Neurodiversity is Not An Autism First Movement And Cannot Be Autism Exclusive

Disclaimer: this post is about my personal experiences with the neurodiversity movement. If others have more positive experiences, please point me in the direction of those communities. I would love to find them.

The concept of neurodiversity originated in the autism movement, and was created by an autistic person (from the research I have done, it was created by Kassiane, although as an internet term it’s a little bit difficult to know who was the first person to ever use it). Most everything I’ve ever read about neurodiversity is written by an autistic person or is focused on autism acceptance. Few mention other neurodivergences by name.

Ableism is unfortunately incredibly common, but for some reason I see a disproportionate number of conversations about ableism circulating around autism, and when people are accused of not understanding or being comfortable with neurodiversity, it’s nearly always that they have not respected autistics or their needs well enough. This first came drastically to my attention a year or so back when an autistic writer got into it with Rebecca Watson over using the phrase “too stupid to breathe,” (and apparently additional comments, although no one has been clear to me about what those comments were). It ended with Rebecca asking that writer to leave the site.

Many people have criticized Skepchick of being ableist since then, but for some reason no one brings up the fact that nearly every writer on the network has some combination of depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, ADHD, dyslexia, or a personality disorder. There are many writers who write openly and often about those issues on Skepchick (including yours truly). IT is of course possible for a place to include many neurodivergent individuals and still be ableist, but it seems odd to not address those neurodivergent individuals when asking if the place is welcoming to them or not.

Note: none of this is to speak one way or the other on how that incident went down. It is to say that many other writers who are neurodivergent were blatantly ignored in the conversation. I find it telling that none of them have autism but do have mental illnesses or learning disabilities.

I’m incredibly grateful to autism advocates for starting this movement. What I’m not ok with is the way that any form of neurodivergence other than autism seems to disappear in discussions of the movement. Sometimes learning disabilities or ADHD get a shout out, but despite the fact that I am deeply enmeshed in the movement, I still find myself unsure if mental illnesses “technically” count as neurodivergences. But if anything is a sign of your brain working a little differently, chronic anxiety, depression, or a personality disorder has to be it. And if the neurodiversity movement wants to be serious about accepting and supporting all diversity, they have to be willing to accept those whose brains changed over time, not just those who were born that way.

I am multiply neurodivergent. I only found out this month that I am autistic, and still have not talked publicly about it very much. I have never felt welcome in the neurodiversity movement. I often find that my experiences are talked over by folks with autism because mental illnesses occupy a hazy status in the movement. Some people don’t want to be associated with them because they are more clearly “broken” or “disordered” than autism. That is not ok.

If someone doesn’t understand autism or isn’t willing to make certain adjustments for autistic individuals, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not they have been strong supporters of folks with other neurodivergences. And I understand that doing well many times doesn’t fix messing up. But why aren’t we even talking about it?

The latest incident happened over at The Mighty. They posted something fairly shitty, people called them out on it, they took it down and apologized. I feel like it should have been an open and shut case, because they took full responsibility for a lapse in judgment and did what they had been asked to do. But instead, people started jumping on the ‘fuck you Mighty’ bandwagon. Now there have been a number of criticisms, some of which seem really legit (way too much inspiration porn, not enough people getting paid) and some of which I have issues with. Namely that many criticizers say that the Mighty is prioritizing parental voices over the voices of people who are autistic and disabled, and that they don’t post from people who actually are disabled.

Which is, to be honest, bullshit. The post that fucked up in the first place was written by an autistic. I write for The Mighty and I am clearly, openly, someone with not an NT brain. The one place on the Mighty that does seem to be parent dominated is autism articles, but if you look at the mental health writing it is primarily by people who have mental illnesses. For some reason that all gets ignored and talked over by the people who say that we need to have platforms for people with disabilities.

You don’t get to ignore the voices of people who don’t agree with you and act as if their identities don’t exist because they aren’t how you express your identity. There are autistic people on The Mighty who are parents and post those Mommy Blogs you hate so much. And those people are still autistic and they still have a place in the autism community. There are people on The Mighty who post useful, interesting information about how they deal with their mental illness or disability. They count as part of the neurodiverse community that we’re aiming for, even if they aren’t autistic.

