Anyway, I was looking at the board today before erasing it and thought I would share.
Neurodiversity recognises the spectrum of thinking types, from neurotypical (local average) to neurodivergent (specifically not like average). This framework changes how we see people who think differently – not as faulty, but just different. This article looks at what it is like to be neurodivergent but not know it.
Have you ever visited another culture and been completely lost by what they are doing and why they are doing it? Perhaps you went to another country, or went to a friends family and found that their basic assumptions and methods of doing things are quite different.
When I went to India around 2008, my cultural awakening occurred on the way to Bangalore from the airport. While driving down a six lane highway, theoretically three lanes on either side for traffic, I watched as the locals ignored that and any other semblance of road rules. Eight vehicles were banked up parallel to each other in five and a half lanes going in the same direction (towards the city), with half a lane dedicated to the traffic going the other way. Lanes were a nice idea, but no one cared. The horn was used to warn motorists of where they were and seemingly their intent, traffic in lanes wove in and out and we had to dodge the occasional ox and cart trundling slowly down the highway. Scooters were very popular, loaded with a nuclear family of two parents, 3 kids and at least one grandparent and the luggage. I was very glad to not be driving.
What I am trying to say here is that what I was use to as average was very different over there. Their average was not my average. Who was better? I can see the logic that if several million people are headed into the city in the morning and only a few thousand people are leaving, then it makes sense to switch the direction of some of the lanes. If most of the vehicles are bikes, then it makes sense to have several in a single lane. If you need to dodge carts and slow tractors, it makes sense to weave in and out. I can see the logic of all of that, yet it seemed like chaos and a recipe for disaster – especially as I come from a city that can’t merge lanes or use car indicators. For all of that perceived chaos, I witnessed no accidents and my driver told me (hopefully truthfully) that accidents were rare.
I was a stranger in a strange land, not knowing the local ways and dithering between understanding why I think they do things and wondering why they do things that way, while probably just not getting any of it. My assumptions, values and solutions did not fit this strange land.
When I made inevitable social blunders in India, my skin colour and accent saved me. I clearly was a stranger and should not be judged for not knowing the local rules. While I was frequently embarrassed for not knowing how things were done, I also acknowledged that I was in a strange land and didn’t know the rules – the customs, the traditions, or the laws. So that made it okay.
That isn’t how I grew up though. I grew up in a family that seemed to do things quite differently to me. I empathised with Kal-el, who was ejected from Krypton, crashed on Earth and was adopted by some country folk called the Kent’s. They called him Clark and raised him as human, trying to manage his oddities and help him hide his differences from everyone else. Eventually his amazingness would be revealed in his Superman persona, a fantasy that I knew I would never realise. I mostly empathised with the Clark part of Kal-el, the man who would be human. As I grew up in my family, I hoped that I was adopted and that would explain why I didn’t fit. Turns out that I wasn’t adopted.
I went to preschool and found myself managing kind of ok. Parallel play was the rage (as it often is at that age), so I could do my own thing, lost in my own world and not have to interact with the others. For all that, I decided I had a best friend and that poor sucker was kind of stuck with me as I followed them around and just tried to be wanted.
Primary school was awkward because parallel play was over. You are now supposed to play with others. But they made no sense. They couldn’t see the worlds that I saw, they didn’t play the games I liked and they couldn’t seem to explain what they were doing to any sensible level of satisfaction.
I have a memorable moment in my third or fourth year when we were given a teaser phrase to write a creative story from. We were given the class lesson to write our story – probably an hour. I did so, quite enjoying the exercise, while at the same time dreading handing my beautiful work in to be criticised because the words I wrote were poorly formed, had gross spelling errors and sometimes just did not connect. The meaning of what I wrote was irrelevant, pailing into insignificance compared to the fact that I can’t write. At least, not as they define it.
Once the hour was up, and to my horror, we were told to stand up at the front of the class and read our work.
To the whole class.
My instinct to hide and not be seen sent me into panic. You can’t hide at the front of the class. You can’t blend in. You are there to be judged. Holy crap on a stick. I contained my internal panic because even then, I had learned to hide how I felt.
I listened as almost thirty identical stories were read out. Polite applause after each one. Then, finally, it was my turn. I gathered myself and walked, slowly and reluctantly, to the front of the class, watching the whole class watching me, lining up their judgement rifles, ready to shoot me for being wrong. Again. I would plead my case, the squad would judge and I would be shot. I did not see friendly faces, I saw a judgemental firing squad.
