeons and dragons, bowling, video game and music club, etc). Sometimes, starting with an outside activity, such as simply taking a walk around the block with a friend, can increase engagement with the outside world. Many people with anxiety benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps to address the automatic thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety in social situations.

            Internet addiction may also arise from the isolation that results from lacking regular employment. Some neurodiverse individuals have a history of struggling to maintain a job, which results in their spending hours alone in their rooms where the internet is easily accessible. Therefore, creating a regular structure becomes paramount, and this can go beyond job searching. Activities can include meetup groups, volunteering, and regular exercise routines, for example. Parents may need to be involved in helping their adult children to create this structure through daily planning, etc. This can also be an opportune time to develop some job skills through a training course or by shadowing. In general, a period of unemployment does not have to mean a period of unstructured activity.

            An important component of internet addiction is the excessive use of pornography. Viewing sexually explicit material online is a healthy form of release for many adults, and we should be careful to refrain from shaming. However, it also depicts sex unrealistically, and at its worse, in a degrading and dehumanizing fashion. It is also important to recognize that some neurodiverse people are sexually inexperienced, and therefore may have a limited understanding of what realistic sex and dating looks like. Therefore, I often reference resources such as The Guide to Getting it On by Paul Joannides for providing an educational alternative to online pornography. In general, breaking the taboo around porn can help to open up a discussion regarding healthy explorations of the nature of sexuality that can lead to the replacement of porn dependency.   

            As therapists, it often behooves us to identify with a client what their underlying causes of addiction are. The problem is usually not just the internet, but rather the fact that the person is escaping from underlying emotions. It can be a welcome reprieve from the pain of constant social rejection, job loss, and just general feelings of depression and anxiety. The reality is that many of us have not been provided with the tools to address these feelings. However, what is especially difficult for many neurodiverse people is that they lack the interpersonal and professional skills to actively solve their challenges by themselves. Therefore, a feeling of hopelessness may emerge, which can only be escaped by a return to compulsive internet use. A key component of treatment is not only addressing the feelings of inadequacy that many neurodiverse individuals have, but also providing practical tools for achieving professionally and socially. If we can provide concrete evidence that these barriers can be overcome, neurodiverse young adults may be more inclined to engage in the offline world.  

            There is no one size fits all treatment modality for internet addiction. However, we need to recognize that the stressors faced by the neurodiverse, especially during young adulthood, can be overwhelming. There is also a neurological cause to the addiction, as new synapses are formed by internet use  (The Big Think, 2011).  Sometimes, by breaking the recovery process into more manageable and easier steps, such a gradually decreasing the frequency, we can help this person’s recovery. The most important takeaway is that the more we help neurodiverse adults to have confidence in their ability to build professional and social skills, the more likely we are to see a reduction in internet use.     

Using it Wisely: Frustration, Procrastination, and Learning Differences

 Adults with learning differences can experience profound frustration. It is certainly an understandable emotion when facing a multitude of academic, professional, and interpersonal challenges. There is often a “chasm” between our intelligence and performance (Orenstein, 2021 ). However, how do we understand and use this emotion productively? Do we let it hold us back, or do we motivate ourselves to make changes?  The answer is linked with self-acceptance, or whether we acknowledge our situation while committing to change. Unfortunately, many of us become stymied in our frustrating cycle of procrastination and self-criticism. The longer this persists, the deeper feelings of shame, remorse, and even self-loathing fester. However, if we can acknowledge what this emotion is telling us, we can break this negative cycle. I highlight a few suggestions for doing that below.

            You may be deeply frustrated by professional, social, and academic challenges. You may think that your situation results from your life choices and inadequacies; you might ask yourself why you didn’t manage your time better, integrate into the company culture, or make friends in college? These questions may become judgments and “should” statements, which do little to motivate taking responsibility, but rather bog you down into a self-loathing cycle. Furthermore, if responsibilities remind you of your perceived inadequacies, you may avoid them, leading to further procrastination and frustration. However, if you were to look at them as opportunities to build new strengths and abilities, you might be better able to effectively manage the negative emotions that come with them. Many of us with learning differences have received so much consistent negative feedback that we forget our strengths and ability to overcome our deficits. Therefore, our self-talk, or the way that we automatically internally respond to a challenging assignment or activity, leads to debilitating frustration. We may benefit from implementing a more positive and realistic mindset to manage this feeling and overcome procrastination.

