Thursday, May 18, 2023

Neurodivergent with Hindsight

Maybe because I finally have some time to just exist without anything to plan or prepare, or maybe because I'm back in school as a student, whatever the reason, many childhood scenarios have been resurfacing, playing out in my head, and I'm all, WTF? No trigger warnings necessary - nothing like that. I was just so incredibly daft that it's amazing I've gotten this far relatively unscathed. And it makes me think of the many kids who are confused without direct explicit instruction and reasoning. 

On top of being autistic, I've also had many concussions from falling out of trees or off the top of our rickety wooden fence or from falling out of my stroller or wiping out on my bike before the days of helmets. When I was taking Neuroscience courses, every discussion of a different part of the brain brought to mind a different time I smashed my head just about there. I seemed to have zero sense of self-preservation. I remember my mom walking me out to the front lawn to actually teach me to put my arms out in front of my face whenever I felt like I was falling. She had to get me to actually practice tripping and protecting my face because somehow I didn't have that reaction instinctively. I would just fall straight forward, arms rendered useless dangling at my sides. 

And I remember arguing with my many older siblings about whether to put the shower curtain on the inside or outside of the tub. This was after I was old enough to have showers on my own, so I was likely school aged, but I still couldn't figure out which would better keep the floor from getting soaked, and even argued that the puddle on the tiles definitely wasn't my doing. My mom had to take me to the end of the tub furthest the taps and get me to peek in with the water running to show me how the water stays in the tub when the curtain's on the inside and gets on the floor when it's on the outside. Seriously, why couldn't a simple explanation suffice? That's never really changed for me. I need to see things with my own eyes to really understand them. It's likely why I love science labs so much. 

I remember covering my face if someone tried to talk to me that I didn't know, even if they were just asking if I wanted to be pushed on the swings. I'd always look to my mom as interpreter of other people's words as if I just couldn't understand my own language coming from a stranger's mouth. Now I write things down as people speak, then read it over before responding. That worked well as a teacher and trustee, but it's strikingly out of place in a social situation. It doesn't have to be! 

And I remember school, where we each had to take a turn speaking in front of the class, and I was so enthusiastic about given my speech, and baffled by everyone's total lack of comprehension. It took me a really long time to learn to speak well enough to be understood by more than just my mum. And it took many more years to stop "talking to my shoes." And then it wasn't until I was in my 40s that I realized I stare at people, and that's why people randomly think I'm in love with them or despise them. It's so complicated to count 1-2-look away while thinking of a response. Can't I just go back to looking at the ground all the time?? Then there was the teacher who whipped chalk at my head whenever it was time to shift gears from reading to math, marking me as acceptable fodder for bullying by the rest of the class, and completely unimpressed with my superior concentration skills. 

Finally, my dad, with unbelievable patience, showed me how he had to take apart the toaster to clean it every time I put peanut butter on bread and then put it in the toaster. Wha...???  I distinctly remember being told over and over, by various family members, to put the bread in the toaster first, then butter it after, and the butter (or whathaveyou) goes on easier then. But I didn't believe it without a demonstration of the mess that my preferred order of operations caused. I needed evidence.

How do so many people just know these things!?! 

I still really struggle with directions anywhere, and thank god for GPS or I might not leave the house. It's one of the reasons I avoided a car for so long: I can't get too lost on foot, but I once made it an hour past Toronto before noticing that I missed my exit. Reading signs while driving is a nightmare! I also can't easily follow a recipe without having to read it over entirely at every single step, even for something I've made many times before. And I'm that kid in class, even now, that points out every little discrepancy in instructions, like that it says the assignment should be 8-10 pages on the website, but 9-11 in the syllabus. One prof would kindly thank me for the help, but also once told me to relax about these little things and just go with it. That's not something I can do very easily because it doesn't make sense. There's a mistake that needs to be rectified so that we can know the parameters of the assignment with certainty. And I've had students who have kept me on my toes from those types of errors, and I know teachers that roll their eyes at them, exasperated. 

I forgot how much I'm like those kids on my quest for the clearest yet most precise way to communicate information when so often information is unclear. Check out this TikTok of a woman just trying to figure out what needs to be done at work, yet is often seen as confrontational or combative for needing to clarify instructions that actually don't make sense!! Most neurotypicals seem to just ignore the incongruities and do what they think someone likely means without ever asking to be sure.

My own kids have some similar issues, but none are quite so unwilling to accept verbal explanations. My oldest ping ponged through excellent and horrific teachers in alternating years, one saying they were so bright and funny, and the next calling them an absolute disaster, back and forth right into secondary school. School was something they had to tolerate because I couldn't afford to keep them at home, and the school would never agree to switch classes to get them away from some of the monsters they endured. Teachers can be so cruel, and it's so much more painful to watch as the mom that it ever was as the kid experiencing the bullying first hand. I try to soothe myself with that.

On the plus side, I'm also really bad at believing people when they tell me I can't possibly do a thing, like all the renovating and building I've done myself without really knowing what I'm doing. That's allowed me to learn all sorts of things that many others would feel out of their reach. I've also come to accept that I'll never get eye contact or tone quite right, so people will forever misinterpret what I'm saying, refusing to believe me when I try to correct them, and that just is what it is. It's why I really prefer writing. But I'll never stop being frustrated when people think that, because I can't do some things, that I'm unable to do anything, and openly berate me. We all can't do some things, I'm just more open about it, and more obvious in my differences that neurotypical people. 

Comedian Fern Brady has a great little bit about being neurodivergent:

Neurodivergent is pathological only relative to a standard, which is neurotypical behaviour. What's more common is seen as more right regardless which traits lead to greater success, like an ability to write a 10-paged research paper or mark 30 essays in one sitting. 

A couple years ago, I wrote about the difference as if ASD were the standard:

"Neurotypicals need lots of small talk with eye contact. They struggle to be alone for extended periods. They need ongoing social compliments and can reject rational argumentation as a form of decision-making. They'll often sit silently when something's going totally wrong rather and would feel embarrassed to stand up to alert others of a problem. Many autistics, by contrast, listen closely to details and remember them with a precision many NTs find annoying. They rarely talk without substance. They're often very honest and will openly express that one thing that people are avoiding, comfortably getting it out in the open. They'll also bring up problems with rules or routines that just don't make sense a, and that most people just accept without question." 

Others have done the same (here and here), also annoyed that being in the minority means being wrong

And now I'm at the stage of taking care of the costs of having kids with various forms of disability, one, an incredible artist with access to a memory bank of everything they've ever learned, which is a ton, but who struggles with a cash register. They may be perpetually unable to find gainful employment yet not be officially disabled enough to qualify for any support. I'll likely be paying their bills until I'm gone because we value efficiency over quality. 

Now that Covid (it's always about Covid) is affecting the executive functioning of so many of our children, potentially putting some of these types of differences in the majority, we need to find a new way forward that relishes the talents of the next generation despite some more obvious limitations.

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