I read my story. Because I wrote it, my poorly formed written words were not an issue. I knew what my story was. Unlike the brief paragraphs the horde had written, I tremulously read out the page and a half of fully formed story with a horror twist ending.
“Well… my… um…” said the teacher.
“You’re so weird,” offered one of the riffle men. Head shot. I was done.
On my way home, walking alone between a group of kids in front of me and a group of kids behind – never with the kids you see – I began to wonder. Thirty identical stories. I’m sure they didn’t think the stories were identical, but compared to mine, they were. How did they know? How did they know what to write to be the same without talking to each other? Why was mine so different?
I spent a lot of time hiding under tables. The world was too big and too confusing. I needed to make it closed in and manageable. There is this scene in “Man of Steel” where Clark hides in a closet. I cried when I saw it. I would run away from school a lot. School was hard. It was full of judgment and contradictory rules. The principal was often sent to retrieve me. I was considered stupid, retarded, incapable. I was in a lot of special classes. All my skills were in things they didn’t measure or care about. The way they taught me made no sense, so I spent lots of time in private research learning what I needed to know and struggling to get my mind recognised. I failed a lot.
The Effect to my Psyche
Unlike many that I now know, I didn’t develop an anxiety or depressive disorder. It is quite common to develop anxiety as you spend a great deal of energy trying to hide from everyone all of the time, becoming hypervigilant to the inevitable attacks, critiques and corrections. It is also common to develop depression as all your efforts fail, as every move you make is a disaster and you learn that it is better not to move at all. I did suffer a lot and become what is now known as emo. I spent a lot of time sad,lost and lonely, becoming very introspective as I tried to work out what the heck was wrong – with me, or the world, I wasn’t sure which. I learned all the ways to not fly a flag and be noticed. – wear plain colours, stay back, don’t act odd. Despite all my rage, I was still just a rat in a cage. Despite all my effort to hide, I was noticed anyway. Not because of flags that I flew or hid, but because it was me. I tried so hard to be average. Clearly, I failed.
I did develop a mood disorder. I spent so much time hiding who I was and second guessing all of my emotions (the feelings I show), that I suppressed my reactions and feelings in favour of intellectually calculating what others needed to see. One cannot have feelings and bottle them up – they will find ways to leak out. In my mid twenties I would recognise this and work out how to manage my moods.
One of the main moods I needed to learn how to manage was rage. I had rage against the world. Against the partner I had left, the parenting I received, the world that didn’t accept me, at how I had grown to be the person I was. I recognised that I had become a defensive mechanism, controlling all those around me to ensure my safety. I had grown up wrong.
I hated who I’d become.
It was time to change that. It took me some time, and I got some coaching, therapy and a new crop of friends and got there. That change isn’t the point of this part. The point is how I grew up in a land that was not mine, amongst people who were not mine and how I responded to that.
Thinking From a Different Angle
I often described the way that I think as different to anyone else I know. That I have learned how others think in order to compensate. This means I have at least two solutions to most problems – the one I’d use, and the one I expect that you will use. I use to describe thinking space as three dimensional sphere, where “normal” people were a circle in that sphere, and coming in at an acute angle was my circle of thinking – how I saw the world. At the intersection between mine and theirs was the only location that I had to implement the interface I use to compensate for this difference. I had to work out what made them tick and what they were likely to do, so that I could squash my instinctive responses and substitute theirs.
When they fail to do a thing, I use my other mechanism to survive – my natural instinctive one. When other people aren’t around, it is so much easier. I do “me” instead of “fake you”.
Many people claim that neurodivergent people are not empathic. I posit that this is sometimes true, but often false. Imagine you go to another country. Someone tries to talk to you with words you do not understand. Are you deaf? Or is it just another language you have yet to learn? Some people are deaf. Mostly though, you just don’t know the language. It isn’t your native tongue. You might learn some of the words, but you are slower to respond and can’t express yourself fully. Given time, you can learn their language, but you don’t think in it. You think in your own language first, then translate it into their’s, and then you say the thing and hope you got it right. They say a thing, you hear it, work out the words you do know, try to fit it into the presenting context and then translate it into the words you do know and hope you got it right.
That is me. Translating all the time. I’m not deaf to you – I just struggle to understand.
