Neurodivergent vulnerability?

How often do strangers/acquaintances raise the subject of your ‘vulnerability’, or ‘needs’ without your invitation? For those openly neurodivergent among us, I’d wager (based on personal experience) that it happens fairly often — usually upon a casual disclosure of our divergence.

Most of these strangers/acquaintances mean well: they might be signalling acceptance of our potential struggles, and/or offering their assistance. They want to be good, helpful people, who are sensitive to other people’s realities. They might believe that our disclosure means that we are seeking something from them: help, assistance, understanding, pastoral care, support, and so on. They want to show that they have heard our ‘request’. But very often no such request for support has been made. What’s more, our realities are often assumed rather than understood, daily issues and/or triumphs are erroneously attached to our neurodivergence, and we are often left with a sense that all we are to that person, the moment they learn of our difference, is somebody who needs their en/abled heroics.

Here’s the thing, though: we never needed their heroics. A casual disclosure of neurodivergence is not a request for accommodations, and even a request for accommodations, or a behavioural signal of unmet needs, is not a request to be viewed as a pastoral concern, a project, or somebody in need of rescue.

Just disclosure…

Most often, when I casually disclose that I am mad and/or autistic I am not requesting care, support, or understanding of my vulnerabilities or needs (and I am also not offering to educate the other person). I am simply ‘coming out’ with an aspect of my identity, which seems relevant, or which I feel like sharing. I am not confessing high levels of neediness or vulnerability. I am not inviting others to use this part of my identity to elevate themselves to the status of en/abled rescuer, or superhero. I don’t want pity, disbelief, stories about every person with my condition the other person ever met/read/saw a film about. I just want to be a part of a conversation in which I am open about my life, in the same way that somebody who is LGBQ might bring up a same-sex partner/ex-partner. Asking for accommodations differs from disclosing, but it still does not require pity, sympathy, explanations, comparisons to others, or en/abled heroics.

Disclosure followed by request for accommodations…

When I ask for accommodations, I am simply asking that the environment/situation which enables a majority also enables me. En/abled people generally don’t need to ask for accommodations, because their needs are copiously, unquestioningly met. Their human neediness has already been recognised as the default. They might not notice their needs as much as mine, because they do not have to ask/pester/beg for them to be met. Requesting accommodations simply means that I am requesting access/respect as an equal member of a space or conversation, not that I need you to be my mum, babysitter, therapist, analyst, support worker, or… hero!

When I am behaviourally expressing an unmet need…

There are times when I have disclosed neurodivergence/it has been disclosed for me, and am unable to ask for accommodations (for example, when I am nonverbal, and have no access to alternative means of communication). This requires neurotypical people to access the kind of empathy that I access all the time when they (non-verbally) assume I know what they need. For example: when I recognise, without being told each time, that cultural norms around communication matter to allistic people, and so I perform to the best of my abilities what they need. I have been self-educating since childhood to understand neurotypical people without their explicit instruction. When neurotypical folk do not automatically understand my needs, it is not a sign of my inherent vulnerability, or relatively higher levels of neediness; it is a sign that they need to step up, and put some work in, considering my needs as equally important to their own, and provide me with a means of communication, if they have resources for this which I lack.

But vulnerability/weakness is not shameful, why are you ashamed of being vulnerable?

I’m not. There is nothing inherently wrong with being weak, or vulnerable – we all are weak and vulnerable creatures. But my struggles do not signal a special or exaggerated vulnerability or weakness. When I struggle (which I do!) living as a neurodivergent person in a society which is preoccupied with ‘norms’, and which is not designed with me in mind, this particular struggle does not define my vulnerability. True, I am more likely to be abused, attacked, oppressed, patronised, and so on, than somebody who is neurotypical, all other things being equal. But this signals not a special vulnerability in me, but a special dehumanisation of people like me. It does not render *me* more vulnerable, but it renders somebody else more vulnerable to attacking me, discounting me, or invalidating me, because of their need to normalise a divergent human being. Neurodivergence does not make me inherently vulnerable, it makes me an inherent threat (to normalisation).

Seeing myself as a special threat, rather than as especially vulnerable, helps me to appreciate that I have the power to disrupt oppressive structures simply by being, and this reminds me that en/abled people need me just as much as I need them. Fear of difference, the need for ‘norms’/to ‘normalise’, is a condition which opens our societies to a whole host of societal problems, including racism, colonialism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, ableism, and so on. Neurotypicals need us (possibly more than ever) to be a special threat to the status quo. Additionally, if we are ever to break out of the neoliberal hellscape which we all currently inhabit in the ‘west’ – where the ‘free market’ drives almost every aspect of governance, work conditions, and welfare provisions – then neurodivergent disruptions are essential. Neurodivergence provides a needed challenge to the idea that our primary value is the use capitalism can make of us. A lack of ability to comply with what a  system demands (i.e. people who fit the capitalist worker mould), is a gain for the community’s ability to resist. This is one heck of a threat, and partly explains why so much money goes into researching how to eliminate us, or else cure us of our divergences.

Finally, I want to leave a special note to my neurodivergent siblings, who are daily patronised by en/abled people:

All of evolution in human societies (both biological, and social) relies on variance which disrupts the current norms. Sometimes the variance dies out, and sometimes it doesn’t. And we are not dead yet. Remember that you are as strong, if not stronger, than those who would be your heroes.

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