The definition of neurodivergent
Neurodivergent is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of people whose thought processing, cognitive function and behaviour differ from the ‘normal’, or neurotypical brain.
It has been described as a ‘disability’ because of the challenge of being different in the modern world and as a brilliance, thanks to an ability to hyper-focus and a couple of famous associations like Leonardo da Vinci and Steven Spielberg.
Not every neurodivergent person is an extreme. Indeed, neurodivergence might share an umbrella term, but the similarities can end there. Diagnosis can include the better-known autism and ADHD as well as the lesser-known dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia and many more. Some traits and sensitivities or difficulties will be similar, but every overall experience of neurodiversity will be unique and needs to be treated as such.
The importance of individual experiences
The differences between neurodivergent experiences are as important as the similarities. Yet, unfortunately, one of the most common responses people get when sharing that they are autistic is, ‘But you don’t look autistic.’ Whilst many may mean it as an attempt to compliment, it can feel like they are saying, ‘Wow, you mask so well that you fit into my neurotypical world, and I hadn’t realised anything was different about you.’
Just like not all blondes have blue eyes, not all neurodivergent people struggle to make eye contact, prefer to avoid people or any other stereotype you have heard. The difference is that neurodivergence is invisible, so in order to understand neurodivergence you have to take the time to understand each person’s unique lived experience.
It can take a lot of trust (or desperation) for someone with a neurodivergent diagnosis to open up and share what our world feels like. And believe me, we have already compared ourselves to others with the same diagnosis and wondered why we aren’t the same. Indeed, it may have taken us a long time to accept the diagnosis ourselves. What we need from you when we share is a listening ear, a willingness to try and understand, and the reasonable accommodations we might be asking for.
A better way to respond
I won’t pretend it’s always easy to override the societal programming, the desire to find connection or the kind intention behind pretending we are the same.
Sometimes it seems kind and inclusive to believe we ‘fit in’. But as Brene Brown says, ‘true belonging insists we be who we are’. Fitting in simply means assessing the situation and working out how to behave. Fitting in can be challenging, and it takes constant vigilance, which is exhausting for a neurodivergent brain. Belonging, or being accepted exactly as we are, on the other hand, is liberating. With that in mind, here are a few examples of how common phrases feel to a neurodivergent person and some better alternatives.
|What is said
|What it feels like
|You don’t look autistic. (We know you mean it kindly.)
|No one believes things are different inside my mind. Maybe it’s just me?
|Thank you for sharing this with me. Please let me know if I can support you in any way.
|But you’re nothing like my autistic nephew. (We understand he’s the only experience you’ve had with autism.)
|It must be me, I’m weird, even for an autistic person.
|My nephew has autism, but I know everyone experiences it differently. Can you tell me what it’s like for you?
|Don’t be silly. It’s not that bright in here. (Is it ever kind to say ‘silly’?)
|Gaslighting – being repeatedly told that what we experience with our own senses is wrong can leave us feeling we are the ones exaggerating.
|I understand. I like it this bright because it helps me read. *Suggest a compromise solution*.
|We all have a bit of ADHD, don’t we? (Perhaps in an attempt to connect or make our diagnosis more recognisable?)
|If everyone else experiences this sometimes, what is wrong with me that I can’t cope as well as them?
|I’ve heard ADHD affects everyone differently. What is it like for you?
Neurodivergence and masking – the real reasons we ‘fit in’
There are usually two reasons a neurotypical and a neurodivergent person look, act, or seem to think the same way. Either the neurotypical person is undiagnosed as neurodivergent (if you think this may be the case for you – please see your GP about getting a diagnosis), or the neurodivergent person is masking to fit in.
Masking is a way of behaving the way you think you should so that you ‘fit in’. I can personally feel completely overwhelmed and stressed to the point of being physically sick on the inside, but 99 times in 100, you won’t see it on the outside. I will keep that mask of confidence and calm on while I am out in public. You won’t see me break down.
But once that door closes at home, it’s a different matter. I might shut myself in a quiet room for hours to recover or take a long silent walk with my dog. As an adult, I can usually manage that tension with healthy techniques. Children are also excellent at masking; it’s why they can seem ‘normal’ at school but have a complete breakdown at pick-up. Of course, everyone masks in public to a degree, but in an ideal world, no one would have to mask to this extent.
So please do believe us when we tell you how we are experiencing the world. It’s hard work masking all the time and we really would rather belong than fit in.