Comment: Don't just celebrate neurodiversity – support people

Marianne Eloise digs into the struggles of neurodiverse individuals when the world of work caters to only one type of brain.

Marianne Eloise is a writer based in Brighton, UK, who writes about TV, wellness, digital culture and music. 

In recent years, I've come to quite like my weird little brain. Despite that, I can't help but feel a little cynical watching people discover the ‘benefits’ of having people like me around.

Microsoft's director of inclusive hiring and accessibility recently said that, by not hiring autistic candidates, businesses were ‘missing out on an untapped talent pool’, while a report by professional services company Deloitte in Canada stated that autistic people ‘can help close the talent gap’. Some – not all – of these articles do acknowledge that when hiring neurodivergent people, employers will need to make accommodations. However, they also give the impression that people under the broad ‘neurodivergent’ umbrella are an untapped resource – a well of out-of-the-box thinking that could transform any corporation.

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first coined in the nineties by sociologist Judy Singer. Initially referring to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and now covering other pathologized neurotypes (types of ‘brain wiring’), neurodiversity is the idea that differences in the human brain are natural. This way of thinking is revolutionary and controversial. It dictates that, as an autistic person with ADHD, I'm not broken or in need of a cure. People who think we do need to be cured often loudly disagree with this model.

What makes me different

In April, my first book, Obsessive Intrusive Magical Thinking, was released. It's a collection of essays on the obsessive thoughts that I've always had, in part because of my ASD. Those obsessions are both good and bad, from my special interests to the fixations and compulsions that formed my OCD. I'd never have been able to write my book without working with clients who nurture and appreciate my differences and allow me the space I need. Writing it also allowed me to examine a lifetime of living with my neurology, forcing me to be kinder to myself about the things I struggle with, to see the good and the bad and to know that I'd have neither if I weren't autistic.

Being autistic, of course, comes with challenges. My neurology is different from a non-autistic person, and my sensory differences can make doing normal things very difficult. I am, however, capable of having deep and powerful special interests, and bottomless empathy and curiosity – which make me who I am. My approach has made it possible for me to write full-time for a living, after struggling to mesh with traditional schooling and employment. I'd be lying if I said there weren't times that I wish I were different. Those moments, however, pass quickly when I realize that my good traits are inextricable from my difficulties.

However, it's a little grating watching people finally realize that our differences are what make people like me essential. For my entire life, they've not been celebrated. Throughout school, my degree, my master's and traditional employment, I was often bullied and admonished. Despite doing well at the things I enjoyed, I struggled with the rigidity of school and broke rules I didn't understand. As an adult, I learned I couldn't do a single thing sitting in a loud, bright, open office for eight hours a day. I felt the space viscerally, never recovering when I got home and losing the ability to speak. In other environments I could write and read for hours, consumed by what I was doing but, by failing to do so in an office, I felt I'd failed to be an adult. 

Flexibility, space, understanding

I went freelance a few years ago – not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't cope in an office environment and couldn't find an employer who would help me to. The drive to employ people like me often fails to take into consideration what we need – flexibility, space and understanding. We might need different ways to communicate. Autistic people have an employment rate of 21.7% and, while some can't work or don't want to, many others could if we weren't so misunderstood and unsupported.

People who think differently are not only normal, but exceptional. Small businesses, the music industry, entertainment, science and art are just a few of the areas dominated by unique people, some of whom are neurodivergent. But acting as if we're a resource, rather than human beings who often need disability accommodations, is unrealistic and cruel – it leads to crushed and burned-out people, whose differences have been taken advantage of without allowing space for replenishing their resources.

A common narrative around disability that echoes in conversations around ASD is that we're ‘more thanour condition’. It's well-meaning but, for me, it's not true. Being autistic impacts everything about who I am, how I experience the world, how I work, how I love and how I engage with people, animals and objects. I'm an autistic person. When people acknowledge only the positives, they often ignore the things I need. My sensory challenges have been an inconvenience to employers, teachers and friends who want the good without accommodating the reality. 

Don't ignore our needs

I'm glad we're finally being recognized, but treating all neurodivergent conditions and people as homogenous without recognizing the accommodations each individual needs is only going to hurt us more. We're necessary and we need support, not only to benefit society, but to thrive in our own lives. It feels cruel to see people recognizing us only when they can see our benefit – some of us will never work. Some of us, like me, can do things only when our differences aren't treated like a superpower, but as a disability in need of support. The narrative that we're somehow superhuman is well-meaning, but it ignores our needs.

A recent article in online publication VICE by Shayla Love examines the misunderstood neurodiversity movement, coming to the conclusion that it's OK to accept some parts of your neurology and to want to treat others. I don't want a cure for ASD – it's integral to who I am – but adapting the way I work to fit around the challenges it presents has changed my life. I hope that employers start to offer that to people who want to pursue full-time employment and that we can still support those who don't.

I like my brain, but it needs space and support to exist in a world that isn't set up for me. We can and do have a massive impact on every single industry, but we shouldn't have to for our humanity and needs to be recognized. We've always been here, changing the world by seeing and experiencing things in ways that a neurotypical person might not. Recognizing us should include acknowledging that our hard work often comes at a great cost and that it's only possible if people understand the reality of our experience as human beings.

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