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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Neurodiversity & Gap Years: Support and Self-Discovery

Neurodiveristy is beautiful and unique - it’s what makes us all human - but does come with struggles experienced by neurodiverse folks and their families shared amongst the neurodivergent community. In today's episode, Michelle explores how gap years are an incredible tool to support the lived challenges of many neurodiverse youth, helps build confidence and leads to a path of self-discovery. We also share several fantastic resources for you to tap into! 

Topics Discussed

  1. Neurodiversity Awareness: Michelle explains what neurodiversity is highlighting the diverse range of neurological profiles (autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, bipolar, learning disabilities, Tourette's) and the common struggles faced by neurodiverse individuals and their families.

  2. Gap Year Support: Michelle explores how gap years can offer invaluable support to neurodiverse youth, providing them with a fresh start away from systems that may not adequately accommodate their needs, and enabling them to live authentically and explore their true selves.

  3. Self-Discovery and Advocacy: The episode emphasizes the importance of self-discovery during a gap year, allowing neurodiverse individuals to shed their masks, embrace their authentic selves, and advocate for their needs with confidence and self-worth.

  4. Community Building: Michelle discusses the power of finding a supportive community of neurodiverse individuals, both online and in-person, and highlights resources and programs geared towards neurodiverse young people, including specialized travel opportunities and gap year programs.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode



Michelle Dittmer - 00:00 

Are you a gapper or do you have a gapping kid that is neurodivergent? Or are you interested in how gap years might support neurodivergent people? If this is you, you are not alone. We love our neurodivergent gappers and this episode is for all of you. Let's jump into any special considerations you may need as your fabulous neurodivergent self on your gap year.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:17

Hey there and welcome to the gap year podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap year expert. Today we're talking all about neurodiversity and how that relates to the gap year. 

Now let me take you back to my childhood. When I was growing up neurodiversity wasn't even a common term. Autism was seen strictly as kind of non-verbal boys with lack of social cues and ADHD again was little boys bouncing off the walls or being doped up on Ritalin so they could fit into school and behave and I must say that I am so happy that we have evolved a long way from that. A long way in our understanding of what it means to be neurodiverse and a long way in understanding how that can show up for so many different people. 

Michelle Dittmer - 02:19 

If you're here, if you're listening to this podcast, maybe you found it because you have somebody in your life who's neurodivergent and so you likely don't need an introduction to what neurodiversity is, but if you are a long time listener and neurodivergence is a new term for you or a new concept, I'll give you a brief introduction here. I'm going to keep it super high level. Because a detailed answer will take hours and hours and we've got a limited amount of time on this podcast here.

So here's how I'm going to approach it, brains work in all sorts of ways. As we understand it today, all of those ways can kind of be broken down into two categories, which we call neurotypical and neurodivergent.

Neurotypical brains are the dominant type of brain and the way that the brain works, which is catastrophically and inaccurately often labeled the normal brain, like air quotes, normal brain and again, thank goodness we're learning more and we're getting more accurate with how we speak about this, but historically that would be termed like the normal brain.

Neurodiverse brains are wired differently. They have different strengths and weaknesses than a neurotypical brain and they are normal for the way that a neurodiverse brain functions. So neurodiverse folks are commonly diagnosed. Again, diagnose is not a term that I love, but others do, and that's a whole other podcast altogether. But often folks who are neurodiverse fall within categories of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, bipolar, learning disabilities, Tourette's, And so many others that fall under this umbrella category of neurodiverse and similar to the 2SLGBTQ plus spectrum, the neurodiverse profile is so beautiful and diverse and unique.

Michelle Dittmer - 04:45

But there are a lot of struggles and experiences of neurodiverse folks and their families that are common, that are shared amongst the neurodivergent community. So that's the angle I'm going to take today. Not to discredit the uniqueness of each individual, it's not about the ins and outs of neurodiversity, But it's more about how gap years can support the lived challenges of many neurodiverse youth.

Michelle Dittmer - 05:16 

So there we are, we're going to level set at that and I'm going to jump into the connection between neurodiversity and gap years. But really, where do I begin on this?

First of all, if you or your kid is neurodiverse and looking at a gap year, you are not alone my friend. This is one of the largest demographics that we chat with in our one-on-one free calls.

It's very, very popular or very common I should say to have these interactions with families.

