What is the connection between stress, neurodiversity and thinking in pictures?

Olive Hickmott is a Forensic Learning Coach, author and trainer and a professional friend and partner with Creased Puddle.

Her books aimed at supporting neurodivergent children, yet are equally as valuable to adults are The Elephants in the Classroom, Bridges to Success and Seeing Spells Achieving.

During National Stress Awareness month Olive explores the connection between stress and mental imagery.

Neurodivergent thinkers and learners often struggle with lifelong stress. But is it the Neurodiversity that causes the stress or the stress that creates Neurodiversity? 

Neurodivergent thinkers and learners have exceptional mental image skills, which underpins their high creativity, imagination, problem solving skills, high intelligence, and the ability to make connections others do not see at lightning speed. Stress arises when these images are out of control and overwhelming.

A whole range of learning differences are influenced by mental imagery, for example:

  • Dyslexics have not progressed from phonics to developing the skill to picture words in their Word Form Area (WFA), needed for fluency, word recognition, spelling etc. Not using the WFA puts too much stress on the wrong part of your brain, with repetitive decoding rather than just recognising words.
  • Those with ADHD have mental images that run as a very high-speed sequence causing distractions and impulsivity, most often with a logical progression from one to another.
  • Those on the autistic spectrum can withdraw as they seem to be drowning in mental images without any control.

As mental imagery is not even mentioned in school,  it should be no surprise that children get confused and stressed, which can last a lifetime.

Empowering Learning builds on a child’s strengths.

When we are young most of our internal world is about mental imagery; indeed, I have seen research identifying 98% of 4-year-olds as creative geniuses. Children as young as six weeks old recognise their own parents (mental imagery in action). Now here’s the thing; with fabulous mental imagery for recalling information, problem-solving, creativity, imagination plus all those everyday things like going to school, recognising your friends and your toys, why don’t we teach primary children some basic information about how to control imagery and what else they can be used for? Techniques for control are straightforward to learn; good breathing, restorative sleep and feeling fully in your body, grounded.

Once relaxed and in a good learning state, you can learn the essential skill of using your Word Form Area (WFA) to store images of words, immediately increasing word recognition, reading speed and reading for meaning. Any word the student can recognise without decoding, you can be sure, is in their WFA and can be accessed for spelling. Whilst reading, you can make up pictures of what you read, thus accelerating comprehension. The great thing is that you are teaching a dyslexic an extra skill to deal with words without losing their strengths. In fact, their neurodivergent strengths will increase.

It is not surprising that going into school every day knowing you will have to read or write without the ability to use your WFA is highly stressful and can be traumatising, leading to a lifetime of anxiety in certain situations and even mental health challenges.

Considering ADHD for a moment, exceptional mental imagery is fun, but not being able to control it can be exhausting, confusing, distracting and give rise to nightmares. Breathing, sleeping and grounding will enable children to make friends with their mental images to enjoy the creativity without the confusion and exhaustion.

Olive can be contacted on – Web-site:

In addition, her new learning platform is under development here: You will find live sessions to learn about mental imagery and Neurodiversity.

You can find free resources on my Youtube channel, in particular, Sleep-breathe-ground, at