What do you think of when you hear the term “neurodiversity”? Perhaps you imagine someone on the autism spectrum or someone with ADHD. Maybe you think it’s just another fancy way to put a positive spin on a disability. A friend of mine recently told me that every time I say “neurodiversity” she hears “nerd-university” in her mind. To be fair, she also considers herself to be part of that geeky institution. Since neurodiversity is a topic of which I claim to have some expertise, I thought it fitting that I clarify what it means to me.
Before I share my spin on neurodiversity, let’s have a look at its origins. The term was first offered by an Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, in 1998 as a way to encourage social acceptance of “neurological minorities.” The original neurodiversity movement focused primarily on people on the autism spectrum (or Aspergers). These days, neurodiversity has become a fairly mainstream concept used to describe all manner of brain flavors from autism to ADHD to dyslexia to bipolar. Basically, if there is a biological basis to the uniqueness of the mentation, that is neuro-diversity. Is it good? Is it bad? The term “neurodiverse” doesn’t have an opinion. It simply acknowledges that, biologically speaking, there is a wide range of ways that brains function.
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Why do I use the term neurodiversity? Mostly, I like the word because it is an efficient shorthand to communicate a general idea. If you are, or suspect that you are, ADHD or autistic, you have probably given the word some thought. Maybe you patently disdain how the medical industrial complex insists on making anything out of the norm into a disorder. Then the concept of neurodiversity might be even more attractive to you. Indeed, Judy Singer made a pretty cool contribution to how society perceived us sparkly brained people. As creative as I am, I can’t think of a better term to describe the box, hmmm… the box of not fitting in a box.
What does neurodiversity mean to me? The answer to this question changes. Sometimes, it means I have a superpower that allows me to see all concepts connected to all other concepts. I see infinite permutations of ideas and possibilities in the time it takes to absentmindedly slosh my coffee down my hand. At other times, neurodiversity means that I am rendered catatonic because one too many inputs have occurred in the same day. At these times, I wish my brain had a control-alt-delete function. Sadly, “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on,” does not work with brains. Neurodiversity can mean playfulness, creativity, authenticity and joy. But it can also mean struggle, mental paralysis, masking my quirks, and frustrating myself and others.
Maybe some of you are asking yourself, “How can Heather present herself as a so-called ‘expert’ when she still has these struggles that come with being neurodiverse?” That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked. Somewhere along the line I figured out that I can shine the light of the positive aspects of my neurodiversity directly upon my challenges. Playfulness and creativity are excellent tools for problem solving. For instance, I’ve learned that giving myself extra time and space to free my mind of noise in order to access my creativity leads to greater efficiency. It reminds me of Lightning McQueen in Cars learning to drive left to go right. It’s counterintuitive. But, yes, I do nothing in order to do more. I come up with unique solutions that simply aren’t available when I’m trying to force things.
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Let’s talk about authenticity. It’s tempting to try to hide when I am struggling. I don’t want people to doubt my ability to keep my agreements. Here’s the trick, though. I’ve learned to only make agreements that I am certain are within my capacity on an average functionality day. Part of having a sparkly brain is having days in which I am *exceptionally* functional. I am not trying to brag. There are days when I feel expansive and capable. I can do two weeks of work in 24 hours. The danger is in making choices that would work for Super Heather, and then expecting Sluggo Heather to produce results. Authenticity means that Super Heather remembers that Sluggo Heather might show up at any time and makes agreements accordingly.
Authenticity is a process that we work towards, not a final destination. We improve by learning about ourselves and then working in alignment with that knowledge. Here’s another example of how I apply authenticity to managing my challenges. When I am scheduling social activities, I am familiar with my limits. Indeed, I have bowed out of an embarrassing number of activities in my time due to being beyond my social budget. These days, I can make a fairly accurate prediction of what I can realistically show up for. So when someone asks me to do a social, I check in with my energy levels, my schedule for the week, and if I am nearing my limit, I explain that I don’t have the social budget. People who know me know that I am careful with my integrity and that my word means something. Am I quirky? Sure! Do I maybe share more about myself than others? Probably. Do people know that they matter enough to me that I authentically communicate my capacity with them, certainly!
These strategies, and many more, have emerged from a lifetime of trial and error. I have also learned from my neurodiverse clients. It is important to note that what works for one person, might not work for someone else. That’s where coaching can be an invaluable resource for neurodiverse professionals. My clients and I conduct experiments and apply our collective gifts to create strategies that bring out their best. What does neurodiversity mean to you? What tools have you learned to adapt to your own nature? What challenges do you still want to overcome?
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