            Much of our negative self-talk stems from our perceived “deficits.” If all our lives we were told that we are lacking in ability, why wouldn’t we avoid those activities that remind us of it?  However, while we may have challenges, they also present an opportunity to realize what we still need to learn! For example, if you are frustrated with a work assignment leading a team, maybe you would benefit from focusing on developing leadership. These challenges may not be as immutable as you imagine, but they require you to brush up on some more fundamental skills. Perhaps the frustration is telling you that you still need to build a foundational aspect of learning. Realizing this can be freeing, as those of us with learning differences are not always fully aware of the fundamentals we are missing, and what we could do to learn them.

You might be thinking, “Ben, if it was so easy learn one of these fundamentals, I would have done so already!” While this is a valid point, I would say that there are ways to break them down into smaller steps. For example, instead of trying to immediately lead a team, maybe you would benefit from starting with one collaborative task. Also, remember that there are a variety of strengths that you may bring to an assignment, such as creativity, responsibility, or persistence. How can you use these for your benefit to overcome what you find frustrating? Also, remember that it is not too late to learn a new skill, even if it takes time. However, to accomplish this, you may need to start by working on your self-talk. Instead of blaming yourself for not having developed strategies, realize that there may be valid reasons as to why you never fully developed time management, leadership, or even social skills; maybe you never had someone who could understand your learning style enough to teach them to you to begin with. However, that does not mean you are not responsible for learning them now; it is just about finding the approach that works for you. Keep in mind that not everyone learns in the same way; some may learn by observing, and others writing out a plan, for example. Experiment until you find the way that works best for you.

Another effective way to respond to frustration is to practice a radical form of self-acceptance. I know that this is easier said than done if you are dissatisfied with your professional status, isolated, and/or struggling with how to advance in your career or social life. However, as I said in the previous paragraph, it is important to recognize that there are valid reasons why you never developed the foundational skill to advance to where you want to be, and your current state is not stagnant, as you can apply new skills to move forward. Frustration is a powerful emotion that can provide insight into where you are versus where you would like to be. The key is not to remain in negative self judgement, but to motivate yourself to learn the foundational skills that will lead to getting unstuck and a happier life.

Part of practicing self-acceptance is refraining from the all too easy comparisons that we make with others who seem to have it all together. Worse yet, what if you have a sibling or boyfriend/girlfriend who is “high achieving?” Resentment, jealousy, and anger are all natural emotions; you have a right to feel them. However, I think that it is wise to get in touch with the benefits of our journey. Specifically, it can be helpful to remember that adversity and struggle can call on us to draw on our strengths, build resiliency, and have more empathy with others. The challenges we face also force us to have a deeper understanding of how and why we learn the way we do, and what professional and social environments will work best for us. Remember that some who are gifted have never given this much thought, sometimes until they discover that they are not a fit for their chosen professions. Focus on your own journey and what you can learn to move forward in your path rather than comparing yourself to others.

Frustration is a natural emotion for many of us with learning challenges. However, instead of allowing it to cause us to fall into a cycle of self-blame and self-criticism, we can use it to recognize the fundamental skills we could still benefit from learning. Practicing a self-acceptance of where we are at the moment while refraining from comparing ourselves with others can help us to accomplish this goal. Ultimately, we can transform frustration from a negative emotion into a productive one.  

Different in More Ways than One: Autism Spectrum, NVLD, Asexuality, and Intersectionality

Despite the lingering misconceptions and prejudices, it is well-known that neurodiverse individuals can be just as sexual as their neurotypical counterparts. Many people on the spectrum and with NVLD enjoy having multiple partners or monogamous sexual relationships. However, not only has a greater sexual diversity been documented within the autistic population, but some research also indicates that asexuality is more common (Stokes, 2017). While the reasons for this phenomenon are unknown, it is worthwhile to consider its implications for clinical practice, and how therapists can help those with these intersectional and often marginalized identities to examine their etiology and significance. Although the connection between asexuality and NVLD is less well-known, I was struck by how many blogs mentioned personal experience with both. The link between sensory sensitivity and the development of a sexual identity is unknown, but the connection can certainly exist for some. As therapists, we should be aware of the possible link, while also being mindful not to prescribe it universally. Neurodiverse asexual individuals may feel that their experiences fall outside of multiple societal expectations, sometimes facing stigma and ignorance on a daily basis. However, by reclaiming an empowering perspective on their identities, finding community, and discovering intimacy on their owns terms, asexual and neurodiverse people can break free from isolation and change the narrative about the meaning of their intersectional identities.