It's very common for folks to keep the neurodivergent details close to their chest until the end of the conversation because they want to make sure that they feel safe disclosing that part of their identity. It's a card they carry very close to their chest and as a way to protect themselves from disappointment, believe me I get it, they hold it to the end.

But what I want you to know is that at CANGAP we are very much a neuro-affirming space.

We are going to be honest about what level of support we can provide and honest about what questions you should ask other organizations in order to assess if they can provide the level of support your particular neurodivergent expression needs.

So, you belong at CanGAP no matter who you are, no matter how your brain works. We are here, we love you, we believe in you, we want you to be your authentic self.

We understand you or maybe it's better to say that we want to get to know all of you, all of the pieces of you. You are wonderful and you belong at CanGAP.

So back to gap years, let's get back to it. We talked about neurodivergence and getting back to gap years. So among other things, gap years are tools for mental health and self-discovery. And it's really an opportunity to redefine who you are after having left high school and really preparing yourself and setting yourself up for success in the next step in your life, whatever that might look like high school is often a time when young people start to understand and see their differences and figure out what it means to exist in a world that has been designed to accommodate neurotypical people.

Many neurodiverse folks struggle in high school. Either they struggle to get the accommodations that they need or get the support that they need or maybe to fit in socially or we see a high level of neurodiverse folks burning out from masking all day every day in order to be seen at school. So moving out of high school can feel like a fresh start and especially moving into a gap year where you're moving out of the systems that have suppressed your true self. It's a way to be able to live authentically, to disengage from the systems that don't provide the right environment to support you. It's getting the freedom to drop that last chapter and to begin a new one And that can feel very, very liberating. A gap year can be a situation where you can choose almost everything. Not everything, but almost everything. You can take control of who you hang out with, what you're exposed to for the most part, what systems you're choosing to interact with.

And this is an amazing break from moving between formal systems like high school into college or university recognizing the uniqueness of every individual and how they show up in the world. So from things from having to disclose how you are different or have diagnoses, filling out IEPs that will get fulfilled to various extents, to looking at what supports are available at various schools, to having to enter into a new unknown community that may or may not be supportive of your neurodivergence.

So lots of neurodivergent community members need that mental, emotional, and physical break from those systems in order to have that reset. So gap years really are good for everyone, but there are these additional benefits for folks from the neurodiverse community.

Michelle Dittmer - 10:17 

So I think where I wanna go from here is I wanna talk about self-discovery. When we are in systems that don't value who we are and how we show up in this world, neurodiverse folks get really good at masking.

Sometimes so good at it that it's hard to remember what the real you is. Either because you are code switching and you are masking and you are showing up as somebody that's not your authentic self, Or because you are assuming that you are just a chronically exhausted, tired or depressed person, but it's actually just burnout from that code switching. So the neurodiverse community often uses masking as a term, while code switching is more often used by cultural or racial groups.

But I absolutely adore the definition that Harvard Business Review gives for code switching because masking is simply just hiding in my interpretation and the way that that word shows up is just putting on a front. Whereas the Harvard Business Review defines code switching as involving adjusting one's style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, And employment opportunities, which I think hits the nail on the head for what a lot of neurodiverse folks have to do in order to navigate a neurotypical world.

But constantly having to be someone that you aren't can cause us to lose a sense of who we actually are and to value who we actually are. When we feel like we need to fit in, we can devalue our actual state. So other examples of this is when we are trying to be skinny to fit in, we lose the joy in our current body, the things that it can do right now because we are aspiring to something else or pretending to be something else. When we try to like sports to impress a crush we have we neglect our personal interests so we would go to that hockey game instead of watching that film that really interests us or reading that book. Maybe when we go into engineering because it's what our parents want we might miss out on the opportunity to become an incredible actor which is really our true calling.

So a gap year is a time to show up as authentically as possible, to drop the mask version of ourselves and to realize that you matter. You matter just the way you were designed. You don't need to be different than you are to have worth. It's time to relearn that about yourself before you had the societal pressures and we need to relearn what actually matters to you. What do you like? What do you dislike? What makes you happy, sad, angry? What gives you energy? What type of person do you want to be? What type of person do you want to hang out with?

