Zoom vs. Neurodivergency

Image by Angela Lang via CNET

According to dictionary.com, ‘neurodivergent’ is defined as “relating to or showing atypical neurological behavior and development.” This sounds a little stiff, and most people’s immediate impressions may be of the stereotypical autistic-coded person in any number of TV shows and movies. The truth is that neurodivergence is more common than one may think, and neurodivergent college students exist (even here on campus). I myself identify with the word neurodivergent, and most of my friends also fall under this umbrella term. We also share a common hatred for something now so common: Zoom. You may be thinking, “what is that supposed to mean? I hate Zoom too.” However, this is not just run-of-the-mill hatred for virtual learning. And though we may be returning to in-person classes, Zoom doesn’t seem to be going away. Whether someone is in quarantine or off-campus, it’s an easy back-up option. This is a disproportionate disadvantage to neurodivergent people, and even years into the pandemic it’s something that hasn’t been talked about. Zoom is extraordinarily neurodivergent-unfriendly, exacerbating the never-ending cycle of unproductivity, anxiety, and overwhelm that neurodivergent folks already struggle to conquer in the physical classroom. 

I spent the first semester of my first year on campus. Though mostly sequestered in my dorm room on campus (95% of my time was spent in my dorm or walking to and from Sharples to get food), I took an unneeded 8 a.m. class just to actually get the chance to go to in-person class, and since it was split into two sections, I only went once a week. Even on campus, however, most of my classes — including the two three-hour discussion classes I decided to take — were on Zoom. 

That was a challenge: spending three hours (with maybe a fifteen-minute break somewhere in there) on Zoom, surrounded by people I didn’t know, and most often with my camera on. (In shorter, bigger classes, I would keep my camera off, but for the smaller discussion classes I was taking for my majors, the classes were maybe nine people — including the professors — so we kept our cameras on.) 

The problem only worsened in the spring semester, when I was among the first-year students living and taking classes at home. Though I took shorter classes for the most part, I was limited in the space I could use for class, especially with my parent at home and my younger sibling also doing virtual classes for high school.

Let me get to the point: the common denominator between myself and most of my neurodivergent friends is that we need structure to function. We can’t trust our brains to hold us accountable without explicit motivation to do so (e.g. a deadline). Zoom class, being in my bedroom, did not do that. In fact, I’d spend most of my time in class alternating between trying to stay engaged by taking notes and messing around on my phone. And no matter how hard I tried to get back into the lecture/discussion/video I was supposed to be watching, I couldn’t do it. My brain was searching for stimuli, and the easiest way to get it was from my phone. And since there was nothing to keep me from grabbing it and ignoring the professor who couldn’t see past the sides of the little box on the screen, there was no justifiable reason for my brain to resist. 

For neurotypical people, this struggle may exist as well, but the difference in how hard it is to resist is actually explained by brain chemistry. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example, can have decreased activity in the area of the brain that dictates executive function, which enables planning and focus (more on that later), and a more difficult time retaining or producing dopamine, a chemical that helps you feel not only pleasure, but also satisfaction and motivation. In simple terms, this means that a neurotypical brain would be able to choose to get itself back in line and pay attention, but a neurodivergent brain lacks that ability. 

On top of that, neurodivergent brains go through periods of hyperfocus and also hyperfixation. Though they sound similar, they mean completely different things. Hyperfixation is becoming obsessed with something, as if your brain is being overtaken by whatever it is. Sometimes it’s a TV show, which is most common for me, but it can be something like baking or yoga for other people. Generally, they last a few months to a year (though autistic special interests are a little different and can last for years) before completely fading away and oftentimes are never hyperfixated on again. The problem here is that my brain prioritizes hyperfixations over all else because it’s chasing dopamine; so, remember that homework I have to do? Yeah, it’s not as important as finishing the new TV show my brain is stuck on, and I can’t do it until I’ve finished watching. (I often don’t start new shows for this very reason.) 