 Our sexualities can evolve from experience. Asexuality is also no longer exclusively defined as being a lack of sexual attraction. In fact, many asexual people acknowledge a sex drive, and identities that fall onto the asexual spectrum include lithosexuality, or someone who is attracted to others that one does not want it reciprocated (Live Love LGBTQ+, 2017). Therefore, if some asexual individuals have a drive, but still do not wish to engage in sexual contact, it may be worthwhile to examine in therapy if there is a casual link between their sensory discomfort and the development of asexuality. Suffice it to say that I am not implying that this orientation is nothing more than a by-product of sensory sensitivity; sexuality is a completely valid orientation. Nevertheless, I do believe that a dislike or discomfort with physical touch may be correlated with the development of asexuality. The Swedish researcher on autism Leif Elkblad draws an interesting conclusion in one of his studies when he says that “Asexual self-identification appears to have two different causes. The usual meaning of asexuality as a lack of sexual interest or desire dominated in the neurotypical population, while in the neuro diverse population, a phenotype based on disgust for typical sexual behavior dominated” (Ekblad, 2018). He goes on to state that repulsion that began during the late teenage years frequently led to a loss of sexual attraction later on. Understanding the link between sensory sensitivity, repulsion, and a loss of sexual desire can be a validating experience and worthwhile therapeutic endeavor for some neuro-diverse individuals.

Some neurodiverse individuals may express confusion as to whether or not their lack of interest in sex stems from sensory sensitivity or a general lack of sexual desire. It can be helpful in therapy to unravel whether it could be more one or the other, or perhaps a combination of both. Regardless of how they evolved, stressing that these identities are legitimate and worthwhile is a validating experience for many.  I think it is also important to recognize that one study did indicate that children on the autism spectrum are less likely to “cave to peer pressure” (Ziegenhorn, ND). A similar correlation may be true for adults and children with NVLD. The reality is that neurodiversity may also come with some positive attributes, including the ability to identify one’s authentic sexual identity. Therefore, openly recognizing and embracing their asexuality, despite its stigma, may be a strong attribute for some individuals on the autism spectrum and with NVLD.

Although neurodiverse asexual individuals may be independently minded, they also crave relationships and community. However, this can be hard to find when you are outside of society’s norms in multiple areas. There are currently different communities available for the asexual and autistic populations, but those whose identities lie in both may find less clearly demarcated spaces for them to explore their intersectionality. However, AVEN (Asexual Visibility & Education Network) has a section dedicated to intersectionality, in which participants on forums throughout the internet mention being both asexual and neurodiverse. By being open about the impact of intersectionality in either of these two spaces, some may begin find others who share their experiences. In regard to relationships, many asexual neurodiverse individuals may enjoy certain kinds of touch and connection, such as touch and hugging, while others simply like to lie in bed with their partners. These manifestations of intimate contact are no less valid than sexual experiences. It can be a challenge for some neurodiverse asexual individuals to find partners who truly understand their needs. However, the approach that one takes to describing one’s experience can make a significant difference. For example, sharing why certain forms of physical contact feel better than others can help your partner to identify what kinds of physical intimacy feel best for both of you.

Exploring intersectional can be a validating experience for neurodiverse asexual individuals. It can also shed light on how sensory sensitivity might be related to the development of sexual repulsion. However, as stated by Leif Elkbald, more research needs to be done (Ekblad, 2018). Nevertheless, asexual and neurodiverse individuals can begin to make connections by discussing their intersectional identities in asexual and neurodiverse communities. Even in romantic relationships, understanding what kinds of physical touch one needs, and communicating this to a potential partner, can be an important step towards building intimacy. When asexual neurodiverse individuals accept and understand their intersectional identities, examine the links between the two, and develop an empowering mindset in advocating for what they need in intimacy and the community. They can achieve a meaningful life despite society’s stigmatizations and misunderstandings.  

Finding the Right Online Approach: How Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum Can Use Social Media Effectively

For Individuals on the spectrum and with NVLD social media is a two-edged sword. The benefits have been well-documented, with some studies indicating that neurodiverse adults who use it are more likely to have close friendships (Mazurek, 2013). Many may also feel more comfortable communicating in this medium, as they are less vulnerable to the faux pas and misunderstandings that may arise from misreading nonverbal communication. However, not only can social media be addictive, but it also contains its own norms and rules. For some people, understanding how many times to like a post or write an appropriate response is a critical step towards effective online engagement. Fortunately, it is a skill that can be taught and learned.

            It is important to acknowledge that many neurodiverse individuals show greater levels of happiness due to social media use. For example, one study found that adults on the spectrum who use Facebook are generally happier than those who do not. This may at least partially be explained by the positive reinforcement of receiving likes and friend requests (Healio, 2018). For others, finding an online group with similar interests may be valuable for building community and social confidence. With 22% of adults on the spectrum suffering from social anxiety, it is logical to conclude that many neurodiverse people are drawn to social media as a way to meet others. When used appropriately, it can be an important tool for building social confidence and skills.     