And that’s true of a lot of sites that are criticized for being ableist. Other disabilities, especially things like depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or eating disorders, get ignored. Sites are criticized for not listening to disabled voices when the people being criticized ARE THEMSELVES DISABLED. This is mind boggling to me, as the neurodiversity movement purports to be helping all people who aren’t neurotypical.

If you want to have a conversation about the right and wrong ways to talk about and approach disability that’s fine. But when your criticism is “you’re not listening to disabled people and you’re silencing disabled voices” you better make damn sure that you’re not talking to any disabled people because you have just erased their identity. And I see that happening over and over in incidents when neurodiversity advocates are calling out ableism.

There are important criticisms to be made of a variety of sites that host parents of people with disabilities or even people with disabilities themselves. There is such a thing as internalized ableism, and it’s important to call out things like inspiration porn or sites that host more parents than individuals actually affected or parents sharing personal information without a child’s consent. We should talk about these things. But those sins are not the same as silencing disabled voices. They are about balance and how all people (including neurodivergent individuals) tell stories about disability. And more often than not, an organization is not all good or all bad. It is more and more common for a site to be hosting mentally ill individuals writing about their own experiences but focusing on parents instead of developmentally disabled folks. That’s a dynamic we should be talking about.

But I do not feel welcome in the neurodiversity movement when the (very real) criticisms about autism parents are allowed to eclipse any writing that I may do or the fact that there are boatloads of neurodivergent people speaking up about their (not autistic) experiences. Those experiences just don’t always match up with what neurodiversity advocates think they should be, and they often aren’t about autism. There needs to be space in neurodiversity advocates for all kinds of neurodivergence. The movement cannot prioritize the needs of autistics over anyone else. I recognize that the focus on autism comes from a history of abuse, but autistics aren’t the only ones who have lived that history. Neurodiversity movements need to do more work to accept and support the diversity part of  neurodiversity.

I want to love the neurodiversity movement. I just don’t see it loving me back.

Neurotypicality Is Not the Goal

Disclaimer: the person and tense in which I write in this post change throughout because I found myself fairly distressed trying to figure out who I was speaking to. Basically if you’re anyone who has any influence over someone who is neurodivergent and their treatment, pay attention.

Earlier this week I posted about some of the downfalls of ABA and was rightly called out on the fact that I forgot to include one that is incredibly important: ABA often pushes autistic people to behave more “normally” just for the sake of being less autistic.

This is a larger issue than just the autistic community. This affects everyone who is neurodivergent or mentally ill in any way. Because while the goal of therapy is ostensibly to help people live content and healthy lives, many therapists often forget that what they perceive as “good” or “happy” isn’t necessarily what their clients want. That means that acting neurotypical often becomes the goal. This is especially true for kids or other populations that can’t easily advocate for themselves, like people who are nonverbal.

Think for a second about treatment for people with autism. This is one of the easiest examples to use, because many “autistic” behaviors are very visual and obvious, but don’t do any harm to anyone. That includes things like hand flapping, spinning, or rocking. Many treatment plans include a goal to decrease these behaviors. Why?

Well there might be a few reasons. If someone is in school it’s true that these things can be distracting to other students. But NOT doing them is distracting to the student with autism. So why do neurotypical needs get prioritized over neurodiverse ones? And some stims aren’t even distracting but are still seen as bad because they make the person look different.

There should be one guiding principle in all treatment: has my client communicated that this behavior is something that makes their life worse? VERY occasionally this comes with the addendum that if a client can’t see that something is harming them you still might need to try to get rid of the behavior, but I can only see that applying in physically dangerous cases like self harm, extreme caloric restriction, purging, drugs, etc.

But the point of therapy isn’t to “cure” people. It’s to make them healthy. Healthy is not the same as normal, and often doesn’t mean living without any kind of mental differences. Healthy means that you can live your life in the manner you like and mostly achieve your goals. It means your life is the way you would like it to be, at least in the really big ways. Most if not all people who deal with any serious neurodivergence do that while also continuing to live with their neurodivergences, because a brain that is wired for anxiety or depression or OCD or a personality disorder doesn’t stop being wired that way. At best a person can hide it.

