Imagine a future in which neurodivergence is understood in a similar way to how queerness is perceived today – as a fundamental characteristic of identity that affects the way the world is experienced by a significant minority of the population.
After all, being neurodivergent is part of who I am, in the same way that being queer can be part of who someone is. And, just as there is no singular, definitive test for queerness; no irrefutable gene or biomarker that can predict in whom or in what way it will manifest, the boundaries of neurodiversity are messy and imprecise.
In a world that demands order through labels and categorisation, this can be incredibly frustrating. But change is possible, as the rich history of LGBTQ+ activism demonstrates. Within a single generation, we have seen seismic shifts in the traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality, resulting in a new, more inclusive social landscape in which many queer and gender non-conforming people have found both space and acceptance.
I believe that a similar shift in understanding is possible when it comes to neurodiversity. Through a combination of education and activism, we have the potential to create a world where ‘being neurodivergent’ doesn’t mean ‘being less-than’, and where neurodiversity is embraced and celebrated in a way that doesn’t simply reinforce existing prejudices.
The right to know ourselves
Everyone has a right to know who they are. When we know ourselves, we can make more informed choices in our lives; we are better able to recognise and pursue opportunities for fulfilment and to deal more effectively with the people and situations we encounter.
Conversely, a lack of self-knowledge leaves us open to errors in thought, action, and judgement. This is something that will resonate deeply with those of us whose own neurodivergence was revealed later in life; who experienced years of frustration and confusion at school, at university, at work; as a friend, as a parent, as a human being.
Like many, I spent my formative years assuming that what everyone told me was right: that I was both lazy and careless. It took more than 30 years and a near-catastrophic emotional breakdown to discover that actually, I’m neither of these things – I’m just neurodivergent.
Unsurprisingly, low levels of self-acceptance are widely considered to be a significant risk factor for adverse mental health outcomes. But how can we even begin to accept ourselves without knowing something as fundamental as the way our own minds work? The question of whether we are neurotypical can only be answered if we understand what that means.
This is not only a philosophical issue. The trauma from years of shame and self-blame, for what – in the absence of any other evidence – are so often interpreted as moral failings, has tangible effects on long-term emotional health, including intolerance of subsequent setbacks.
Changing the conversation
It’s easy to conclude that the solution to this problem is increased screening, followed by swifter and more accurate diagnosis. However, this is not necessarily the (only) answer.
The way we talk about and react to neurodiversity also matters. Studies of university students with ADHD and learning difficulties have shown a significant link between self-acceptance, self-compassion, and the ability to self-regulate learning, while other studies reveal that ‘minority stressors’ such as discrimination and internalised stigma predict poorer mental health in autistic adults.
While diagnosis is currently (and is likely to remain) a useful tool to empower many neurodivergent people, truly changing the status quo is going to require a fundamental evolution of mainstream attitudes and social systems – in the same way that the concepts of gender and sexuality have been challenged in recent years by queer activists and communities.
A call to neurodivergent allies
I’ve always identified strongly with queer culture, despite being a cis-het normie when it comes to gender and sexuality. This affinity has always been a quietly supportive one – I’m aware of the risks of appropriating or gatecrashing a community to which I can only ever claim to be an ally.
However, as I learn more about the parallels between neurodiversity and queerness, my confidence in how they are socially, ideologically, and politically linked has grown. I’m finding that, as is so often the case for those with neurodivergent minds and non-linear thought processes, my initial instincts were bang on.
Given the sheer scale and breadth of change that is required to create the world I want to see, I know that it’s impossible to do it alone. But I also know that there are many others out there who feel that same way I do. My own journey towards this world is just beginning, but I hope those friends and allies I find along the way will agree that it’s surely one worth taking.
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