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.