This self-discovery is so important, don't get me wrong, the world is still set up for neurotypical people to be successful and you will have to navigate and advocate harder for yourself. But that navigation and advocacy is so much easier when you are unapologetically yourself. When you know your worth. When you know that you deserve success and happiness and that the world owes you that. Wow! That's amazing. That's power. So when you take the time to learn how wonderfully fantastic you are, and not just in that like disability poster token ND smiling away, when you know that you are freaking badass, you can stand up for what you deserve and what you need in this world. So that personal discovery and understanding yourself and learning to value yourself just as you are is a gift that will keep on giving the rest of your life. 

Michelle Dittmer - 15:09 

Now let's go back to that reintegration into systems and how the gap year plays into that. Because your gap year can be a great break from the pressures of a neurotypical world, That's fantastic, but because the world is designed the way that it is, you are going to have to re-enter into neurotypical design systems. But your gap year can afford you the time and the energy to do your research so you're equipped with the information so not only the self-knowledge and the self-worth but also the information you need to advocate for yourself and make choices about the communities that you're going to enter into so that your needs will be respected and met.

So you can spend time on your gap year to explore companies that have been recognized as neurodiverse, neuroaffirming. See what job opportunities might exist for you and that can be helpful in charting out your life is knowing what is possible for you and what is going to lead to a happy and fulfilling life for you. Equally important is spending time looking at various universities and colleges to learn which ones have strong disability policies and supports in place.

Taking time to talk to past neurodiverse students to learn what they had access to and what you will have access to at different schools. All of this research can help you actually in the decision to choose the best school that will help you to be successful. To be honest, within Canada we are lucky we have a phenomenal education system and to a large extent, a degree is a degree, so the school name isn't so important. But what is important is the fact that you need to feel well supported for four plus years. You need to be in an environment that is conducive to your success in that place. So spend this time doing your research, checking to see what's out there. 

Not only looking into the careers and the schools, but check out what scholarships and grants and bursaries and tax benefits exist for you. Society has disabled you by building a world that caters to neurotypical folks. The same way we've built a world that caters to able-bodied folks. Some systems and people have started to recognize that and are working to create assistive technologies or additional supports or additional funding to help you to function in a world that has disabled you.

So before you enter into school spend some time researching what supports you might benefit from and then look into grants that will help you access those supports because you are worthy and you deserve that and the world was not built for you and that is not your fault. 

Michelle Dittmer - 18:10

I wanna switch gears, and I want to talk about community. Have you ever surrounded yourself entirely by neurodivergent people? By neurodiverse people? People who get you because their brains work like yours?

I follow a lot of neurodivergent folk on Instagram and one post really has stuck with me.

And this particular creator has only neurodivergent friends. And it was so great to hear that this particular group of friends thinks that Neurotypical people are the odd ones because they are all thinking similarly and they see the outsiders being the neurotypical folks rather than what most neurodivergence experience with the neurodiverse being the ones

that are strange or odd. So really finding that community can be so powerful and it can positively impact your self-confidence and your worthiness.

Now CanGAP does have a very healthy number of neurodivergent folks as well as coaches as part of our community and as part of our program. So I would highly recommend that you stick around because we have some pretty big things coming up for the neurodiverse community. So a little hint here, hint, hint, nudge, nudge, get on our mailing list for more information as it becomes available. I can't say too much now, but we are launching something and it could blow up if our funding comes through. So get on that email list.

If you are not already, just head to our website and click subscribe to that newsletter.

CanGAP aren't the only ones that are focused on supporting the neurodivergent community.

There are many, many out there. So check out in your local community and see what you can find. See what might exist out there and do some research, connect with some different organizations supporting neurodiverse folks and find out what those communities might look like. And if you can't find one, maybe it's time to create your own. If you've been searching for it, perhaps others have been too and you are the one that's going to bring everyone together.

And now that I'm saying that out loud, that's actually a really great project for our Impact Fellowship program, again, where lots of neurodiverse people are hanging out. The Impact Fellowship would actually give you a thousand dollars to bring this neurodiverse community to life, which is incredible. You can head to slash fellowship to learn more about that opportunity. Great connection there, way to go brain! 

Michelle Dittmer - 21:04 

Lastly, let's talk about travel and programs specifically for neurodivergent young people, which many, many young people want to do on their gap year.

But sometimes it can feel that travel and programs are inaccessible because of the disabling way that they cater to able-bodied and neurotypical brains. There are lots of things that I want to share with you that can support you in your journey to have those experiences, whether that be travel or joining programs. So I'm going to call it a couple of them, but not the entire gamut because again, this is just a podcast episode, but this might inspire you to do a little bit more research.