Hiding the way your brain works and trying to behave in ways that are counter to the way your brain works is painful and unpleasant. So again, let’s go back to the goal. WHY do you want to change a behavior? Is it because differences make you uncomfortable? Is it because you think that it must make the person unhappy? Is it because you think it’s making their life more difficult?

I have two words for you: communication and consent. I think many treatment programs forget to communicate with the client. Because that communication can help you find out why someone is doing something. What purpose does it serve? Do they like it? If so, leave it alone. If not, you still need to help them find a way to serve the same purpose. And if your client doesn’t want to change something then you don’t get to decide for them. Just because someone is neurodivergent or mentally ill does not mean that they cannot make their own choices, or that they don’t have preferences, or that they can’t tell you what upsets them and what doesn’t. Your perception of better or worse is irrelevant.

Being “normal” does not necessarily mean better. What is important is making sure that people are doing things that make them happy, that aren’t held back by their brains, that they aren’t hurting. It’s to give people the best life possible, which does not mean the most neurotypical life possible. It means a life that makes THEM happy.

Now of course for some people sticking out is unpleasant, and if they don’t like being different then by all means it’s no problem for their treatment goals to include looking more normal. But consent is the basis for all of this. Do not try to change someone’s brain without their consent. That’s called manipulation and it’s abusive and cruel and unnecessary.

The end goal isn’t neurotypicality. It’s happiness and fulfillment. It’s a life that someone with neurodivergence likes. What providers miss when they prioritize neurotypicality is that they might be actively hurting someone finds it easier to behave in a different way. If you need to stim and you can’t, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes painful. If you have extreme anxiety and socializing outside of your social circle is intensely anxiety provoking, it makes sense that you’ll want a small, close group of long term friends instead. If those people are forced to behave like “normal” people, they will be less happy and less capable of functioning.

This is why providers need to learn to ask questions more often: what do you want? Why? And then they need to learn to give their clients the time and space to give informed consent to their treatment. Even people who are non verbal. Even people you assume can’t understand. They still deserve the basic respect of having their desires for their life heard. Always. And your assumptions about what makes them happy are not more important than what they actually want, even if that means they’ll look autistic or anxious or delusional for the rest of their lives.

Some Problems With ABA And The Way We Talk About Autistics

Disclaimer: a content warning for nonconsensual treatment. This post represents my views alone and not those of my employer. I am not autistic, but as someone working for an autism organization I am striving to listen to their voices.

As part of working in the autism world, I’ve been spending time reading and learning about various therapies used to treat autism. There is quite a bit of controversy in the autism world about just about everything, but one of the most controversial therapies is called Applied Behavioral Therapy. It is an evidence based therapy that is considered the gold standard by many treatment providers. It is also considered abusive by many people who actually are autistic.

After spending a class delving in depth into ABA, I understand many of the criticisms that autistics bring to the table, and I want to signal boost some of the problems that I saw in the class, things that apply to many of the ways we talk and think about autistics in general, and things that seem as if they could easily be remedied in order to access the positive elements of ABA (because there are some elements of the therapy that rest on solid and respectful principles).

Let’s start with that. The underlying principles of ABA as they have been explained to me rest on the idea that every behavior has a function, and if you believe that a behavior is not helpful to someone, you have to give them another way to fulfill that same function. This seems like a really good principle. If someone is engaging in self injurious behavior, or their life is being impacted by their behavior negatively (they can’t socialize but they’d like to, they can’t get out of the house, they’re having a hard time getting a job and would like one), it makes sense to help them change that behavior. But it’s also incredibly important to make sure the person isn’t left without their coping mechanisms entirely and has support to fulfill their emotional, physical, and social needs.

Unfortunately that principle appears to get lost really often.

What also gets lost is that any time someone is being treated for anything they need to be an active part of their treatment. Whether they are verbal or not, “high functioning” or not, they need to have some way to communicate their consent and acceptance of the treatment. I actually heard an ABA practitioner say that you might be working with people who “aren’t capable of consenting.” I don’t think it’s possible for me to state NO to this sentiment strongly enough. Consent is not something that is exclusively verbal. It happens in all kinds of ways. It is very, very obvious when non verbal folks don’t consent to treatment, and if you think you’re allowed to continue a treatment after your client has had a meltdown, started crying, started screaming, tried to run away, or tried to hurt you, then you clearly have no respect for the way that your client is withdrawing consent.

