Shame is a hard emotion to tease out, it synonymous with emotions like embarrassment or humiliation but it’s not the same- it targets the core of a person’s being. Similarly shaming and even more so the experience of being ashamed in result is even harder to tease out in our everyday actions. I grew up with ADHD that I didn’t really understand that later in life spawned a host of mental illnesses and a host of other othered experiences that I don’t have the language to describe. For what language I didn’t have to explain for internal experience I acquired inadvertently through the ways others would shame me. A lot of the identifiable shame I felt for my neurodivergence was around my productivity, my sensitivity and self maintenance things.
I was acutely aware of the expectation of what I was suppose to be how I was suppose to behave. In response I would Push myself to go past boundaries, to behave differently, to think differently, to be different than what I was. Ultimately reacting on this to be disappointed in not being able to meet this expectation as easily or at all. This is a cycle of shame I’ve experienced endlessly and in evolution with my own non-normative experience; from experiencing that sense of shame for the numbness I felt because of depression, or being to afraid to do things because of anxiety. External shaming became internal shame, largely because my experiences were not neurotypical.
Neurotypical a way of describing one way of functioning amongst many variations of being, but in our society, it is expected that everyone must fit within this norm. People who fit within the norm are described as ‘neurotypical,’ ‘neurotypical functioning’ or just simply labeled as ‘normal.’ It is this norm that sets a standard of conduct for a person’s way of behaving, functioning and existing. People who deviate from the norms of neurotypicalness are shamed, discriminated against or othered. These people and experiences are considered Neurodivergent.
In the simplest terms neurodivergent or rather neurodivergence is word that was created by the disabled community loosely describes the experience of having neurological variations that are seen as outside the cognitive norm. Neurodivergence is normally placed in opposition to ‘Neurotypical’.
The terminology and language of neurodiversity is relatively new and emergent. 1990’s autism and rights activism brought to life new understandings about the ties between autism and other diagnosis that revolved around cognitive neurological functioning.This includes those with developmental disorders, cognitive disabilities and psychiatric disabilities and potentially a host of other experiences
Here are 10 different ways in which we have normalized shaming neurodivergence in our society:
1. We shame those who don’t fall in line with typical social behaviors.
Though we all have individual ways of behaving, there is a line where distinction becomes atypical. Social behaviors happen in between people, or really any organisms of the same species. We learn these social behaviors from each other as we grow. They are a way in which human’s bond. In many ways, in our society, correct social behavior defines someone as human, and is simply called ‘human behavior’.
Failure to comply with the standards of social behavior is automatically seen as abnormal and even less human. Failure to be able to communicate socially in a regular way whether it because of anxiety, impaired communication or the inability to understand conversation is shamed. Failure to show emotions nicely or normally is viewed as ‘inappropriate’. It is this realm of atypical behavior that we at best call quirky, at harshest call crazy. This includes anything that breaks the social contract of societal norms.
Shaming affects us all but most prominently those who are simply unable to understand or abide by social norms such as those with intellectual disabilities. This reflects in our everyday conversations, snide remarks about an accidental mis-speech, jokes about a friend that may cry too often or get angry too often for our liking, or even in our discomfort around that one person who innately feels ‘off’ socially.
2. We call out their productivity and work habits.
I’ve written about this before but institutions of work, whether it be job or school, highly value productivity because of capitalism. Those who are not able to meet the pace of productivity are shamed, discriminated against or worst, cast aside. On the flipside, socially we tend to tokenize those with above typical ability or with atypical ability due to their own neurodivergence. Many people who aren’t able to keep up with productivity are shamed as lazy or inefficient. Those who are able to but struggle to keep up with workplace productivity are also often ridiculed. Disabled neurodivergent people often struggle to keep up and are forced to work harder in ways that may seem counterproductive, or unhealthy. This is because systems of work are set on a basis of standards, norms and abilities that do not match their own. Often times people displaying neurodivergence have different skills or abilities than those that are expected. Exclusionary systems of accommodations and models based on diagnosis make it even harder for people to access resources that may help them. When we call out people who don’t keep up with work, are unable to do a task, or struggle to do a task, we contribute to a culture of harm that relies on neurotypical, ablest, and capitalist expectations.