During Zoom classes, there is no accountability and no way to prevent me from exploring my current hyperfixation or watching clips on YouTube. In-person classes prevent this, as they not only provide a change of environment, but also hold me accountable through a multitude of different things — teachers and classmates around me, for example. 

Hyperfocus is a period of intense concentration. During this time, a lot of work gets done all at once, often without breaks and without noticing time go by, but it’s not a state we can control. In fact, I very rarely hyperfocus and most often fall prey to executive dysfunction. 

Executive dysfunction is the opposite of executive function, and it’s basically when, no matter how much we want our brains to cooperate and let us get something done, it refuses. I’ve actually struggled a lot with writing this article for that very reason. I know I need to do something, and even if I technically have the time, it just doesn’t happen. A better example may be illustrated by my Brita filter. I got to campus on Jan. 15 and added “wash and refill brita” to my to-do list. It’s not that I haven’t had the time at any point in the last four weeks to take ten minutes to walk down to the kitchen, wash it, switch the filter, and then refill it, and it’s not that I haven’t seen the Brita. In fact, it’s sitting on my desk in my room, right next to where I always sit. My brain just doesn’t want to complete the task, so I keep refilling 16 oz. water bottles. It’s very inefficient, I’m fully aware, and I wish I could just force my brain to let me do it, but I can’t. Being in my room is my biggest executive dysfunction trigger. And in Zoom class, that’s exactly where I am all the time. It’s an environment where I know that I can avoid doing work and have no immediate repercussions for it. And so homework gets done late, hyperfixations get prioritized, and my brain refuses to let me do simple things like wash my dishes.

Zoom problems aren’t limited to the inability to focus, however. The constant switch between online and in-person classes messes with scheduling, which is crucial to neurodivergent people. The ability to plan days out allows for built-in times for food, work, and productivity. When things are shifted online, everything changes, from the time needed to get to class to the location of said class, and therefore the proximity to whatever was planned next. It also alters the mode our brains need to be in in order to get work done. It’s a loss of structure, and many people rely on that structure for a productive day. 

Zoom fatigue is also something that most people are incredibly familiar with. It’s two-fold with many neurodivergent people, especially those with autism or anxiety, people who are perpetually trying to maintain a “mask” in front of people so as to not appear “weird” or nervous. On Zoom, this requires watching not only whoever is speaking, but also yourself in the corner screen, and also attempting to learn and absorb information as you do so. On top of that, trying to talk over Zoom is even harder than in-person: there is no way to know if someone else is talking, and maneuvering the inevitable circumstance of cutting someone off is too much effort to just end up saying something that may or not be important enough to express. And in the case that you choose to talk, every single person is looking at you. Just what are they looking for? You to mess up? Are they expecting eye contact? For a lot of neurodivergent people, myself included, eye contact is difficult and hard enough in-person. How does one deal with it on Zoom? All of these things pile up until burnout or overload or overwhelm, and then the same thing happens the next day. And the cycle repeats. For people with ADHD, add to this the inability to move around and the multitude of distracting things around you, and you get the least productive learning experience possible. In my personal experience, the easiest way to get things done is to work with someone else who needs to get things done. Go to office hours, do long readings at the same time as friends, reserve a study room with minimal distractions, and get things done. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting with my (also neurodivergent) friend in a study room while they’re doing their own work.

I will end this with something of a disclaimer: I understand that Zoom is sometimes necessary, and I’d much rather everyone be safe and on Zoom to avoid transmitting COVID than in-person and a threat to everyone’s health. But the two semesters of college I did on Zoom were the biggest challenges for me in terms of learning and comprehension, and despite my final GPA at the end of the semester, I was unmotivated, dreadfully alone, and in a bad place for most of it. Now, with friends, so many activities keeping me busy, and the ability to go to in-person classes, I can experience college the way I always wished I would. And as Zoom hopefully becomes an emergency back-up and not a daily necessity, the continuous cycles of burnout and anxiety can be combated with in-person interaction and the energy of a slowly healing world. 

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