            While social media may be an ideal form of communication for some adults on the spectrum, it is important to recognize that the dopamine rush of receiving positive online social feedback can become addictive. Moreover, online connections often lack the mutual reciprocity and the in-depth nature of real-life interpersonal relationships. Also, what may be a casual gesture, such as liking a post, can be misinterpreted as an act of friendship, leading to future discomfort. Therefore, it is important to understand the often depersonalized nature of online interaction, and that it usually fails to be a substitute for real life friendships.

            The other aspect of social media that can be a challenge to navigate is the potential for being misinterpreted. Many people have lost a significant other, friendship, and even jobs after accidently breaking a taboo or offending someone. For example, even a well-intentioned compliment of a female friend regarding her swimsuit photo by the beach may be misunderstood as an unwanted advance. Therefore, practicing perspective taking is an important aspect of effective social media engagement. However, a parent or family member is not always the best person to build this skill with, and an individual may actually benefit more from speaking with a therapist instead who is familiar with online rules and ettiquite and removed from the person’s environment.

Cyber bullying is another potential pitfall of social media faced by many non-neurotypical adults and adolescents with NVLD and on the spectrum. The fact that these individuals are more likely to be bullied has been well-documented, with a recent report stating that they represent 63% of victims. Non-neurotypical people face a specific vulnerability because it may be a challenge for them to identify when somebody is using sarcasm, gossiping, or exploiting personal information. However, it is possible to spend some time identifying who is an authentic friend online, as well protecting oneself. For example, looking up another person’s identity to make sure that they are a real person, examining their friend group, and asking what they are looking for in a friendship with you, while maintaining personal privacy are helpful for avoiding bullying. Also, it is important to remember that social connections are formed over time; sometimes, those who are eager for connection will fail to recognize the appropriate stages of friendship, and become overly trusting from the beginning, which makes them vulnerable to bullying.        

Finally, there are a variety of negative effects correlated with excessive screen time for children on the spectrum, including inhibited social skill development and sleep cycle (L. Dunckley, 2016). Similar effects may be observed with adults. Practicing moderation is key for maintaining one’s health and well-being. This is partly done by developing other activities that one enjoys outside of social media, such as time in nature, reading, etc. At times, even with considerable social anxiety, it can be beneficial to push oneself to meet others in person, participating in activities of interest, as doing so can help to build the interpersonal skills that are harder to develop online.

By using social media effectively, neurodiverse individuals can build meaningful connections. For some, it may be an easier medium than real life interaction, as there is less emphasis on nonverbal communication. However, it is important to recognize that social media can be addictive, and that online relationships lack some of the reciprocity of in-person friendships. Also, similarly to the offline word, there are many opportunities to misunderstand another person to be misunderstood. Therefore, it can be helpful to develop one’s social media communication style. Sometimes, it can be helpful to practice reviewing a post with a friend or therapist  before publishing it, while also modulating the number of likes one gives. It can also be wise to read over another person’s post or message with a therapist or friend to interpret its meaning. Ultimately, social media can be an effective social tool for neurodiverse individuals, but it needs to be used in moderation and with care. Luckily, this can be learned.    

Healio. (2018, March 16). Healio. Retrieved from Psychiatry Autism Spectrum Disorders: https://www.healio.com/news/psychiatry/20180316/moderate-facebook-use-boosts-happiness-in-adults-with-autism

L. Dunckley, V. (2016, December 31). Autism and Screen TIme: Special Brains, Special Risk. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201612/autism-and-screen-time-special-brains-special-risks

Mazurek, M. (2013). Social media use among adults with autism spectrum disorders. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1708-1714. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563213000708?via%3Dihub

NATTAPP. (n.d.). Bullying and Students on the Autism Spectrum . Retrieved from Easter Seals: https://www.easterseals.com/chicago/shared-components/document-library/october-is-bullying.pdf

Roulhac, S. (n.d.). Social Media and Autism: Building Community or Creating Isolation. Retrieved from Madison House Autism Foundation: https://www.madisonhouseautism.org/social-media-and-autism-building-community-or-creating-isolation/

Shane-Simpson. Brooks, O. D.-L. (2016, March ). Assocation Between Compulsvie Internet Use and AUtism Spectrum. Research in Autism Spectrum DIsorders, 23, 152-165 . doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2015.12.005

ADHD and Dating: Strategies for Success

Mental health professionals have been identifying strategies for a successful relationship with ADHD. In fact, there are multiple online publications regarding this topic. However, ADHD’s impact on the dating process has been less explored. With the overwhelming influx of online profiles, multiple personal details to remember from different dates, and sometimes distracting and overstimulating environments such as bars and clubs, it can be helpful to build a list of strategies for having success and fun while dating with ADHD.

