by Xondrais Glenn
It was eighth grade, and I was preparing to give an assigned presentation to my classmates. All presentations were being graded. I wasn’t especially scared, because I got to choose a topic that I love learning about: psychology.
I’d prepared well and was excited to share my passion for this subject with the class. We were in the Distance Learning Lab (a space designed at my school to imitate a small auditorium) and I had several art pieces representing different mental health disorders on a table around me. The eyes of 40 seventh and eighth graders and the teachers were on me and things were going great — until they weren’t.
A minute into my presentation, I started talking about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) while holding up the art piece to go with it. I knew what the acronym stood for, but as I spoke all I managed to get out was “Post…” My brain was already telling me that whatever line it wanted me to say next was wrong. I was stuck, staring around the room, trying to figure out how to say the right words.
My brain was already telling me that whatever line it wanted me to say next was wrong. I was stuck, staring around the room, trying to figure out how to say the right words.
When this happens, I not only lose my words, but I also can’t put letters in the right order. It’s a condition known as aphasia. During my presentation, in the middle of an episode of aphasia, I couldn’t find words so I stared while tapping my middle finger on my palm. The gesture was meant to say, “Give me a moment while I try to reboot myself.”
But because students in my studio were trying to be helpful, a few kids started calling out what PTSD stands for. I knew they were saying the right thing, but my brain still wouldn’t make the connection. Because I could only recognize their helpfulness as extra noise that pulled me from my focus, I ended up snapping at a peer. The room went quiet (as I rarely snap at people) and they finally let me process. The aphasia subsided and I was able to go through the rest of my presentation.
The most irritating part of that experience — no one knew how to help me, and I didn’t quite understand what was happening yet. I didn’t realize then that I was experiencing a migraine attack, making me part of the 28% of teens who have some form of migraine disease.
Symptoms and triggers
I was diagnosed with migraine disease a year ago, but I had been dealing with the light sensitivity, foggy concentration and transient aphasia for a few years before being diagnosed. When I was younger, I would sometimes get nauseous or vomit, but that was written off as acid reflux. Most likely it was what is known as abdominal migraine, which often affects children.
Symptoms and triggers of migraine disease are kind of fickle and vary greatly person to person. For me, I often first start to feel as though “light is too bright,” a condition known as photophobia. I often scramble my words before a migraine attack and have come to learn one is coming when I experience this. People might think of migraine attacks as headaches, but for me the head pain isn’t always the most bothersome symptom. Sometimes the embarrassment or inconvenient timing of brain fog or aphasia wins the prize.
People might think of migraine attacks as headaches, but for me the head pain isn’t always the most bothersome symptom. Sometimes the embarrassment or inconvenient timing of brain fog or aphasia wins the prize.
Figuring out the symptoms or triggers that are most bothersome has made it easier to ask for accommodations. For instance, I’ve found the fluorescent lights in my school to be bothersome, and two ways I defend my eyes against them are both accessory type items. I wear a bucket hat — my grandmother embroidered my name on it — that keeps me from being overwhelmed by bright lights. I’ll also occasionally wear my rose colored FL-41 glasses when lights just keep on being bright or I forgot my hat.
But when it comes to transient aphasia, sound sensitivity and brain fog, I have to be more open and willing to share my experience so that others know what is going on. It helps that my mom also experiences migraine disease, so talking through things with her and consulting my doctor as needed to find preventive and abortive treatments to help me manage better have made a huge difference.
How can teachers and administrators help?
Simple accommodations can help students who experience migraine disease. Allowing students to wear hats or glasses to reduce exposure to bright lights can help. So can offering students who suffer migraine disease a quiet, homey place to chill out for a while within the school building.
Simple accommodations can help students who experience migraine disease.
We have a place called “Serenity” at my school where the room is lit with dim overhead lights and lamps. The room is quiet and it’s a space for kids to work, particularly if they need fewer distractions, but this room also helps with overstimulation, which accounts for most migraine symptoms. What rooms in your school sound like Serenity?
Migraine symptoms are not limited to photophobia, but problem solving as I explained can still be applied. For teachers and students who want to learn more, check out Migraine at School.
Xondrais Glenn lives in Indiana and attends a Montessori high school. She stays busy by volunteering, writing and hanging out with friends. She is an advocate for those with migraine disease, and in 2022, she participated in Headache on the Hill, a day of advocacy organized by the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy. There she was able to meet with state representatives along with a team of advocates from the state of Indiana. Xondrais and her mother Anna are ambassadors for Migraine at School, using grassroots strategies to bring migraine education, tools and resources into their community.