Last time [link] we covered that the concept of neurodiversity is to accept that humans are varied – such as eyes colour, height, blood type and thought types. Neurodiversity is the aspect of how we think that varies from individual to individual, where most humans are called neurotypical and a proportion of individuals are considered neurodivergent.
As the concept is relatively new and many people are working on this field from around the world, we started off with some terminology in brief. I highly recommend that you take a review of it to get the main terms so that we are speaking the same language.
In this Part we are going to look at divergence from the norm and what that means.
Neurotypical vs Neurodivergent – What it Means
The average IQ for humans is 100. However most people who fill in an IQ test won’t get 100, they will get around it. If your result is 105, does that make you atypical? No. Average IQ is a range of scores that most people fall in. For IQ, the standard deviation is 15 points. If you score between 85 and 115, you are considered to be average, or typical. For IQ specifically, 68% of the population is considered to be “average”. We could refer to this average population as IQ-typical.
To represent this, we use a bell curve. It is a useful concept to understand how must people fit in to this “average” space, and some of the population are outside of it.
It is hard to determine the percentage of the population that is neurotypical. When the neurodiversity concept was first being tossed around, it was originally picked up by autistic people as a way to redefine the definition of autism from the stigma of disorder (something is wrong) to different (variation is ok). While neurotypical was being used as shorthand for “not autistic”, it was 99% of the population. As other thinking styles have been added to the umbrella of neurodivergent the population of who is not neurotypical has expanded. When ADHD was included in the definition of neurodivergent, the percentage jumped quite a bit, from 1% (autism only) to about 12%.
As the definition of neurodiverse varies, this ratio of neurotypical is going to move.
There are good points to making the neurodivergent definition more inclusive of those who are clearly not neurotypical. If only 1% of the population requires special consideration, this small minority group is easy for governments to shrug off. The larger that “minority group” is, the harder it is to ignore.
There is also a problem with neurodivergence being adopted by everyone. If everyone is neurodivergent, then what does it mean? How does this help us? We might as well say that you are human. In a way, that is true – you are human. We all are. How does you being human help me understand who you are? Another aspect of this is that if you are in the population labelled as having ADHD, that doesn’t make you the same as my other friend also who has ADHD, so the label is not a definition of you, but might give me some clues about what you need to feel comfortable and function well over and above the label “human”.
Some labels have some fairly heavy stigma attached to them. Autism is often seen as a non-functional socially inept individual. Fortunately that is starting to shift a bit as more people with autism come out who previously blended in or are seen as quite functional. ADHD is often ascribed to as “naughty” or “misbehaved” rather than “has troubles prioritising” and “very active”, mostly because the “treat everyone the same” teaching and parenting methods fail to take into account the thinking pattern that people with ADHD have, with the consequence that they act out. Psychopathic people are also being considered as neurodivergent and the stigma attached psychopathy is “ruthless murderer”. The majority of people who have compromised compassion feedback loop aka psychopathy, are not murderers and are just trying to get on with their lives. The stigma of some of these diagnoses means that it can feel uncomfortable being considered under the same umbrella as the other diagnoses – I may be neurodivergent, but I don’t want to carry the stigma of that other condition, my own is enough.
How to Measure Divergence
Another point to consider with the term is how different does someone have to be to be considered divergent versus typical? While I appreciate that dyslexia is a difficult brain difference to manage, does it really make someone neurodivergent?
Depending on the type of dyslexia, written words can have quite a different pathway to conscious thought. My form of dyslexia means that I say each read word “out loud” within the confines of my head, hearing the written word rather than just knowing the written word. I will also sometimes substitute a word in my head for what is on the page, actually seeing that substituted word – a form of optical delusion. Another aspect of my dyslexia is that when I construct a sentence to write, I see what I have constructed in my mind on the page (an optical delusion), not necessarily what my hand has written – which can be radically different. This makes proofreading particularly tricky. Clearly this changes the way that I process written words, but does that make me neurodivergent, or just on the edge of neurotypical? How divergent does your thinking need to be to be considered outside of neurotypical?
This is reflected in the IQ scale. Technically an IQ of 101 is above the mean average, but because IQ range isn’t measured on the mean, it actually falls within the standard deviation and is considered to be average. In a similar way, thinking a bit differently may not make you neurodivergent, just odd.
There are many people who are neurodivergent that appear neurotypical. Often this is because they have worked hard to appear that way. Their personal struggles have lead to a hard life and a great deal of adaptation problems, but they have finally managed to blend in. There are also many people who are neurodivergent that are obviously not neurotypical and are quite dysfunctional.
