I was reading my stories and one of the questions was from a parent whose daughter was clearly neurodivergent. The letter writer realized it and as soon as the daughter’s teachers suggested it, they jumped all over it. The problem was their husband. He was adamant not to do it because of the stigma of a diagnosis and because he felt it was the easy way out. Their daughter needed to buckle down and fit in, basically. And his spouse needed to accept they (the spouse) was doing parenting wrong.
My hackles went up for so many reasons. Before I get into that, however, I do want to acknowledge that stigma around neurodivergency is real. There is a lot more awareness of the issues these days, which is a good thing, but there are still plenty of people who see this awareness as coddling. The world is cold and harsh, they would say. Kids today are too soft! They need to learn the world won’t always cater to them. Which, yes, the world is, indeed, cruel and they have to know that they will be viewed as different. However, the answer is not to pretend the neurodivergency doesn’t exist and force the daughter to act ‘normal’ whatever that means.
I spent most of my childhood bewildered and frightened because I was so different from other kids. Not only was I Asian, I just didn’t think the way other kids did. I tried to emulate them, but I felt as if I was trying to speak another language without having any lessons in it. I was miserable and my efforts to fit in fell flat. It didn’t help that my parents were first generation immigrants so they didn’t know the culture any better than I did. I was sensitive enough to know I was doing everything wrong, but I didn’t have the tools to make it better.
I became aware of death when I was seven. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it ever since (well, until my medical trauma). I started feeling suicidal when I was eleven. I developed eating disorders when I was eighteen. I have suffered anxiety and depression all my life as well (again, at least until my medical trauma). I hate clothing. I can see you thinking, “Wait, Minna. What does that have to do with the other stuff?” I didn’t realize until much later that I have sensory issues. Like, severe sensory issues. Bright lights bother the hell out of me as do loud sounds. It can be literal agony to have too-loud music or too-bright lights. Clothing is another issue and I have to keep it really simple and basic. I am allergic to almost every scent on the planet as well as many foods and alcohol to boot. I basically need to live in a bubble is what I’m trying to say.
In addition, my brain doesn’t think in a normal way, either. Over the years, I have found a way to make it seem like I’m a normal person, but it comes at a severe cost. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to live alone–it’s hard to keep wearing that mask all the time. I’ve known almost all my life that I’m a freak. I didn’t know why for the first thirty years. Then, I started to realize that it wasn’t that something was WRONG with me, but I was definitely different. I still couldn’t put any label on it, but I had my suspicions.
I had been told I was oversensitive all my life. It’s true that I am exceptionally sensitive, but I don’t like slapping ‘over’ onto it. More to the point, there isn’t anything I can do about it. Or rather, I can put up a shield and wall it off ,but it’s still there. Taiji has helped me contain it, for which I’m exceedingly grateful. However, I’m like Bruce Banner when Captain America tells him he might want to get angry right about now. He glances over his shoulder with a wry look and says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry” before Hulking out. I’m always angry, too! But I’m also always feeling everyone’s emotions. It’s just a matter of degrees.
It was when I hit my forties that I realized I just might have ADHD. I never considered it before because the stereotypical description of it (a young boy who can’t stop moving around, a bundle of energy whose attention flits from this to that to the other thing. Someone who can never be on time) didn’t fit me at all. I’m low-energy and don’t move much at all. I’m definitely not male (though not exactly female, either). I’m certainly not young. I used to be more hyper-focused on things rather than having my attention divided all the time. I don’t have issues with executive function. I did eventually learn that the widely-accepted description of ADHD was only one possibility.
I don’t have an official diagnosis, but just knowing it’s a probability has helped me mentally. Another example is my brother. To me, he has all the classic signs of being on the spectrum. I’ve seen it since I was in my twenties, even if I didn’t have the vocab for it until I was older. About two months ago, I said something about him being on the spectrum. He didn’t say much; the conversation continued; he went home hours later. In a few weeks, he mentioned that conversation. He said it made so many things clear to him because he had never thought about it before. That blew my mind because to me, he fits the diagnosis so neatly. Weak social skills, not looking people in the eyes, caring not about emotions, brisk communication, not reading social cues, and being more comfortable with computers than people were just some of the traits he displayed.
I never mentioned it to him before because it was so obvious to me. He pointed out that it was obvious to me because that’s one of my special talents–thoroughly reading people. I felt bad for both telling him about himself and for not doing it sooner. Oh, in addition, one of his sons is on the spectrum as well, which is another reason I thought it was pretty obvious.
When he brought it up weeks later, he said that it had made a huge difference in his life and he was glad I had told him. It made me wish I had told him decades ago because it made him feel so much better about himself. See, he knew there was something different about him, but he didn’t know exactly what it was or what to do about it. Having that diagnosis meant that he could do his research and come up with a plan to deal with it.
Not having the diagnosis meant that he had to spend decades wondering what was wrong with him. My brother is a very successful realtor and a fantastic father to his three children. But he was left to wonder what was wrong with him because he was different that ‘normal’ people and didn’t know why.
Back to that letter. The daughter knows she’s different. If she doesn’t now (doing cartwheels while answering math problems), she certainly will very soon. And the answer isn’t that she need s to try harder to be ‘normal’ so she can fit in with the rest of society. Yes, there are things you need to do to keep within the boundaries of a polite society, but that doesn’t mean that every bit of individuality needs to be stamped out. The goal shouldn’t be to make everyone into a good little citizen of America with no notable difference from the next good little citizen. Part of what makes a society interesting is the flavor that the ‘freaks’ bring to the table.
In addition, having that diagnosis is a powerful thing. Once you name it, you can figure out how to deal with it. It validates what you’ve known all along–you’re not ‘normal’–and that’s more than perfectly OK.