Hello! My name is Magnus. I am 20 years old. I was diagnosed with ADHD at 19 and with Asperger’s syndrome at 20. I am hesitant to apply the word “disabled” to myself, but I fully approve of the term “neurodivergent”. Still, I’ll call it disability for the sake of this article.
Being neurodivergent refers to having a brain that functions in ways that are significantly different from the dominant social “norm”. (The opposite – having a brain that falls within social standards of what is normal – is called being neurotypical.) This kind of disability is often deemed “invisible” – as in, not immediately obvious from taking one look at the person. Many disabilities can be invisible: deafness, chronic pain, fatigue, brain injuries, developmental and learning differences. A visible disability can be seen from a distance, e.g. someone using a wheelchair, walker or other assistive device.
This “invisibility” has been with me for most of my life, as you can guess from the age I was diagnosed at. But even being diagnosed won’t save you from ignorance at a wider social level.
A part of me has issues with the invisibility rhetoric. The invisibility is certainly real. However, at least in the case of autism spectrum conditions, I believe that people overlook them not because they are truly invisible, but because most people have no idea what they actually look like. The stereotype of an autistic person is someone who doesn’t talk, doesn’t socialise, is an “idiot savant”, can’t take care of themselves. Of course, such people exist, but everyone is different. Just because I am good at languages doesn’t mean I don’t struggle in social situations and don’t get overstimulated. Just because someone else may, for example, enjoy noisy environments and be good at small talk also doesn’t mean they are not autistic. For me it is fairly easy to spot other neurodivergent people – the signs are there if you know what they are. I don’t know if one has to be a member of the “tribe” to do that.
Really, it was always evident. After all, both autism and ADHD start to manifest in childhood. But it’s not even that people don’t see the neurodivergent traits in me – on the contrary, they often point it out. However, they don’t attribute them to me being neurodivergent. Rather, they write them off as laziness, rudeness, even as a personal slight against them. Or just… “weirdness”.
My biggest problem with being autistic comes from sensory sensitivities. Autistic people perceive the world differently from allistic (non-autistic) people. Some senses may be amplified, others numbed (even both at the same time!) A common problem is a lack of a sensory “filter”: instead of focusing on what is important, your brain perceives everything at once. This is something I constantly have to deal with. Imagine being at a pub with your friends and hearing every single conversation and background sound, unable to redirect your attention, hardly able to follow what your friends are saying. It’s exhausting, it’s anxiety-inducing, it’s almost painful.
Then there is ADHD. I couldn’t possibly count all the awkward, uncomfortable and straight up awful situations I have ended up in due to it.
“I’m sorry I forgot to wash the dishes for a week.” “Sorry, I forgot to pay this bill”. “Darn it, I forgot to vote in the election!” “How could I not know if I got paid for this job or not? Haha, I’m just a little disorganised, you know…” “I know I didn’t call you for 3 months… I kept forgetting, you see”. Doing a test at school and realising that you just stared at the paper for 10 precious minutes. Handing in countless assignments last minute. Arriving to an important interview last minute. Packing my suitcase as I am about to move to another country, last minute (clothes still damp from the laundry). Once I missed my flight home from a foreign country because I got too engrossed in drawing something and forgot the time, and ended up living with people I met in a pub for 2 days. (At least it makes for interesting stories to tell.)
I could go on: there is extreme emotional sensitivity, there is social anxiety, there is low self esteem after years of being told to “just try harder”. Every little decision is overwhelming. Living in general is overwhelming.
But none of that matters… because in the eyes of some people, including my father, ADHD is, in fact, not real – merely a made up condition. What can I say to that? Apparently me wearing headphones at concerts and film screenings is nothing but rude and unacceptable – “see, no one else does that! Everyone else’s senses can adjust to sounds, what do you mean yours can’t?” “Why do you do everything so slowly?” “Why are you not keeping track of your money?” “Why are you fidgeting constantly?”
Even when given a clear reason “why”, such people won’t believe it. They will accuse you of displaying symptoms, then refuse to acknowledge the very condition that is causing them. There are also people who have a vague idea, but don’t truly understand it – ranging from university professors organising “seminars” of 50 people in the same room to close friends who still want to meet at the pub and not a quieter place. Even other neurodivergent people sometimes disregard my sensitivities due to theirs being different.
Neurodivergent people can thrive in an environment that is right for them. We are explorers, innovators, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs. The world would lose a lot without us. I strongly believe that a more accepting society is key to accessing this potential. In order for that to happen, we need to be listened to, and we need to speak up. Becoming aware of the simple fact that everyone lives in a different world can go a long way.