It wouldn’t be Neurodiversity Week without having to address the age old, damaging rhetoric. It comes in many forms. It could be well intentioned comfort words that hit like daggers in the ears of parents whose children have just received a diagnosis. It could come from an annoying relative who thinks you are just making excuses. It has even come from under educated professionals threatened by knowing less about how your body works than you do. Wherever it comes from, it’s based on the outdated, debunked idea that ADHD, Dyslexia and other diagnoses are just for children.
I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. Around this time, the common language linked ADHD to poor parenting of naughty boys who just needed stricter rules and firmer boundaries. You can imagine my fear of disclosure…not to mention lack of research around how ADHD manifests in women. When I disclosed, I was always met with questions I had difficulty answering. More often than not, I was met with confusion and disbelief. You see, ADHD is something you outgrow (insert eye roll emoji here).
As my children became diagnosed, I was met with the new version of the old bias. “He’s just a boy with a lot of energy.” “She’s just a dreamer.” And the old favourite, “He’ll grow out of it. Just give him time.” It was difficult enough coordinating the interventions, schooling needs and environmental changes that my children needed. I also had to justify and debate what their father, school officials, medical professionals and me all agreed upon. I get that you watched a really well put together YouTube video and read a blog. I’m just going to stick with the professionals.
Running that gauntlet wasn’t fun. But, it made me take some time to reflect on why this myth won’t go away. As I look back on my own journey, my clients’ journeys and my children, I realise where the miscommunication comes from. Let me be clear. It is normal to be different. It is normal to have variance in experience. It is normal to be neurodivergent. It is also a life experience that is rich and varied…just like being neurotypical.
Neuro-divergent People Mask
This is the big one, so let’s start here. From the beginning of my memory, it has been pointed out that I am not quite right. I should be more this or do less that. I am not typical. Now, just like typical people, I didn’t like to feel wrong. So, what did I do? I spent a large amount of time pretending like I’m ok. I pretended like I understood. I pretended like I didn’t understand. I pretended to like things or speak a certain way. Masking is living unauthentically. It’s modifying behavior and neglecting needs for the benefit of others. Parents of neurodivergent children will see this manifest when they get home from school. The mask comes off and the feelings come out. Partners will see this in their relationships as well. As you get older, you get better at masking. Therefore, the neurotypical population is not exposed to the large amount of effort it takes to appear normal enough. This survival mechanism often results in depression and anxiety. We aren’t meant to be unauthentic and be able to accept ourselves.
Medication Works for Many
I will preface this by saying that I am not trained to offer advice for or against medication. That is not my point. However, for many people, medication makes the neurotypical world accessible. They are able to maintain the expected level of focus and concentration for getting the job done. Many report taking meds as life changing. If someone is medicated, and it is working, you don’t see the traits. Catch them on a day where the meds ran out or they forgot to take them and you would report their behaviour as odd and unnerving. Neurotypical don’t see who takes medication to be successful.
Coping Mechanisms Develop
Do you know that guy who is always bouncing his leg? What about the person with a bazillion alarms on their watch reminding them to do something? Have you met the woman with lists on how to write lists for her lists? Or the person who sings information to remember it? These are coping mechanisms. Coaching is all about the coping mechanisms when working with neurodivergent people. Spell check is convenient for people who might make a typo. It is LIFE CHANGING for people with Dyslexia or Dyspraxia. Many coping mechanisms are learned through active investigation. Even more are developed through trying to make the world less difficult. Neurotypical people don’t know why we do these things that make us quirky. They may not even notice.
Neuro-divergent People Keep the Secret
I acknowledge that I am very lucky to be able to fly my ADHD flag with pride. I work with people who have made accommodations for me. It’s part of what I do for a living. I also know that there were times when I kept the secret. I hear this from clients all of the time. If I disclose, I won’t be promoted to leadership. Everyone will treat me differently if it gets out. Years of being mocked and misunderstood has taught us that the world is not kind when they don’t understand. Many people are kind and accepting…but not everyone. You never know who is going to be the next person to reject you.
My goal in this post is not to demonise neurotypical people. Far from it. People should not be held accountable for information they don’t have. I would instead like to challenge the unconscious bias in the zeitgeist around neurodivergence. I want to bring awareness to neurotypical people about how to show up in the best way. I want to explain a general lack of education, to offer perspective to those who have, whether intentionally or not, been hurt by the dismissive rhetoric. Most importantly, I want to make it a safe space to be authentic.
Gwen Jones, Educating Matters Expert