Saturday, September 19, 2015

There's No One "Right" Brain in Neurodiversity

Growing up autistic in a non-autistic world often meant feeling perpetually alone. Once I knew I was different, I felt separate from everyone else and nothing would ever make me like anyone else.  I felt no one would ever understand me, much less help me shed my shitty self-esteem. If no one else was like me, how could anyone "get" me? And no matter what I was ever told by anyone, I felt that being autistic was akin to being lesser. Being autistic meant being more trouble to everyone else. And worst of all, being autistic was wrong.

In other words, I really, really wish I knew about neurodiversity a lot sooner than I did.

Neurodiversity is a fairly easy concept - just like there is diversity in race, religion, ethnicity, sexual, and gender, there is a diversity in human brains and minds. The differences in neurological configurations, in neurodiverity theory, are just as natural as the differences in the aforementioned areas and should be treated as such. Neurodiversity can be enriching in accepting communities and societies, but in reality is often met with prejudice and hostility by pervasive ideas of there being only one "correct" way of being, acting, and thinking. So just like any other minority group, those with neurodiverse/neuroatypical brains (ex. ADD, OCD, Downs syndrome, autism, intellectual disorders, mental illness, etc.) must be afforded the dignity, rights, respect, and accommodations that the majority enjoys.

Needless to say, neurodiversity advocates there's no "right" brain everyone must have.

There's a radical acceptance that comes with the concept of neurodiversity that I find is hard for people to get on board with. Common thinking of the neurodiverse brain - particularly intellectual and developmental disorders - is deficit-based. We look at those minds and focus on the abnormalities and challenges the disorders present, putting the problem on how the neurodiverse person who doesn't act "normally". This deficit-based focus, often called the "medical model" of disability, limits how we see the neurodivergent into seeing them as a individual "problems" and as "wrong". And in a world where we all face pressure to be "normal", anything that doesn't look like a socially acceptable/appropriate response to any stimuli freaks people out and they jump to the negative conclusion and a view that the "inappropriate" response should be "fixed".

What gets left out is looking how society at large presents problems for thosewho are neurodivergent to operate. The appropriately titled "social model" of disability looks at how societal attitudes, systemic barriers, and social inclusion/exclusion foster a world where the neurodivergent struggle to fit in. This includes reactions to behaviors deemed "abnormal", who is presumed to be the experts on neurodivergent conditions, and how neurodivergent people do and are "allowed" to participate in their outside communities. Just like racism is a systemic problem affecting every part of life for people who aren't white, the social model of disability argues society and systems are the biggest challenges for the disabled more than their presenting conditions.

Think of it this way - a person in a wheelchair needs to get into a building that only has stairs to its entrance. The medical model says the person can't get into the building because of the wheelchair limiting their mobility. And the social model says the person can't get into the building because the building didn't think to install a ramp for people like that person.

I feel as though my life has been lived out in between those models. There's no denying that I had personal troubles in how I experienced the world - my late social readings and development, perpetual anxiety and depression, and frequent meltdowns as a child did not help me in adjusting to the world. Self-improvement in behavior and socializing has been necessary for me to cope with all of that. But the world didn't make my life any easier - I've had teachers and fellow students gave me a hard time whether through ignorance or downright callousness. My family and I were in a constant battle to get accommodations throughout my life from one-on-one aides from elementary to high school to supportive social environments. I've been let go from jobs with little to no explanation. And throughout it all, I felt as if I was the one under pressure to conform to everyone's expectations and that world at large would never give me any the help I needed.

But I've had the fortune to see what happens when society and systems do accommodate and accept me as I am. For the few teachers were rough on me, I had a lot of teachers who saw my strengths as a student, particularly my history and English teachers, and both encouraged me in school and advocated for me among my fellow students. (I actually wouldn't have taken AP classes were it not for hearing through the grapevine that my ninth-grade history teacher wanted to recommend me for it.) Being allowed to live on campus during undergrad provided me some relief as I went through classes. The social work program at grad school was more than willing to help me through course overload by spacing out my academic tenure and allowed me to create my own internship at my future workplace. Said workplace also has accommodated and supported me in giving me breathing room with work while encouraging me to pursue community and leadership opportunities. The friends I've made have stuck by and supported me throughout everything, from my good moments to my bad times. And all of this was possible because people were able to see that it was worth accommodating and accepting me as I am.

If there's anything I have learned about neurodiversity, it's that there isn't a "correct" way for someone to successfully operate in the world. Yes, people do have their own struggles that come with a neuroatypical brain. Many everyday things are hard for us. But with the right supports, services, and opportunities, anyone can live a great and fruitful life. All that's needed is a societal acknowledgement that it's alright for neurodiverse people to exist and be included as a whole. I've seen it work in my own life, so I don't see how we can't move forward with acceptance.

Let's get rid of pathologizing neurological differences and start giving us neurodiverse people a chance. I know it seems hard but as John Lennon once wrote: "it's easy if you try." So let's all just give it try. There's no harm in trying.

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