The vast majority of advice and support available for neurodivergent people is geared towards helping us to change, get around, or exploit how our minds work. Sometimes that’s useful – but it’s not enough. We need to imagine a future where every kind of mind can flourish.
When you find out that you’re neurodivergent, after the initial shock of discovery has worn off, there comes a point where you have to start looking to the future. So you go online, read a whole bunch of stuff, maybe find a friendly support group – and if you’re lucky you might even get some help through your job, your school, or your doctor.
You’re hoping for… what? An answer? A solution? Some peace, after years of struggling to understand yourself? But all the advice, support, information, therapy, coaching, workshops, and interventions you find inevitably point you to one of three approaches to neurodivergence:
Hide it, hack it, or hawk it.
Option 1: Hide it
Much of the advice and support that is available to neurodivergent people, often from the moment of diagnosis, is geared towards helping us successfully fit in – or assimilate – to a neuronormative culture.
Obvious examples include interventions or tools that involve some kind of behavioural modification, such as ABA or apps that ‘train’ autistic people to increase eye contact. These are common in institutional environments such as schools (and some workplaces), where there is a heavy focus on consistency, conformity and compliance.
The ‘hide-it’ approach isn’t always punitive – it can also come framed as self-help – for example, in the form of magazine articles about how to have a socially acceptable conversation when you have ADHD.
Of course, it’s human nature to want to avoid being marginalised, and many of us hide our neurodivergence by masking – both consciously and unconsciously – either all the time or in specific situations.
This kind of assimilation has been used throughout history by all kinds of oppressed minority groups to escape the stigma and prejudice that can accompany a ‘less-than’ status – if you can ‘pass’ as a member of the dominant majority, you’re less likely to get picked on or rejected.
But as we know from research into the harms of LGBTQ+ identity concealment, as well as from the experiences described by many of the mixed-race Americans who ‘passed’ as white between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, denying or hiding a fundamental part of ourselves can lead to profound feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Sadly, for many neurodivergent people, the risks of depression, burnout, and even suicidality often seem less pressing than the immediate desire for social, emotional, and psychological belonging.
Autistic activist Lyte Moon described neurodivergent assimilation into neuronormative culture is a kind of ‘Faustian deal’ – it may offer great rewards in social currency, but at what cost to our spiritual integrity?
Option 2: Hack it
The ‘hack it’ approach is a bit different. Instead of hiding your difference, you work with it. In the same way that you might hack a piece of technology that doesn’t quite operate in the way you want it to, you can ‘hack’ your neurodivergent brain to get the result you want.
This approach is found in a lot of books, videos, articles and blog posts on how to ‘hack your brain’ or ‘trick yourself into productivity’ and includes techniques such as body-doubling and habit-stacking.
It also includes any kind of medication (whether prescribed or not) that can help you to operate in a more neurotypical way, as well as most of the accommodations that you would expect to be made by schools and employers (such as extra time for exams or deadlines, the use of headphones or fidget toys, added flexibility of workspace, and so on).
The end result is essentially the same as for the ‘hide it’ approach – you might go about it in a different way, but ultimately the aim is to ensure that you continue to meet and adapt to neuronormative expectations.
The ‘hack-it’ approach can be genuinely helpful – especially after a lifetime of chaotic overwhelm. But while giving a fish climbing equipment might help it to climb a tree, it will never address the fact that fish simply aren’t meant to climb trees – they’re meant to swim.
Option 3: Hawk it
The ‘hawk-it’ approach involves commodifying and commercialising your neurodivergence and using it to your advantage – including through sales of neurodiversity-related products, content, and services.
While the ‘hawk-it’ approach arguably represents an innovative solution to neuro-exclusion, it also attracts plenty of criticism – including via mainstream editorials questioning the legitimacy and value of neurodivergent content creators or self-employed ADHD coaches.
Of course, it’s not just neurodivergent people themselves that can use neurodivergence for financial gain – plenty of employers do, too. Indeed, employees with certain neurotypes are often specifically sought by organisations where stereotypically neurodivergent traits such as pattern-recognition, creativity, and attention to detail are highly valued.
The commodification of neurodivergence for commercial gain also underpins what has been termed ‘neurodiversity-lite’ – the appropriation of the neurodiversity movement by brands trying to sell more stuff by engaging in a kind of performative virtue-signalling.
This is the same dynamic that sees brands changing their logo colours for LGBTQ+ Pride month, or ‘celebrating’ International Women’s Day, while simultaneously perpetuating inequality for the rest of the year.
While the ‘hawk-it’ approach can sometimes feel like getting one over on the system, ultimately the commodification of our neurodivergence both maintains and reinforces the very system that harms all of us.
Choosing a different way
Each of these three approaches has its merits in a world that, like it or not, is overwhelmingly set up for the neurotypical majority.
But what if there were another way? A way of existing that would allow us each to fully inhabit and express our true, neurodivergent selves?
The good news is, it does exist – and to find it we must look to the neurodiversity paradigm.
There are so many misconceptions about what neurodiversity actually means, and so many people and organisations that claim to understand it but whose ideas are deeply rooted in the pathology paradigm.
However, once you look past all that and find the voices of the many scholars, activists, philosophers, psychologists, researchers, therapists, and others whose work is informed by decades of autistic self-advocacy, underpinned by disability theory, and intertwined with other social justice and civil rights movements, the truth begins to emerge.
As neurodivergent people, we are encouraged to ‘hide it, hack it, or hawk it’ because framing any kind of disability as an individual deficit enables the wider system to continue to operate unchallenged. It allows everyone else to feel better about maintaining the status quo, because what can they possibly do about something that’s your problem?
Embracing the neurodiversity paradigm doesn’t mean denying, or fixing, or exploiting our neurodivergence. It means accepting that how we are currently doing things is simply not working – that the very systems, structures, and processes around which we have constructed our modern reality are failing us all.
Changing this is not a simple solution, and it’s not something any of us can do alone. It won’t happen overnight and it will require collaboration, solidarity, and collective imagination. But I believe it can be done, and I know there are plenty of others out there who think so, too.
So next time you come across someone trying to work out how to approach their own neurodivergence, you can gently remind them that there are more options than to hide it, hack it, or hawk it.
Because learning about and understanding the neurodiversity paradigm – and engaging with the vast neurodivergent community that exists around it – is the only way we can create a truly neuro-inclusive world.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. To work within a system, to play by its rules, inevitably reinforces that system, whether or not that’s what you intend. Not only do the master’s tools never serve to dismantle the master’s house, but any time you try to use the master’s tools for anything, you somehow end up building another extension of that darned house.”From ‘Throw Away The Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves From The Pathology Paradigm’ by Dr Nick Walker (2011)
***EDITED TO ADD: This quote is taken from a piece written by Dr Nick Walker, originally published as part of a collection of essays in the book ‘Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking.‘ However, as a couple of people have flagged it as a misattribution, I wanted to clarify that Dr Walker’s essay quite openly draws upon and celebrates the work of Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian feminist writer and activist. In 1984, Lorde delivered a seminal speech titled ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house‘ at the New York University Institute for the Humanities conference, in which she emphasised that we cannot solve problems of oppression working with the tools of a system of oppression. It is this speech that Dr Walker is referencing in the essay I have quoted here.***
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