Nursing School from the Perspective of a Neurodivergent Nurse 

Gabrielle N Neff, LPN is the 2022 IntelyStars People's Choice Award Winner and a Neurodivergent nurse who hopes her story can give others the confidence to ask for what they need to succeed in nursing school.

Gabrielle N Neff, LPN is the winner of the 2022 IntelyStars People’s Choice Award. (IntelyStars is the annual celebration of IntelyCare’s nurses and nursing assistants. We believe that nursing professionals deserve to be recognized and rewarded for the contributions they make year-round, not just during Nurse’s Week or CNA Week.)

Gabrielle is a neurodivergent nurse, meaning that nursing school was challenging for her. She wants other nurses to know that they are not alone and it is ok to ask for what you need to be successful. Here is her story.

When I made the decision to become a nurse, I knew it would be a challenge. I was diagnosed with ADHD in preschool. It’s a daily part of my routine, and something I’d been treating with medication since the age of 10. In many ways, I was lucky to know from a young age what might be causing my difference in learning structure. However, getting the rest of the world to understand, especially 25 years ago, was a different story. It is one of those invisible struggles, which meant that at the time, I was not offered an Individualized Education Program (IEP). For me the solution was simply Adderall and an occasional tutor. 

Learning to Study Again

Signing up for nursing school, especially an accelerated nursing program, left me feeling nervous… anxious… happy… hungry? All of the above! But most importantly, I was feeling ready! I knew content was going to be thrown at me quickly. Immediately it was 10 chapters in a night, and I had to learn all of the information before the exam the next day. I told my brain to act normal! Learn normal! Soak in all of the information given. 

It turns out that even though I knew from a young age that I had ADHD, it was also reinforced from a young age that I should still be able to learn, act, and respond like a neurotypical student. I quickly realized that I had never learned to really “study” before, and I was struggling to find ways to retain the information I was reading or being given.  

Fortunately, I realized quickly that I needed extra steps to learn information. Research led me to tricks around reading out loud and talking myself through the information to help retain it effectively. I would sit in a quiet room. No distractions. No noise. No people. Just me, my books, and my determination to learn. 

Struggles with Test Taking

Unfortunately, those conditions did not properly prepare me for test day. I took a seat in the front corner to eliminate distractions and waited for time. The teacher announced, “You have 60 minutes, and now you may begin.” I immediately froze. I sat there and read the first question over and over, but it just didn’t make sense to me. In a full classroom, I couldn’t just read it out loud like I’d done when studying. A technique that I knew worked for me, was now unavailable during the exam. Then, while I was still struggling with question one, classmates started pushing out their chairs, turning in their tests, and leaving the room. All I could think was, how do their brains react so fast?! The next thing I knew, 25 minutes had passed and I start to panic and rush to complete the test. 

After a few tests like this, my teacher pulled me aside. I had spent countless hours with her after school while preparing and studying. We would discuss the material and she helped me find ways to make it make sense to me. So it wasn’t surprising when she asked, “How on earth did you get a C, Gabrielle? I studied with you for two hours yesterday, and I know you know your stuff.” 

Ask For What You Need

This is when I learned one of the most important lessons of my lifetime. It’s ok to ask for support. I had spent my whole life thinking that I had to conform to the way everyone else goes through school. But thanks to this teacher, I was not written off as a bad student. She and I discussed my situation and approached the administration. Instead of forcing me to do things like everyone one else, I was empowered to request my own IEP. I requested to take my tests in a separate space, alone, with an unlimited time window. With the support of my teacher, who advocated for my knowledge of the material, the school said yes. 

My grades instantly skyrocketed. I had been on the edge of failing, and now I was getting straight As on my tests. I no longer worried about the speed that others finished, or the sound of pens clicking, or the blowing of a nose. I was finally free to think, my mind was open, and I felt confident and focused. 

I See You as a Fellow Neurodivergent Nurse

The term “neurodivergent” describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works. Someone who is neurodivergent has different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don’t have those differences. It is ok, to not be ok. Even medicated, we may still need extra help sometimes. Thanks to that school administrator, I graduated from nursing school. For me, being a neurodivergent nurse means I have a unique perspective, creative insights, and extraordinary problem-solving abilities. My advice is to embrace who you are, and embrace your superpowers. Whether it’s ADHD, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, or a developmental language disorder, embrace it. 

To anyone struggling, you are not alone. I see you, I hear you, and I care. The future of healthcare needs you. Don’t let your struggles hold you back. Have the courage to be you and to ask for what you need.  


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