April is Autism Awareness month. You’ve probably seen lots of social media posts with colorful puzzle pieces and blue filters — those are great for getting people’s attention and reminding them that there are people out there who are a little bit different than you. I wonder sometimes what people who aren’t close to autism think about all this fuss. I mean, if you don’t know someone who is on the spectrum, does it really matter if you ‘support the cause?’
I think it does. I think that most people don’t realize that life is truly lived on a spectrum, and while not everyone is on the same spectrum, we do live close enough beside each other that our struggles and challenges spill over and affect others. Likewise, our challenges and successes can affect others, too. You see, we may not all be on the autism spectrum, but we are all on the human spectrum, and that’s important.
If you’ve never heard the word ‘neurodivergent’ before, let me introduce you. Neurodivergent is a term generally used to describe folks whose brains function somewhat differently to those of ‘neurotypical’ people. Neurotypical people are the ones who behave ‘normally’, the ones whose brains aren’t posing their owners constant challenges in our everyday world. While these two terms are useful for medical professionals trying to decide whether someone’s brain might require them to need extra help, I can’t help but think what most people see when they see those two terms compared. Neurotypical sounds an awful lot like ‘normal,’ and neurodivergent doesn’t.
I get that we humans like our labels. I mean, we label everything from our genders to our food flavors and some labels definitely serve an important purpose. But labeling humans seems a little wrong to me. Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of a ‘neurodivergent’ child that I take a little offense to people thinking that she’s anything other than ‘normal.’ What is normal, anyway? Who gets to decide which behaviors are normal and which are not?
Quirks and differences are what make each of us unique, as do our abilities. My daughter is considered to be ‘high functioning’ and she is, in many ways. However, her brain makes it impossible for her to react the same way that many other people do to sudden changes in her environment or emotional state. For example, if she gets upset, it can be extremely difficult for her to calm herself down, despite having had years of training to learn how to do so.
If you don’t know my daughter is on the autism spectrum, you might not understand why she ‘overreacts’ or becomes so anxious in certain settings. You might compare her to other teens her age and say she’s ‘abnormal,’ but I don’t think that’s doing anyone any favors. Is that putting pressure on neurotypical kids to act the way society dictates and not the way they naturally feel inclined to act in stressful or challenging situations?
I’m not a psychiatrist. And I know that these terms bring some level of comfort for some people. I personally know parents of children who are much more severely affected by autism, ones whose children don’t speak, or who can’t communicate. I also know that there are other neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders that don’t get as much attention as autism. It saddens me to think that all of these neurodiverse kids are considered odd or something negative when we don’t truly understand why their brains work the way they do.
Maybe these ‘conditions’ are part of the evolution of our brains. Maybe they’re genetic blips that are occurring while nature tries to figure out what the next level of ‘neurotypical’ should be. I’m not really sure why some people’s brains behave differently or if there is a benefit or detriment to this. But I do know that every single person falls on that neurodiverse human spectrum and we ALL deserve respect and happiness. Maybe if we try a little harder to understand those beautifully diverse minds, we might be able to understand our own a little better, too.