Gaveen Prabhasara

Neurodiversity

· Gaveen Prabhasara

We, humanity, have come a long way to celebrate the diversity in our world. While it’s not all great—some people still like to use differences to “other” people and cause pain, harm, and even death—we’ve generally progressed to a point where such intentions don’t go unchallenged. We have taken a long time to understand that we are better together, not the same. While dragging our feet all that way, we are still making progress.

Neurodiversity is the idea that different people can experience and interact with the world around them in fundamentally different ways. This idea is not the same as having diverse personalities. No two people think exactly the same way or have psychological experiences exactly alike. But neurodiversity means there are many different neurotypes among people. There is no single right or wrong way. The majority commonality of such existences (i.e., neurotypical) is not inherently right, and the diverging people (i.e., neurodivergent) don’t have inherent deficits.

Unfortunately, we’re far from accepting this as the reality. Since our world is built for neurotypical people—and we have a tendency to use non-conformance to pit “us” against “them”—we are still clinging to the idea that neurotypical existence is the right way and everything else is a deficit. This is how a certain kind of neurodivergent people are considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is defined using a pathologized language in a clinical textbook named the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).” The same goes for ADHD, dyslexia, and so on.

At this point, some of you may find your hands itching to comment about how those are clinical definitions and, therefore, are medical conditions. So, let me clarify further. There are disabled people from all neurotypes. Their cognitive, motor, and other bodily functions can be affected. Therefore, they should receive all the support they need. However, being neurodivergent is not an inherent deficit because neurodiversity is a state of nature. Further, it’s an analytical tool for examining social issues and an argument for the conservation and facilitation of human diversity.

I’d like you to watch the excellent video essay “TikTok Gave Me Autism” by Alexander Avila if you have about an hour to spare. If you only have about ten minutes, you can watch the illuminating TEDx talk, “Why everything you know about autism is wrong” by Dr. Jac den Houting. You can even see if this amusing thought experiment about the fictional Neurotypical Spectrum Disorder gives you pause for thought.

The term neurodiversity is generally attributed to the Australian sociologist Judy Singer, a self-advocate with autism, who (in the 90s) challenged the conventional ideas about what is considered normal and abnormal. Unfortunately, even in 2024, the idea neurodivergent people are being disabled by a world that wasn’t developed for them rather than because of inherent deficits is still unheard of by most medical professionals—let alone your average person. Neurodivergent people can appear to have issues with seemingly mundane things while excelling at things neurotypical people might find challenging. Therefore, trying to classify people only through a pathologized interpretation of their existence is exceedingly reductive—and insulting.

The current status of affairs translates to a majority of the society being uncomfortable acknowledging the different existences of people without pathologized descriptors—and people with a diagnosis for such descriptors being uncomfortable accepting others like them without a formal diagnosis of a disorder.

Recognizing neurodivergence is a whole separate problem. While some people are straightforward to recognize, some are pretty much invisible. For example, people like me who were able to learn to mask their differences can go their entire lives without ever realizing they are neurodivergent. They learn early to behave like neurotypical people. However, it’s not a matter of deception. It’s more of a vital survival skill to adhere to acceptable social/cultural norms. Therefore, the masked behavior might be the only one they ever had.

For such people, both their differences and difficulties are usually invisible to everyone else. It is assumed that most masking neurodivergent people don’t know the depth of their differences. Even when they notice, they are more likely to suspect psychological reasons or assume everyone else is also going through the same struggle. If that sounds like an unhealthy thing to do, that’s because it is. So, when things inevitably boil over as meltdowns and burnouts, their struggles are often viewed as personal defects rather than the effects of masked neurodivergence. Even if they manage the difficulties, they usually end up with ostracizing labels—either whispered in hushed tones behind their backs or used openly to insult them.

Since the actually neurodivergent people, women, and people of color were historically excluded from the scientific research about autism and similar research topics, we’re only now beginning to understand neurodiversity better. We’re only now beginning to see just how many masking neurodivergent people could be out there. You can check a video titled “The History of Autism” to learn about the historical aspect of this topic.

For most neurodivergent people, social media is the only way to learn from a diverse pool of lived experiences of people like them. Contrary to a misguided belief, a vast majority of neurodivergent people don’t watch a few video clips and claim disability benefits or use them for online clout. When they finally connect the dots, they spend months and months guessing and second-guessing if they could have autism, ADHD, etc. They research every bit of information they can find. They probably spend more time studying the clinical texts on their condition than the average medical professional. As a result, more people are gradually becoming aware of their neurodivergence and starting to self-identify.

If you see random people being angry about “Autism or ADHD social media trends” and “TikTok diagnoses,” this is what they are uncomfortable about. I’m sure some people could mistake—or even go as far as to fake—having such a condition. But that’s not the vast majority. Besides, no one can diagnose from social media posts, even if they can experience that different existence in the first place. On the flip side, when faced with the reality of neurodiversity, some people resort to harmful misinformation like “everyone is a little autistic”—merely to invalidate a neurodivergent existence.

Let me also mention the obligatory celebrity neurodivergent people to assure you that we are equally valid participants in society and civilization. Since neurodivergent people are as diverse as the rest of humanity, we also have positive and negative examples. Well-known neurodivergent people include Temple Grandin (animal scientist and author), Sir Anthony Hopkins (Oscar-winning actor), Simone Biles (Olympic-winning gymnast), Emma Watson (actress), Greta Thunberg (climate activist), Dan Harmon (screenwriter and producer), and… sigh Elon Musk (entrepreneur and questionable social media personality). Further, there are numerous historical figures who experts believe were neurodivergent based on evidence from their lives. These public figures include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and Nikola Tesla.

It makes me profoundly sad whenever I think about how many generations upon generations of neurodivergent people struggled their entire lives without ever knowing why or how to articulate their existence. There are some horror stories from history where—even before the hatefulness of Nazis—entire cultures persecuted suspected neurodivergent people out of ignorance. Therefore, given a chance, I didn’t want to ignore the opportunity to discuss neurodiversity.

It’s a complex landscape. There certainly are a lot of topics to talk about. A couple of paragraphs in this post hardly qualify as an introduction. I certainly want to write more about these topics in the future.

In the meantime, if you take one thing away from this post, please let it be to practice kindness and solidarity when someone says they self-identify as Neurodivergent/Autistic/ADHD/etc. If they are willing to face the unjust social and cultural stigma of self-identifying as one, receiving that in reasonable good faith is the smallest possible gesture of basic human decency, regardless of your own neurotype.