An ADDitude magazine article does mention some tips that include listening to your instincts and keeping a list of important qualities in a partner (Sarkis, 2010). However, these techniques can be expanded to include approaches for reducing excessive environmental distractions by strategically using dating apps, taking notes to remember details, and finding alternative venues and approaches. I elaborate on some of these below.

            There are a variety of techniques for managing online dating. In general, reducing the overwhelm of new potential matches can be helpful someone with ADHD to focus in on a few potential people at a time while remembering strategies for success Specifically, it can be helpful to create a criterion for potential matches to reduce incompatibility and distraction. Also, it may be prudent to communicate specifically with a few potential dates at a time to enhance one’s ability to remember details regarding the other person. Staying on one app instead of multiple ones can help to minimize distractibility and overwhelm as well.

            When going on multiple dates, it is easy to forget different details and information regarding every person you meet. Therefore, it is wise to take a few moments after a date to jot down important notes regarding the other person and to review them before your next date. Also, it can be helpful to spread out your dates so that you have more time to remember the details and process each one. Although this strategy may lead to meeting fewer people, being better able to remember the details of each experience ultimately results in better connections and experiences. It is also worthwhile to look into the possibility of dating in alternative venues that are less distracting, such as quieter restaurants, book readings, plays, etc. Sometimes. getting to know someone gradually, such as in a meetup group, is better than the rapid pace of modern-day dating.

            It is important to note that individuals with ADHD do have a variety of different strengths as well, including creativity and spontaneity. Activities that involve art, the outdoors, and exercise can be great opportunities that play to one’s strengths. Also, some individuals with ADHD enjoy improv and other activities that involve spontaneity. Finding a venue where you can thrive and show your strengths is often a good idea for somebody with ADHD.

            Although there are challenges in dating with ADHD, by using the right approach, one can have success. Simply using a few techniques to focus in on a few people while dating and remembering details does go a long way. Also. although it may be challenging, dating can also allow individuals with ADHD to demonstrate their strengths. Let’s not forget that it is also ok to have some fun during this process!   

Works Cited

Sarkis, S. (2010, May 1). Save the Date! Dating Advice & Strategies for Adults with ADHD. Retrieved from ADDItude magazine : https://www.additudemag.com/dating-advice-adhd-relationships/

Learning Differences and Anxiety in Adults: How to Understand the Link and Treatment

Can you imagine waking up every day not knowing if you are going to get lost, bump into somebody, misread a social cue, or be able to process an influx of new information at your job or school? Millions of people with learning differences, experience being overwhelmed and misunderstood by the world around them on a daily basis. We know that children with learning differences in the United States are more likely to experience anxiety (The Understood Team, 2014-2020). One study finds that anxiety may be well-known in individuals with learning differences, but also under reported and under-diagnosed. (Elizabeth & Bakala, 2005). However, there are treatment approaches that can help this population to reduce and manage it. I outline a few of them below.

Individuals with learning differences can benefit from evidenced based chemotherapeutic techniques for treating anxiety, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), relaxation exercises, and exposure therapy. Nevertheless, while these interventions may be effective, it is also important to recognize that, “People with learning disabilities frequently contend with a lifetime of adversity, inadequate social supports and poor coping skills. These factors contribute to increased vulnerability to stressful life events, which may trigger anxiety disorders” (Ibid. 357). Therefore, it is important for a therapist to take into consideration the specific kinds of stressors that this population faces, and what kinds of coping skills they can implement to manage them.

Some of us may take for granted boarding a crowded train home from the office, ignoring loud noises, and multitasking. However, for individuals with learning differences, these mundane activities can be overwhelming and overstimulating. In fact, even the thought of preparing for them can cause anxiety. However, there are a variety of different techniques for managing them, including creating an organizational and task prioritization system, using public transit with a colleague, getting a ride to work, and lastly wearing ear phones or socializing in less noisy areas. Sometimes, individuals with learning differences can also practice acclimating to stimulating environments through exposure techniques. They may benefit from taking small steps to acclimate to environmental stimuli, while also developing the usual coping skills such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and modifying cognitive distortions.     

