Being Neurodiverse in a Neurotypical World

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A few years ago I watched a television series called “Dexter.” The show features a man named Dexter who is a sociopathic serial killer who specializes in vigilante justice–as he only targets other serial killers who the legal system fails to catch. Because of the intense and gory nature of the show I certainly can’t endorse it for everyone, but I was riveted for all eight seasons. Why? Because I felt such a strong connection with the main character, Dexter.

“We all think like that”

One feature of the format of the show is that you get to hear Dexter’s thoughts–a lot. So you hear how he processes what is going on around him and how he carefully selects how he will respond to the people and environment around him. Dexter knows that he is a sociopath and that he does not feel what those around him do. So he mimics their responses and often will think through various options, finally settling on the one he perceives would be the most “normal” for that situation.

When I noticed this I was overwhelmed. I recognized my own patterns of interacting with people around me. Similar to Dexter, I find that as I walk through the halls at work or when I am at the grocery store, I am less present in the moment and more of an observer in my own head who is calculating and choosing the most valid responses from a menu of options.

Because of this connection I soon convinced myself that I was a sociopath like Dexter. I was so distraught that I confided about this to my best friend. He understood what I was getting at, but encouraged me to not worry about it because he had seen me feeling genuine emotions, and as he said, “we all think like that.”

The thing about my friend is, he has ADHD. I knew that at the time. What neither of us knew then is that I also have ADHD.

It was about 2 years later that I found that out. And as I learned what it meant to have ADHD and what it meant to be neurodivergent, my heart broke for myself and also for my friend, and for the rest of us neurodiverse folks out there. Because we often do think like that.

The minefields in our path

The unwritten rules and expectations of society are spread across our paths as a minefield. We don’t know when we’re going to cross one of these and end up facing a major life consequence. When we do happen upon one it can be devastating as we are embarrassed personally and/or professionally. Sometimes it’s just a minor slip-up but we’re confronted with it and don’t have a good answer for breaking the rule we weren’t aware of.

I can’t count how many interviews I’ve had that seemed to go well but then I wasn’t hired. One job in particular I remember being very worried about as it would have been a major promotion. I bought a suit. I practiced my responses to commonly asked questions. It was an interview with me and about a dozen people on the committee. It went amazingly well but I didn’t get the job. I was told I was “too polished.”

WHAT?! I thought the whole point of interviews was to BE polished?? To be the professional with the right answers, who shares their sound decision-making as they work through your practical scenarios. How is “too polished” a negative?

But I’d stumbled onto a hidden mine–broken an unwritten rule. They could see the careful preparation and selection of answers and interpreted it like I’d gotten access to a key and cheated on a test.

I found another mine when I was let go from a job some time ago. They threw a lot of reasons out for letting me go. One of them is another good example of this. See, I struggle in long meetings. And as part of this job I was expected to attend long meetings…a lot. Once a week we met as a leadership team first thing in the morning. This is a really tough time of day for me to be sitting still for so long. To help me focus I developed a habit where I always take notes. It forces me to pay attention and also gives me a written record to look back to, as my short-term memory is terrible.

The day in question was just like this. Morning meeting. Two hours or more in length. I can’t remember exactly but I know I took many pages of notes that day. I was later confronted about appearing aloof, uninterested, and not paying attention to what was said in the meeting. Showing my notes from the meeting in question made no difference. I had broken another unwritten rule, stepped on another mine, and was soon looking for another job.

These are two simple examples but they represent a lifetime of struggle. I could fill a lengthy memoir with stories of stepping on mines like these from my childhood to the present day–as I’m sure many of you could too.

So what do I want my neurotypical peers to take away from this?

My brain works differently than yours. I don’t necessarily perceive or interpret what you do even when we’re in the same place at the same time. I don’t get to take anything for granted. There isn’t a single interaction with another human being that I don’t have to stop, however briefly, to consider the appropriate response to. It. Is. Overwhelming.

If I am approximating a social expectation and still not meeting it, that may be me stretching myself to my absolute limit, and I need some grace.

Others have exploited the difference in how I think and act my entire life. Sometimes for personal gain. Sometimes to poke fun at my expense. Sometimes to intentionally hurt me socially, emotionally, and even physically.

So you’ll have to forgive me if my default is to hide my true feelings behind a mask of indifference or a wall of jaded humor–or if I take additional time to respond to the routine question or greeting you’ve just made.

Your world is not safe for me. There are mines all over my path and I’ve been wounded enough to know to be wary so I proceed with caution. Though at times that caution combines with anxiety to freeze me in my tracks completely.

When I felt connected with the fictional Dexter I thought it was because I was also a sociopath. In reality, I simply recognized the immense amount of unseen effort that it takes for a neurodivergent person to navigate through a world designed for neurotypicals. I recognized much of my own struggle, which I would not fully come to understand until I learned that I had ADHD.

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Video: Why I believed my therapist when she said I had ADHD

In this video I share what went through my mind and why I believed my therapist immediately when she told me I had ADHD. If you liked this video, please click to subscribe to the ADHDsurprise YouTube channel and share the video with others!

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How to retrain your brain to focus on positivity

2020 has been quite the year for pretty much everyone. Our lives have been dramatically changed and we are bombarded with negative ideas and images on social media and in the news almost constantly. And this year, perhaps more than others, it’s been with good reason. There is plenty of negative to go around. But when we’re focused on negative, we tend to see more negative. We will recognize it all around us and it will color everything that we do.

Before we move on, I think it’s important to note that we are facing an ongoing worldwide pandemic as well as other major unresolved societal problems. This post is not meant to diminish or downplay the impact that these are continuing to have on our lives. The purpose of the post is to help break negative thought patterns and mindsets and replace them with positive ones. Our creative minds work best from a position of positive or neutral rather than negative. So if we’re going to come up with solutions for problems we face, whether local or global, shifting our mindset is important.

Seeing new patterns

Have you ever noticed when you buy a new car that all of a sudden you start to see that make and model seemingly everywhere? I’ve got news for you though, that many people didn’t just start driving the 2005 Toyota Camry when you did. Those cars were always there. But when you researched for and purchased one, you became very familiar with its shape and design. And now that it’s yours, you’ve trained your brain to recognize it so that, among other things, you can find it in the parking lot after you’re done shopping!

In the same way we teach our brain to recognize a new car, we can train it to recognize positive things. And this can be done very simply and with very low effort, but it needs to be done every day in order to work.

It’s all about gratitude

What happens when you stop to think about something you’re grateful for? You’re recalling a positive memory right? Something that happened that made you feel good. So not only did it make you feel good when it happened, it made you feel the same way again when you remembered it.

Retraining our brains to focus on positivity is as simple as this. Take 30-90 seconds per day and name 3 things that you’re grateful for from that day. That’s it.

This can take many forms, so it’s up to you what you find most suited to your needs and what you find sustainable. One of the best ways I’ve found to sustain it is by finding others who want to do it too. Here are a few ideas that range from independent to large group:

  • Pick a time to quietly reflect alone
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Text it to a friend
  • Share around the dinner table with your family
  • Set up a group chat or post to a group
  • Post it to social media

At first it may seem tough to come up with even just three. But if you make a habit of this by doing it daily, soon your brain will be trained to find positives everywhere, and you will have a hard time choosing just three. Give it a try and see the difference it can make in your life, especially in troubled times like these.

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I first found the idea for this post from Shawn Achor’s wonderful book, The Happiness Advantage, which I will review in a future post. If you’re interested in the book already, you can buy it here. I don’t make any money from that and I’m not affiliated with it in any way. It’s just a great book full of ideas like this one!

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