The Difficulty of Being Different
Content advisories: I discuss abuse, ableism and prejudice against neurodiversity, and I allude to slurs I was called (which I have redacted). I also describe distressing personal experiences of discrimination.
When I was twelve, my English teacher called me an ableist slur beginning with the letter R and said that I was hopeless, that I did not belong in mainstream education but should be sent to a different kind of institution (her exact words were ‘a school for kinds who are [r-word]ed’). Now that I am over twice that age, and have been assessed using clinical knowledge rather than disparaging prejudice, I find it astonishing that she was both accurate and wrong at the same time: although she recognised difference, the language she used evinced her insensitivity towards and disdain for those who are different. This is not the worst of what she did to me. Nor was this the worst of what happened to me (or indeed to other people like me). It just makes for an effective example of getting abuse for being different.
Public perceptions of neurodiversity have been alienating. Setting aside all of the stigma, discrimination and toxic prejudices that continue to harm neurodiverse people1, the supposedly positive representations in the media of being a quirky savant shape expectations of what it means to have such a condition. This is to say nothing of the gendered diagnostic paradigms that still linger in the way clinicians assess people, leading to many women and non-binary folx suffering great iatrogenic harm of being misdiagnosed and mistreated. These discussions have come to the fore because of Greta Thunberg’s rise to prominence, and because of how her neurodiversity has been entangled with her message on climate justice.
There is a revealing tension between Thunberg’s own statements and what media outlets quoted from them: she was reported as describing her difference as a ‘superpower’: in her TEDx Talk on the subject, she said that her difficulty in understanding social codes and her catastrophising, binary thinking gave her immense clarity in seeing the urgency of climate catastrophe when most political leaders in the West were broadly prevaricating. There is some truth to this: neurodiverse friends of mine who have likewise struggled to internalise unwritten social codes around gender or etiquette can see with similar clarity indications of discrimination in the subtlest of inconsistencies in the way other people behave, for example, with men compared to women or non-binary folx. They notice things which most other people have been socialised not to notice.
But this truth belies a more difficult reality: the parts of Thunberg’s remarks that did not get as much attention were where she described the struggles she faced because of her condition, like her depression, anxiety and eating disorders. While it is inspiring to celebrate neurodiversity by calling it a superpower (and to reject its characterisation as an illness or problem), it is vital to acknowledge that the relative advantages that it confers do not diminish or negate the adversity or challenges that are an equal part of the condition. An exclusive focus on celebrating the ‘superpower’ invalidates the pain and distress that people living with the condition go through every day.
When I was growing up, many of my teachers berated me for being unmotivated and scatty with my assignments, because I could not focus on tasks unless I was adequately stimulated by them. My mind was always a cacophony of a multitude of other things that I had an obsessive interest in. I did not understand many of the boundaries that other people seemed to just know, leading me to behave in ways that were hurtful to people around me. And I had several habits which, when disrupted, caused me excruciating distress. It was only until last year that I was properly diagnosed, until which time I did not have the knowledge or insight to help me make sense of my experiences or the appropriate support to help me cope.
On top of the distress caused by the way I perceived my environment, there was the abuse and pain inflicted upon me by the people who saw me as different. Adults around me treated this difference treated as a personal fault or moral failing. The English teacher from when I was twelve, whom I have turned into my favourite bogeywoman, used ritual and prolonged humiliation in front of the entire class as a method of correction. Much later, other kids I went to school with would bully, torment and assault me to break my habits of literal adherence to rules, excessive punctuality, and aversion to swearing. Adults regarded me as being deficient in my ‘emotional intelligence’ because of the distress I would experience for just trying to be ‘normal’ and surviving my environment. Of course, nobody thought anything more complex could be the case because I was always seen as articulate and clever.
I am fortunate that the profile of my condition still means that I am closer to the more vocal and ‘high-functioning’ end of the spectrum. However, people who are nonverbal, have more limited executive function, more violent tics and more disruptive repetitive behaviours are treated with abhorrent cruelty. A recent article in The Guardian in response to the visibility Thunberg is bringing to these issues shone light on segregation between kids with different profiles of the same condition. It is for these reasons I think it is vital to foreground the adversities and challenges associated with neurodiversity and the need for us to be more sensitive in accommodating these differences.
This World Mental Health Day, I thought I would reflect on some of my more difficult experiences. Other people, like that awful English teacher, have spoken about me in ways that are toxic and damaging. A friend of mine said to me that if people like me who can speak up do not do so, then others frame the narrative in ways that are damaging and hurtful. And in that regard I am really lucky that I have friends, colleagues and supervisors who have been unceasingly kind and supportive, and have taught me to see neurodiversity differently. Even though my experiences may be difficult and distressing, at the very least I still have a strident sense of hope.