It is also important to recognize that individuals with learning differences may have struggled with previous life challenges that can cause their anxiety to be especially acute. They may have been misunderstood or even bullied by peers, struggled to maintain employment, or simply feel that the world moves at a rapid pace that is alienating and anxiety producing. Therefore, therapists can help individuals with learning differences to process their previous experiences, and to examine if their anxiety is motivating them to avoid similar feelings at work and internationally. Sometimes, avoidance is repeated to the detriment of the person’s social  or professional growth.   Therefore,  building resiliency techniques that not only include  developing interpersonal skills, but also allow for self-acceptance and less sensitivity to the judgments of others, can help to mitigate the negative effects of these previous experiences.   

While individuals with learning differences frequently benefit from evidence based interventions to treat anxiety such as CBT, muscle relaxation, and exposure techniques, it behooves therapist to take into consideration their acute sensitivity to environmental stimuli and the emotional impact of previous life experiences. By implementing different exposure therapy techniques and coping strategies for managing everyday sensory intensive experiences, this population can reduce anxiety. Many also benefit from examining the emotional impact of earlier adverse circumstances, and the sometimes self-detrimental strategies they take to avoid experiencing similar emotions in the future. However, by practicing self-acceptance they can lessen sensitivity to the judgments of others, while also accomplishing professional and social goals.  Individuals with learning differences can lead a less anxious life!     

Depression and Learning Differences: What Is Effective Treatment?


Many individuals with learning differences also suffer from depression. In fact, research has been found that students with learning differences are at greater risk for depression than their non-disabled peers. (Maag. W John & Reid, 2006). This is also likely true for the adult population. There are ubiquitous treatments for depression, including the well-researched CBT, medication-assisted therapy, and other therapeutic approaches. However, individuals with learning differences face unique challenges that should be taken into account when providing treatment for depression.  

  People with learning differences often have specific stressors that contribute to their depressive symptoms. For one, they receive frequent negative feedback from employers, in social situations, and even from family. Young adults with learning differences also struggle with independence, and can be categorized as “failure to launch,” a phenomenon in which adults  struggle to be independent and do not leave their parents’ home (Hendrikson, 2019 ). Although they may be too reticent to admit it, these young adults may feel significant shame regarding their situation, which they attempt to numb through computer and video games. Ultimately, these coping strategies can lead to depression, as the underlying emotions are never fully dealt with. Adults with learning differences of all ages often struggle with questions such as “am I employable?” “Will I ever meet somebody?”  However, while their situation may seem dire, it doesn’t have to be. There are effective strategies for helping adults with learning differences to manage their depressive symptoms!    

           CBT addresses automatic thoughts and the emotions and behaviors they trigger. For individuals with learning differences, two common negative thoughts are “I am a failure” and “I am not good enough.” However, many do not realize that they do have unique strengths, some of which have been overlooked by teachers, employers, and even family. For example, not only are individuals with learning differences often creative, thoughtful, and empathetic, but many are also resilient and resourceful in managing the obstacles that they face. CBT can help these individuals to start to realize their strengths. However, it also necessary to apply these identified strengths in overcoming daily obstacles, as exemplified by an adult with ADHD using strong computer skills to create an electronic organizational and time management system. It is not enough to only label pejorative distortions; it is also important to identify and implement strengths.  

Some individuals with learning differences lack a core sense of themselves beyond their diagnosis. In other words, they may feel as though they are defined by their limitations. Breaking free from this mentality involves redefining their self-worth and identifying their core characteristics. Many forget that their morality, kindness, and patience define them just as much as their external success. Therefore, taking time to get in touch with these qualities can help many adults with learning differences to battle depression.

           Many such adults also carry with them unconscious memories from childhood, especially negative feedback from teachers and parents. One of the most profound emotional scars is the feeling that we disappointed our parents, sometimes resulting in a disruption in our attachment to them. These memories can cause greater sensitivity to setbacks in adulthood. Therefore, forgiving oneself for what one might have change d or done differently, as well as abnegating oneself from full responsibility for the disappointment of a caregiver, can be an important therapeutic step. This work can be accomplished through ongoing treatment.

Although there is no one size fits all for the treatment of depression for those with learning differences, there are a variety of different approaches for reframing one’s thinking and understanding about the impact of early life experiences. It behooves all therapists to understand the thought patterns and early experiences that can contribute to depressive symptoms in adults with learning differences. Ultimately, by identifying and applying their strengths, these adults can achieve the professional and social success that they desire.             


Couples Therapy in Bergen County: How Do Communication Exercises Help?