So if you've been traveling in Canada recently, you might have seen some posters around the Sunflower Project. This is an initiative where you can order a sunflower lanyard that identifies you very discreetly as somebody having an invisible disability. And I know at Pearson International Airport and other airports across the country, and even internationally, this is an international project, The airport and airline staff are trained to be attentive to your needs because of that visual marking and you can be a little bit more confident that people

will understand where you're coming from and be more open to responding to your needs. So I'm going to link this in the show notes. So if you're interested in learning more about the Sunflower Project and how that might support you while traveling, by all means, head to the show notes and click on that.

There are other organizations out there that supports destinations and programs to become more, and in this particular case, specific to autism, autism friendly. They have phenomenal databases of places that you should feel more comfortable visiting because they have gone through these certifications from these levels of checks. So the two organizations, and again these will be linked in the show notes, are Autism Checked and Autism Travel. Great databases of places for you to check out that will be more supportive of your needs.

And in my research, I'm going to put in a small little plug here because I was so excited and believe me, we're going to be reaching out to this organization. We have found a travel organization that specializes in neurodiverse participants for their trips. These are trips exclusively for neurodivergent young people. Okay and this isn't just like yeah we're gonna go to a camp and it's gonna be fun these are like big trips okay they have currently have trips planned to japan to england a multi-city europe trip and a trip to zimbabwe Okay, my mind is just on fire, I'm so excited. They have built in small group sizes, ample recovery time during more stimulating events, they have sussed every outing out to make sure that it is neurodivergent friendly, and they have trained guides to be able to support you on your trip. Mind blown, win, win, win, win, win. This organization is called WanderRock Travel and again is linked in the show notes.

Hopefully stay tuned more from them. I'm going to be reaching out to them and seeing how we can better integrate this into our neurodiverse gapper community.

There are also other specific gap year programs to help neurodiverse folks develop skills to make the transition into post-secondary or the workplace easier. Now some of these are designated as therapeutic programs, some of them are bordering on therapeutic programs, and some of them are strictly skilled development. So feel free to jump into Google, type in neurodiversity gap year, and see what comes up. Now I'm going to give a little disclaimer here. Many of them are US-based. Many of them are very long, like multiple months long, And come with a quite hefty price tag.

So you've been warned, but if you're looking for something specific, definitely Google that and assess the programs to see if they make sense for you. Now I could talk for hours and hours and hours on the links between neurodiverse youth and the values and benefits of a gap year, but we're already at 24 minutes here, so I'm gonna have to wrap it up. And I also know that each and every one of your family situations is different and each neurodiverse person is unique and I would be more than happy to speak with all of you one-on-one to discover what might be the best plan for a gap year for your particular situation. So book a free call with me, link as always is in the show notes.

Michelle Dittmer - 26:27

Now the last thing I want to share, and maybe perhaps this should have been the first thing I shared in this episode, because it comes from lived experience. This actually is a video from our gap year alum and gap year ambassador, Claire. Claire recorded a YouTube video for us about taking a gap year as a neurodiverse person. As a neurodivergent person, sorry.

She has been diagnosed with ADHD with a nonverbal learning disorder and generalized anxiety.

And in this video she shares about how her ADHD, her LD and her anxiety impacted her lead up to her gap year and on her gap year and what she took away from her gap year.

So I highly, highly, highly recommend you check out her video. And or share it with the neurodiverse gappers in your life because it is very powerful and we are so grateful to her for sharing that perspective. 

Michelle Dittmer - 27:30 

So if you found this episode helpful and perhaps no other families with neurodiverse young people who might be in a similar situation kind of coming up to the end of high school or even those who have entered into post-secondary and may need a break and maybe a gap year is what they need mid post-secondary, Please forward this episode over to them. We want it to reach the people who need this information. We want to make sure people know that a gap year is an option and that hopefully they know that this can be a very positive experience that will impact the well-being of neurodiverse young people and will be setting them up for success for life beyond high school. So thank you for sharing that with your communities. And I just want to reiterate before I sign off that at CanGAP we love our neurodiverse gappers.

We love you, we appreciate you, we value you and if you need help seeing that in yourself, please come join our community because you are worthy and we can pump you up.

If you need any support at all, don't hesitate to reach out to us, check out the website for more resources and my friends, until next time, keep on adventuring.

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