COVID19: The Struggle of Online Classes for the Neurodivergent

COVID19: The Struggle of Online Classes for the Neurodivergent

Sydney Wilson

April 8, 2020

This article is part of a special series covering the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19.

For many students, the idea of having no classes to go to is exciting, almost like snow days. You can go to your classes from the comfort of your own home with your dog/cat on your lap, heck, you don’t even need to be wearing pants. It seems like a win-win-win situation.

And it is, for most. 

However, as many students are discovering, or re-discovering, online classes are not nearly as simple as “classes that are online.” Online classes pose special specific difficulties, especially for those who live with depression, attention-defecit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder (BPD), and other mental health conditions (hereafter shortened to MHC’s because holy cow that’s long).

Speaking as someone with an official diagnosis for both ADHD and depression, has been going to therapy for both for over a year, and takes medication for both every day, I’d like to outline the difficulties presented by online classes for other people living with these and other MHC’s.


One of the symptoms for many common MHC’s is a lack of motivation, or inconsistent motivation. It is very difficult to start a task, especially if it’s one that doesn’t particularly interest you, like, say, a five-page essay or a set of D2L discussion questions. Going to a physical classroom and getting reminders of work to be done, as well as being able to ask other students and the professor questions, is an enormous help, because it keeps these tasks in the front of a person’s mind, makes the task seem more manageable because they understand it, and reminds them that the work is important and needs to be done. Without these reminders, it can be easy to downplay the importance of doing the work, lose track of when they are due, and/or avoid the task because they don’t understand it, which makes finding motivation to start them much more difficult. 


Staying focused on a single task, especially for long periods of time, is another thing that can be a struggle for people with MHC’s. Oftentimes, classes provide “work time” for projects and assignments, where it is much easier to focus on that task simply because there isn’t much else to do, as long as you don’t have Netflix open on your laptop. But even in an environment curated to help me focus, such as the classroom or my desk at home, I personally start to lose that focus after about fifteen minutes. Being at home, whether on or off-campus, presents a whole host of distractions from roommates to pets to the dishwasher running to your brother playing videogames in the next room to simply having easy guilt-free access to your phone; these constant distractions feel like a sabotage that’s nearly impossible to work around.


Many MHC’s affect a person’s short- or long-term memory, or worse, both. Even basic tasks or events that happen on a consistent basis might be forgotten even if your life’s routine is uninterrupted. Even before the COVID-19 disaster, I would often forget to do my online spanish homework, which was due literally every day I didn’t have the class. Most people with MHC’s come up with their own way to be reminded of these tasks, such as phone reminders, a planner or bullet journal, a calendar, or whatever thing works for them personally. But when your usual routine is broken, one of the things you might have trouble focusing on (see last point) could be your method of remembering things. With your daily or twice-weekly physical reminders of assignments being replaced by an unholy mess of documents on D2L that you might not be able to motivate yourself to check (see first point), keeping track of assignment, project, or test deadlines just…doesn’t happen. If you have readings to do, remembering key points, perspectives, and take-aways also becomes far more difficult. Studying for tests that require a lot of rote memorization is a nightmare.

There are, of course, other difficulties that come with MHC’s, but these are the big ones in my own experience, and the ones that present the most difficulty when taking online classes. I hope sincerely that this message gets out to teachers and students alike, not to garner pity or sympathy, but so they understand a little bit what people with these issues have to deal with on top of the other struggles of these times.

Sydney Wilson is a junior majoring in Professional & Public Writing, and wants to spend her professional career as an editor, helping authors make their stories the best they can possibly be. Outside of school, she enjoys trail running, reading, listening to music, and watching YouTube tutorials for projects she’ll never do.