Are you having the same argument over and over again? Does it seem as though no matter how hard you try, discussions dissolve into fights? Couples often struggle with communication. While they may gain some clarity regarding the causes of their conflict during therapy sessions, the same unproductive pattern can repeat itself at home. Sometimes, it feels as though nothing works!  However, couples therapy can be effective, with 70 percent of couples reporting improvements in their relationships (Lebow, 2011). Implementing certain communication practices between sessions can help your relationship to be part of that 70 percent.

Many arguments start when there is a fundamental misrecognition of either party’s subjective experiences. I have seen this while working with neurodiverse couples in which one partner does not understand why the other is especially sensitive to noise or changes in routine. Similar kinds of misunderstandings and arguments can occur with neurotypical couples as well. Sometimes, these misunderstandings can lead to arguments. Therefore, implementing some of the below mentioned techniques at home can help to improve communication before arguments begin.

  1. Practice articulating your experience in a fashion that your partner can understand.

 Let’s say that you and your partner disagree about here to take a vacation, and that you are adamant that you would prefer to go to a city instead of a rural area. Instead of saying “I hate the country because there is nothing to do there,” try making statements that describe your discomfort while also expressing an openness to compromise. For example, “I understand that you would like to enjoy some time away from the stress of the city, but I would like you to understand that it is really hard for me to be in isolated areas because it increases my anxiety. For some, changes in routine and location can cause significant anxiety. However, maybe we could compromise by choosing a rural location near a town.” Statements such as these help to show appreciation for your partner’s needs and desires, while also sharing your experience without making an accusation.

  • Make it relatable to their experience.

It may be a challenge for your partner to relate to your experience. For example, if you have a fear of loud noises that your partner simply cannot understand, maybe relate it to one of his or her personal experiences. A statement such as, “remember how scared you felt when you drove along that cliff? That is how I feel when I hear loud noises.” Relating your experiences to ones your partner has had makes it to be more likely that he or she will listen to you.

  •   Don’t assume that your partner understands

Sometimes, we become frustrated because we expect our partners to understand us. When they don’t, we may feel invalidated. However, remember that just because they do not understand does not mean that they can’t or don’t want to. Sometimes, he or she just needs the opportunity to relate to some aspect of your experience. You can help him or her by making your story relatable and expressing an interest in your partner’s story.  

The Spark: What is it and How to Create it Despite Learning Differences?

Ah the spark. We don’t know how to describe it, but we do know when we have it! It’s just that feeling that comes after a date. Maybe it’s the thought that we just have to see that person again. Perhaps it’s the excitement of a beating heart. One writer states that, “it’s that certain magnetic pull between two people when you both feel mentally, emotionally, and physically, and energetically connected” (Mcclearly, 2015).  In today’s world of infinite possibilities and instant gratification, it is not uncommon to expect a spark on the first date. However, creating this phenomenon may be easier for some than others. If a man’s wit, a sense of humor, and assertiveness are seen as primal prerequisites of attraction for some women, men who struggle with social skills or reading body language may be at a disadvantage. Men with NVLD and on the spectrum have many qualities to offer in a relationship; some of the more commonly mentioned are kindness, loyalty, and honesty.  However, these characteristics may become more visible later in the dating process and be overlooked by someone looking for an initial spark. However, there are alternative forms of dating and techniques for building an initial chemistry that I describe below.

Suffice it to say that the spark is considered overrated by many dating experts. In my view, its overvaluation also prejudices in favor of certain daters over others: those who are witty, funny, and well-dressed rather than those who are kind, sensitive, and introspective. However, it is also the case that there are strategies for getting to know someone that deemphasize initial chemistry. In my dating skills groups, some participants have expressed more comfort and interest in meeting people in groups of people who share their interests. For example, one participant decided to join a robotics meetup group. By building a gradual connection with someone who shared his interests, he worked up the courage to ask her out for a cup of coffee. This strategy worked better for him than a first date with a stranger who may have expected an instantaneous spark.

Even while pursuing non-traditional dating strategies, it is important to implement verbal and     nonverbal strategies for creating a spark such as investing time in grooming and dress. They can also include preparing for a date in one’s grooming and dress, minding one’s table manners, and having a good night’s sleep beforehand. They can also evolve into more advanced strategies such as asking open-ended questions, listening and remembering what was said, and maintaining flirtatious eye contact. Implementing these skills can take some practice, but through role play, one can become more comfortable with them.