Defining neurotypical and neurodivergent based on functionality seems to be a mistake. It is more important to look at how the separation of how the different ways of processing and thinking places a person away from the neurotypical average. It is often said that the school teaching methods for primary and high school is ideal for 1/3 of students, adequate for another 1/3 of students and not helpful for the last 1/3 students. I posit that the last 1/3 of the student population listed above are likely to be neurodivergent, where the teachers attempting to explain in a typical way how a thing works does not computer for most of the last students. Some of this 1/3 of students are also just poorly behaved due to other reasons.
Part 3 – Living with Neurodivergence
Next time we will look at what it is like to be neurodiverse and not know it.
Humans are diverse. We have a range of different aspects, such as skin colour, eye colour, blood type, height, gender preference, sex, gender identity, culture, food preferences and so forth. Neurodiversity is the word used to discuss how our brains and minds work in a range of different ways, highlighting those who are neurotypical, in the middle of the bell curve, and those who are neurodivergent, at away from the middle of the bell curve.
In this Part we will cover some of the terminology and a little of the history.
Neruodiversity was first coined by Judy Singer, an Australian social scientist on the autism spectrum around 1990 and was first seen in print in 1998. The idea was to recognise that diverse peoples have always existed throughout the history of humanity and that being divergent from the local social norm is not a pathological condition, but a factor of being human.
The concept was rapidly embraced by individuals who identified with Autism, and was quickly adopted by other peoples who wanted to move away from “mother blaming” and toward recognition that there is nothing inherently wrong with them, that there is just difference.
Jim Sinclair 1993 speech is incredibly important. While Sinclair is talking specifically about autism here, replace any of the axis and it is still true.
“Non-autistic people see autism as a great tragedy, and parents experience continuing disappointment and grief at all stages of the child’s and family’s life cycle. But this grief does not stem from the child’s autism in itself. It is grief over the loss of the normal child the parents had hoped and expected to have … There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person—and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with. This is important, so take a moment to consider it: Autism is a way of being. It is not possible to separate the person from the autism.”
While neurodiversity was initially first embraced by Autism people and groups, other peoples have also embraced the concept.
ADHD, developmental speech disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysnomia and intellectual disability; mental health conditions such as bipolarity, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, sociopathy, bsessive–compulsive disorder, and Tourette syndrome and the medical condition Parkinson’s disease.
For an excellent more in depth discussion on terminology, I recommend you check out Neurocosmopolitanism’s website [link].
Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds within our human species. It recognises that we are not all the same, we are not clones or copies of each other.
Neurodiversity is a biological fact, not an opinion or movement.
The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity that follows these basic 3 principles:
1) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity
2) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction
3) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture)
The Neurodiversity Movement is a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect, and full societal inclusion for the neurodivergent. If you consider other diversities that have made progress towards equality you will find that they too had social justice movements behind them.
NEURODIVERGENT, or ND (and NEURODIVERGENCE)
Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal”, as defined by the local bell curve.
Neurodivergent is quite a broad term as it can refer to many different aspects of divergence from the “norm”.
A person who is divergent from “normal” in more than one axis.
INNATE, INTRINSIC OR GENETIC NEURODIVERGENCE
Someone who is born divergent from the “norm”.
ORGANIC, TRAUMATIC, ORGANIC NEURODIVERGENCE
Someone who develops neurodivergence in response to a life event or experience
NEUROTYPICAL, or NT
Neurotypical, often abbreviated as NT, means having a style of neurocognition that falls within the local dominant societal standards of “normal.”
Neurotypical can be used as either an adjective (“They’re neurotypical”) or a noun (“They’re a neurotypical”).
Much like Straight is to Queer, Neurotypical is to Neurodivergent.
A neurominority is a population of neurodivergent people about whom all of the following are true:
1) They all share a similar form of neurodivergence
2) The form of neurodivergence they share is one of those forms that is largely innate and that is inseparable from who they are and is thus pervasive to their personality
3) The form of neurodivergence they share is one to which the neurotypical majority tends to respond with some degree of prejudice, misunderstanding, discrimination, and/or oppression (often facilitated by classifying that form of neurodivergence as a medical pathology)
The word neurominority can be used as either a noun (“ADHD are a neurominority”) or an adjective (“ADHD are a neurominority group”).
Where one or more members of the group differ substantially from other members, in terms of their neurocognitive functioning.