What really frustrates me about ABA is that it doesn’t seem to consider the person whose behavior is being modified an equal and active participant, nor does it recognize that they are the expert on their mind and life. It doesn’t take advantage of their knowledge base and attempts to bypass that really important source of information in the process.

In one class that I was in, the presenter spent three hours discussing ABA and behaviors, and only at the end of the session did they mention you could ask someone what they were trying to communicate with their behavior or what they might want to do. One story they told included the fact that they had never just simply asked their client to change the behavior, and instead had tried to motivate the person in all sorts of behavioral ways without making it clear to the person what they wanted and why.

Even when we are talking about behaviors, we have to remember that a part of human behavior is communication. Sometimes that is verbal and sometimes it comes in the form of behavior, but we can communicate with other human beings. Writing off the importance of that communication for helping us understand the behaviors of autistics is a way to continue othering people who are neurodivergent, and for us to ignore what they want and need.

This leads me into the next point: people with autism are people. Just like any other person, they will have preferences. Sometimes there isn’t any deep, important, mental illness scarred reason for liking one way over another. If you get preferences so do they. That means when they tell you “I don’t like this,” you respect their preferences. Unless there is a serious reason that their preference needs to be overruled (e.g. they will only ever eat pizza and it is causing a serious health concern), then there’s no reason to ignore their preferences. Don’t tell me you can’t tell if they’re communicating preferences to you. You know what non verbal communication looks like. You can figure it out. People with autism communicate and it’s not something to be ignored.

What really gets my goat about the way neurotypicals talk about people with autism is that they act as if someone with autism would never have preferences about their treatment, or about the things they find helpful or not helpful. There always has to be some underlying REASON, like “I’m not a visual thinker” or “I had a bad experience with it,” instead of it simply not resonating. One example that I heard of this was when someone asked why one person might not like the 5 point scale, or why it might not work for them when it worked for someone else. The instructor’s response was that they might have had a bad experience with it in the past.

Think about that. If two people are taught the same skill in school and one of them finds it helpful and the other doesn’t, do we assume that it’s because one of them had a bad history with it? No. We probably assume that people are different and sometimes one method of learning is helpful to one person but not helpful to another person. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the method or with the person, just that they don’t mesh.

People with autism get preferences. Most especially they get preferences when it comes to their treatment. It is really hard for me to fathom how a treatment system that rests on the concept of reinforcing positive behaviors does not focus at all on communicating with the individual to understand their preferences, desires, and aims. How can you use positive reinforcement if you don’t know what the person wants?

At this point I don’t know if ABA can fix the problems that so many autistics have talked about, or escape the allegations of abuse. What I do know is that for treatment of autism to move forward in a positive way it has to do so with the full consent of the people getting the treatment. If that means our first priority is researching how to community, then so be it. Autistics already have ways of communicating. As providers are so fond of saying, every behavior is communication. Why are we so bad at listening then?

ETA: Thanks to Benny Vimes for pointing out that another huge problem with ABA is that it’s often used to push autistics to behave in less autistic fashions, e.g. making eye contact or reducing hand flapping. I will probably write further about this in another post, but hand in hand with the idea of consent is the idea that there needs to be a reason to treat someone. There is NO reason to change a behavior if the person who is doing it doesn’t want to change, unless they are actually literally hurting themselves right now. There is NO reason to force allisticness on someone who doesn’t want it.

Consent and Neurodivergence

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but are neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.

Disability: Being Broken

Much of the time I feel broken. A fair amount of the time I don’t simply feel that way, I’m told that I’m that way. Not overtly, no, but in the way that people talk about mental illness, the way that people talk about people who don’t have good jobs straight out of college, in the way people talk about women who have experienced any sexual trauma…these things tell me that I’m broken. I once had a friend tell me that he could never be the parent of a disabled child because you would sink your whole life into them and they would still be subpar. As someone who has multiple birth defects and major mental illness, that fucked with me.

