Navigating study as a Neurodivergent Student

Agata Piotrowska
Tuesday 4 July 2023

With the masters dissertation and PhD writing in progress this summer, we came up with a little series of blog posts aimed at helping you navigate this time of research and focused, oftentimes solitary, work.  To begin, Bella Pelster volunteered to share her experience, struggles and successes as a neurodivergent student:

Cambo Estate near Kingsbarns, by A. Ehman

“As a neurodivergent student, I’ve spent the better part of almost four years in higher education figuring out how best to cope with my workload alongside my condition. From both my own first-hand experience and independent research I have done, I’ve collected a couple tips and tricks that have helped me throughout my degrees. Although not entirely unique, I hope that by sharing these tips in this blog post I might be able to somewhat help students like me who are finding it difficult to adjust to independent study.    

For clarity, I am using “neurodivergent” as an umbrella term to also encompass those with long term mental health conditions. While readers might commonly associate general struggle to concentrate with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the same issue can accompany other chronic mental health conditions. Although causation as to cognitive impairment in Major Depressive Disorder is vastly debated, it is generally agreed that “cognitive deficits are a central component in Major Depressive Disorder”. In patients with MDD, attention deficit was identified prior and during treatment. Similarly, patients with Generalised Anxiety Disorder were reported to struggle to concentrate, although, like those with MDD, causation is debated. 

It goes without saying that if you believe one or more of these conditions is having a negative impact on your life you should seek professional help. For instance, you can email the Student Health Hub at [email protected]. These cognitive symptoms may persist even when treated, and therefore the following reflections, from one student to others, aims at providing neurodivergent students with tips that might help to manage better, not cure, reduced attention spans.   

Although I do not have ADHD, I noticed similarities between solutions linked to that condition and what worked for me while I was reading Professor Brian Schorr’s anecdote discussed in his work Disabilities: From an Insider’s Perspective. Schorr writes that he was most successful academically when he “studied in short bursts over the course of a few hours” and “found a spot that would not stimulate my mind”. While I will consider the latter tip later, I want to focus particularly on Schorr’s former statement on the importance of structure when studying. It was in my final year of my undergraduate degree I was suggested to treat my degree like a nine-to-five job, which provided me with the routine that I so desperately needed at the time. Of course, this was not always possible – I had a part-time job during my undergraduate degree and was not always able to study during the day. Regardless, following this structure to my best ability meant that I was, for the most part, consistently setting aside enough time in my day to sufficiently combat my workload. 

Returning to Schorr’s point on the merit of a good study spot, I have also found that working in the library rather than my bedroom provided me with fewer distractions, and therefore I begun to treat this like my office”. As postgraduates, we have a wealth of such spots available to us — and identifying somewhere where you can work in peace might be beneficial to your work over this summer. 

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I shall share that getting outside and feeling the sun on my face often lifts my low mood and helps me to re-focus on the task at hand. Beyond anecdotal evidence, Eileen Merrit notes that “according to a growing body of research, there is something particularly restorative about exposure to the natural world.” Merrit also states that exposure to the natural world “may be particularly beneficial in reducing symptoms for children with ADHD”.  Likewise, a 2016 study by Snell et al. found that “visiting natural environments in adulthood … in turn is associated with fewer depressive symptoms”. This is not to laud the great outdoors as the cure-all to cognitive issues, but rather to suggest that it might be beneficial to set aside some time to spend outside in your daily routine. Thankfully, St Andrews has a wealth of beautiful places to walk in:  as students here we’re fortunate enough to be just twenty minutes away from the beach, and the healing smell and sound of the sea salt at any given time. If you live in Dundee, like me, then I’d like to recommend Balgay Park. It is especially beautiful this time of year, when the sunlight peeks through the rich foliage that shelters the winding footpath up the hill. 

It can be easy to allow a mental health condition to engulf your entire identity. It’s important to remember that while these may be limiting in certain ways, they also provide you with a testament to your own strength and bravery as you attempt to overcome them. I hope that, if only in a small way, this article provides a little help on your academic journey.

If you’re interested in any of the studies I have cited within this article, please do consider reading the following articles. These might aid you in understanding the root of any issues you might have with studying, and may suggest behavioral changes that might lessen said issues.  

  • Merritt, Eileen G. “Going Outdoors: A Natural Antidote for Attention Fatigue?” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 99, no. 2, 2017, pp. 21–25. JSTOR, Accessed 27 June 2023. 
  • Naughton, Jacqueline. “Disabilities from an Insider’s Perspective.” Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, vol. 28, no. 1, 2011, pp. 43–49. JSTOR, Accessed 27 June 2023. 
  • Bar-Haim, Yair et al. “Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: a meta-analytic study.” Psychological bulletin vol. 133,1 (2007): 1-24. 
  • Eysenck, Michael W et al. “Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory.” Emotion (Washington, D.C.) vol. 7,2 (2007): 336-53. 
  • Hammar, Asa, and Guro Ardal. “Cognitive functioning in major depression–a summary.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 3 26. 25 Sep. 2009.
  • Hammar, Åsa et al. “Cognitive Impairment and Neurocognitive Profiles in Major Depression-A Clinical Perspective.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 13 764374. 8 Mar. 2022.
  • Hasselbalch, Bo Jacob et al. Cognitive deficits in the remitted state of unipolar depressive disorder.” Neuropsychology vol. 26,5 (2012): 642-651.
  • Lee, Rico S C et al. “A meta-analysis of cognitive deficits in first-episode Major Depressive Disorder.” Journal of affective disorders vol. 140,2 (2012): 113-24.” 

Thank you so much, Bella, for contributing this blog entry and sharing your experience and research with us all. If you found this helpful and have any questions, or would like to contribute to this blog post series yourself, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at [email protected].

In the posts to come this summer, throughout July and August, we will be discussing CVs and job interviews, job market and applications, as well as internships and volunteering experiences which might all help you in your next steps. If you would like to learn more, make sure to keep following out posts, and if you would like to share on any of there topics – let us know!

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