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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How I Passed As Neurotypical For So Long

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The descriptors neurodiverse and neurotypical were two of the first words I encountered when I connected with the ADHD community on Twitter. If you’re not familiar with them, a couple of down-and-dirty definitions you can work from are these:

Neurotypical: describes those who have a brain that works in a typical manner.

Neurodiverse: describes those who have a brain that works differently.

Like I said, down-and-dirty. The biggest, tallest part of the bell curve is full of folks with typically-developed and typically-functioning brains. Most expectations you encounter in life, whether they be at home, school, work, recreation, etc., most of the expectations are set up with the neurotypical average in mind.

Learning those terms helped me tremendously, as they put in perspective what I was facing. My whole life I had operated under an incorrect assumption—that I was neurotypical. Given that assumption, when I failed to meet expectations I simply blamed myself. Learning that I was neurodivergent—that my brain actually works differently than others’ do—was life-changing.

When the idea of having ADHD was first brought up to me, my mind rushed back in time and immediately began identifying all of the signs I had missed along the way, and ADHD had run rampant through all parts of my life, for as long as I can remember. At that point my biggest questions were how anyone looking at me couldn’t have known and how could I have not known about my ADHD? These questions ultimately led me to the the underlying question for this post.

Covering ADHD symptoms

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 37 years old. At that time I found clear evidence of ADHD in my life going back as far as I can remember. So what gives? I’ve already addressed why I didn’t get diagnosed as a child, so today my focus is on my adult behaviors. I had developed many strategies, coping skills, and masking behaviors which effectively covered many of my ADHD symptoms and thus made it possible for me to hide in plain sight in the neurotypical world.

Pina created a comic that really resonated with me on this subject. Seen below you’ll see how anxiety can effectively lead one to mask many aspects of ADHD. Many of her shown examples are true for me as well. The thing with masks is they’re not real. They give the appearance of wellness, but they are simply covering the internal struggle.

So how did I pass as neurotypical for so long?

First, I have a lot of strengths that the neurotypical world loves.

  • Being creative
  • Starting projects I’m excited about
  • Problem-solving
  • Performance
  • Talking the talk
  • Pulling off great work under pressure
  • Helping others
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills

These help me to navigate most tough situations. When my feet are put to the fire and I’m up against a deadline (which I probably procrastinated) or a major consequence, I am doing my very best work. I am excellent at job interviews because it’s a performance. To me an audience acts like a deadline and flips that switch of unimportant/disengaged and all of a sudden I care immensely and can hyperfocus in that moment. I rock interviews.

But I also have a lot of weaknesses and/or ADHD symptoms that I have learned to cover, mask, or otherwise support or accommodate so that they are not obvious to the casual observer. Here are some of the things I have done to mask ADHD symptoms. Mind you, I was doing all of these things before I knew I had ADHD. They developed naturally as I tried to make up for or hide my shortcomings (as measured by neurotypical standards).

Things I was doing that masked or hid symptoms:

  • I was drinking 5+ cans of Diet Coke per day. Only after I learned about how stimulants interact with the ADHD brain did I realize this was actually a rudimentary form of self-medication.
  • I have carried the same fidget in my pocket for over 14 years. I have always used it when meetings get too long.
  • I rely heavily on Google Calendar to know where I’m supposed to be all the time.
  • I have taken mental health days regularly throughout my career, particularly when facing high anxiety or intense stress
  • I have used home as an outlet for negative emotions and behaviors that I simply cannot show at work without major consequences.
  • I am hyper aware of things like my phone and keys because I am prone to losing them. It’s almost an obsession to not let them out of my site or their places.
  • I take notes during meetings to help me listen to what’s being said.
  • When all else has failed, have flat-out lied to cover up symptoms.

So what does this mean for me now?

I know now that my brain works differently from neurotypical brains. So I can let go of the notion that I need to meet every single standard in the neurotypical world. Sure, there will always be some I can’t get away from or can’t make accommodations for. But I’m better about picking my battles now. I forgive myself more easily. I don’t simply get down on myself for being lazy or incompetent. I get to set my own bar.

I reach out to other ADHDers to gauge how they might respond to situations I’m in. I helped create an online ADHD support group largely for that purpose—so that when I’m not sure if the thing I’m facing is an “ADHD thing” I can quickly find out. Learning more about ADHD and connecting with others who have it has continued to be a critical part of my personal development. I also seek treatment for my ADHD through medication and therapy. By combining reasonable expectations with effective plans and meaningful supports, I find it easier than ever to navigate the neurotypical world.

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