Part of the value of working on social skills is to build self-confidence. However, I am not defining self-confidence as it is often understood, but rather as a genuine self-acceptance that has little to do with being assertive, cocky, or arrogant.  One can be self-confident and also humble and empathetic.  Perhaps the most important aspect of self-confidence is taking the focus off of one’s self and onto the needs of the other. The psychologist Dr. Markway states, “Self-confidence can also breed deeper empathy. When you are fully present, you’re more likely to notice that your date seems a little down, or that a friend in the corner looks like she needs a shoulder to cry on. When you are not preoccupied with your own self-doubt, you can be the person who reaches out to help others” (Markway, 2018). For men with NVLD and on the spectrum, being able to concentrate on someone else’s or your date’s needs may help to overcome hindrances associated with understanding social skills and reading body language.

Whether it is online dating, romcom movies, or simply the belief that we can have what we want, building an initial spark has become an increasingly valued part of dating. While initial chemistry is important, its overvaluation can disqualify men who are otherwise attractive. Men with learning differences and on the spectrum may prosses many positive attributes, but have yet to develop some of the social skills necessary for creating a spark. However, there are contexts for meeting others that build on compatibility of interests and both de-emphasize initial chemistry and improve connection. With some foresight and practice, individuals with learning differences can develop strategies for dating that will lead them to have the success they desire.

Markway, D. B. (2018, September 20). Why Self-Confidence is More Important Than you Think: Self-Confidnece is Linked to Almost Every Element Involved in a Happy Life. Retrieved from Psychology Today : https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shyness-is-nice/201809/why-self-confidence-is-more-important-you-think

Mcclearly, S. (2015, October 22). Why ” The Spark” is Not a Solid Way to Gauge a A Lasting Relationship”. Retrieved from Elite Daily: https://www.elitedaily.com/dating/weighing-in-on-the-spark/1223675


Finding the Way Forward: How Young Adults with Learning Differences can Build Self-Esteem while Navigating Uncertainties.

Many young adults with learning differences manage uncertainties in employment, social life, and family responsibilities. Some ponder worrisome thoughts such as, “How should I prepare for a work meeting? How am I going to prioritize among different assignments? How do I get ready for a date?” These are valid questions. Sometimes, there may be no certain answers. However, tolerating uncertainty while also accepting and learning from mistakes with self-compassion is necessary for building a positive self-concept or self-understanding. Having a high self-esteem can help a young adult with learning differences to navigate the setbacks that they may experience.

            A research study from the United Kingdom of eight young adults with mild learning differences aimed to measure their self-concept. Many identified positive characteristics such as being “friendly and knowledgeable.” However, at least two also acknowledged feeling “anxious and slow” (Prestana, 2015). It concludes that that these young adults might benefit from working with practitioners who can help them to improve their self-esteem and self-concept, as well as their social skills. By building a positive self-image and interpersonal confidence, young adults can better manage an increasing amount of uncertainty.

            A primary anxiety that many of us face in our social lives is the possibility of rejection. Many young adults with learning differences are highly sensitive to this due to the fact that some may perceive themselves as operating on the outside of norms and expectations. In fact, the fear of being rejected may cause them to avoid socializing all together. However, by working with a therapist to manage the feelings associated with previous or anticipated rejection, they can overcome this anxiety. It is important to remember that no one is defined by those who reject him or her. Many people who do reject us do so out of their own ignorance and fear. We may want to be accepted, but as people who learn and process differently, not everyone will understand us. that’s ok. What matters is that we find the people who do. There are steps to wade through the uncertainty in the meantime. Getting to know a person gradually can help to manage the uncertainty of starting a new friendship. Also, building on one’s self-concept and self-esteem can help that person to manage the anxiety of getting to know someone new.

            There is also uncertainty in employment. What does my boss expect of me? When can I take a vacation? When can I bother a colleague? These are all sources of anxiety. However, by working with a therapist one can begin to build one’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The refrain of “I don’t know and that’s ok” holds true for many of us. As young adults with learning differences, we often feel overwhelmed in situations in which we are not sure of what to do. Perhaps we have faced similar situations before. Maybe we were criticized for being overwhelmed. However, by accepting that we are not sure of a specific protocol and or expectations, we may be better able to take the appropriate steps to manage this situation. This can take the form of asking colleagues or supervisors for clarification. It is also advisable  to read through a company handbook. However, sometimes by taking a step back and simply observing while reminding oneself at it may take time to integrate can be a significant step towards reducing your anxiety.

            The young adult years are filled with uncertainty. Individuals with learning differences face added challenges associated with navigating novel situations in their social and employment lives. Therefore, building a strong self-concept and self-esteem can help to navigate these uncertainties. Ultimately, by building social skills, accepting rejection, and observing and inquiring about protocols and expectations at work, young adults with learning differences can have success during an uncertain time in their lives.    

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