I’m told that I need to fix things about myself. I need to be less judgmental and more accepting. I need to stop reacting so quickly and harshly to things. I need to make my anxiety go away, and make my depression go away. I need to change how I feel about the world and myself, change how I perceive everything in order to be “happier”. I’m told that I need to change myself, fix myself, retrain my brain so that it’s different from what it is now and so that I behave differently in order to be whole and acceptable. I have been bribed and threatened by people who are well-meaning to get me into therapy to “fix” me.

And I now work in an autism program. And I hear the same kind of language. I’ve been reading blogs about autism and hearing about the ways that children are asked to ignore their own perceptions, feelings, and understandings so as to act in a way that is acceptable to others. I have begun to understand that in many ways, people to help those with autism still view autism as a disease that infects someone, a broken piece of their child that needs to be banished so they can have the real child back.

That’s how I feel when I talk about my eating disorder. People have literally told me to view the disorder as something separate from me, almost like it’s possessing me, like it’s broken and if I can just fight it away then I will be back and the disease will be gone. I’ve been broken or taken over by this bad thing, but if I could just get past it, throw it away, change it, then I would be normal and ok again.

Except that that’s not how mental illness or disability works. The way someone who is autistic views the world isn’t broken: it’s different. What is broken is the way that we treat those who see things differently or act differently. We expect them to move 99% of the way towards what we view as normal so that we can be comfortable, and then we make a 1% accommodation to adjust to them. We don’t allow that some people might be far more happy if they were allowed to act and think in a way that is radically different from the way we do.

As an example, I will always be more comfortable thinking in terms of my own safety and trying to avoid things that will be triggering for me: I will probably never be able to spend much time in a kitchen making food on my own. I will never cook for others. I will always feel more comfortable if others will simply accept what I say about my disorder and don’t question my experience. I will always feel more comfortable if I can move my hands when I’m anxious, or if I can twitch a body part when I have too much energy. Asking me to stop that doesn’t make my anxiety go away: it simply gives me no way to deal with it.

To take a more extreme example, for a lot of kids with autism, they have extreme sensory sensitivities. They can hear or feel things you or I never could. So they may never feel comfortable being in crowded or noisy places. And that doesn’t mean their broken. It doesn’t mean we should force them to deal with those situations. It means that we should accept what they can deal with, accept how they perceive as legitimate.

Instead of asking those of us who might perceive or experience the world differently from you to force ourselves into mental contortions so that we can look and act the way you might expect, maybe people should consider that we’re not broken. There is absolutely nothing broken about the fact that my brain likes to organize things A LOT, and thus it tends towards black and white thinking. There are useful elements to this and unhelpful elements to it. Telling me that it’s wrong will not make it go away, and even if I COULD stop acting in a black and white fashion it wouldn’t necessarily make me happier.

Making adjustments so that I can have time to think before jumping to black and white thinking, or encouraging me to rely on it in areas where categorization is useful but giving me some other tools to check it in my personal life: THOSE are helpful. They don’t try to fix me. They don’t tell me I’m broken or wrong in any way or that if I could just be more like other people or adjust my thoughts and my life everything would be ok. They do tell me that since I function differently than a lot of people I might need some help fitting myself and my perceptions into the larger scheme of things. Society is set up for the “norm”. It’s not set up for me. Which means I need some help getting myself to fit into the way society works. I need help functioning sometimes. But I can do that and still not give up the pieces of me that others view as broken. I can retain my mind and simply try to shape self and world to fit together.

Neurodivergence. We diverge from the norm. We’re not broken. We just fit differently. And it’s not all our job to make ourselves the right shape to fit into society, because sometimes we’re not that flexible. Sometimes society has to be flexible as well. I don’t want to feel broken anymore. I don’t want people to tell me I’m broken anymore. I have some more work to do to be able to function and to fit myself to society, but so do most people. I want that to be ok. I want it to be ok if I’m at a party and I say that I have to leave because it’s too noisy for me or because people are talking about diets. I want it to be ok if I show up to a party wearing fuzzy footie pajamas because I had a rough day and I need the sensory calming (see me up there in my onesie? That was the best party I’ve ever been to). There is nothing WRONG with these things. They don’t make me unhappy. What makes me unhappy is when people can’t accept that that’s how I cope. I am not a problem.