3. We mock their methods of cleanliness and organization
Sometimes neurodivergence manifests in different ways of organizing and maintaining cleanliness to different degrees, depending upon one’s ability to do so. Like anyone, those displaying neurodivergence tend to have different levels of cleanliness and ability to organize, the behavior becomes neurodivergent only when it is admonished as extreme or abnormal or dysfunctional. In some cases, these, people who hyperclean or struggle with cleaning have dysfunctional harmful habits. Other times these habits diverge from the norm but are habits that neither unhealthy or harmful. Either way when people do not meet the same norm or standard of organization that you have, shaming them is never okay and will not help either you or them in the end.
4. We yell at them for being generally disruptive or uncontrollable.
Sudden vocalizations, tics and disruptive behaviors are often uncontrollable to both the person with the behavior and the person witnessing it. These disruptions are usually met with hostility and sometimes laughter. Both responses often are hurtful. These interruptions are also often understood as signs of disrespect, comedy or irritation. When coming into contact with disruptive behaviors, instead of taking it as a sign of disrespect or a joke, instead accept the reality that like our environment, people cannot be predicted and we cannot control them. Communicating, understanding and coming to a place of common respect with that person is essential.
5. We view them as anomalies.
In viewing neurodivergence as an anomaly we alienate people with those behaviors and shame them when they do not fit the neurotypical norms. The point of neurodiversity as a movement and way of understanding is to accept the diversity of behaviors, minds and ways of functioning. In pathologizing much of neurodivergence, people are presented as an anomaly instead of a minority. People who are diagnosed for this reason often feel like there is something wrong with them or feel outcasted. In rejecting some of the medicalized perceptions of neurodivergence as an anomaly, we can gain an appreciation and understanding of neurodiversity and shift to focusing on supporting them with things they struggle with rather than focus on othering them through or because of diagnosis.
6. We police their speaking and thinking patterns.
We force everyone to think linearly, judge people by their abidance to grammar rules and discredit their work, thoughts ideas and feelings if they aren’t displayed in a way that is viewed as ‘correct’. Rarely do we embrace and allow for the diversity of different forms of speaking and communicating. In doing this we not only limit our own expression but force people who display that divergence to work twice as hard to convey their ideas or mock them when they simply cannot. The policing of speaking and thinking patterns also has very heavy racist, xenophobic and classist undertones, as those who are affected most by ism’s most often diverge from social norms.
7. We punish them for not making deadlines or meeting expectations.
Although we all must be accountable for our commitments, punishing people who don’t meet them does not address why the expectation was not fulfilled. Many of these expectations are set upon the rigidity of neurotypical ability and lack compassion. Many people who are neurodivergent may need extra time and accommodations to get tasks done. Although most schools and some work places provide accommodations for those with diagnosed disabilities (learning developmental or otherwise), many people who display neurodivergence may not even have a diagnosis or paper work at all. Even those who have a diagnosis might choose not to disclose it for fear of discrimination. Clear honest communication, meeting people where they are, providing accommodations and understanding that different abilities fluctuate are ways to remedy this
8. We normalize and use ableist slurs that target people.
Ableist slurs and words with ablest intentions are intended to shame and mock people with disabilities or behaviors people feel are reminiscent of disability. These slurs most often target people who are disabled and marginalized. Many of these words are also casually applied when people display neurodivergent behaviors. In normalizing these ableist slurs, a message is sent that disabled people and non-abidance to neurotypical norms are something to be shamed.
As long as collective shaming of disability and neurodivergence occurs through the use of ableist language, the demonization will continue.
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9. We demonize them through concepts of dangerousness.
Particularly with mental illness, there is often an assumed dangerousness associated with neurodivergence. A lot of this has to do with stereotypes and sensationalist news reporting. Many people assume that dangerousness and violent crime is a result of a combination of mental illness and individual liberty. Dangerousness is often seen because of neurodivergence or some sort of inherent fault of a person. For this reason, admitting or displaying any sort of neurodivergence carries a lot of stigma, even when being neurodivergent doesn’t necessarily mean being dangerous. Likewise, when neurodivergent people display tendencies that could be potentially dangerous to both themselves and others, they are often punished, demonized and met with carceral solutions. Creating a culture where neurodivergence, as well as divergence that holds potential dangerousness isn’t demonized is important in order for us to destigmatize it and to create an environment where neurodivergent people can feel comfortable enough to reach out when asking for the help that they need.
10. We treat disability and neurodivergence as brokenness.
One of worst ways we shame neurodivergence is in treating it as inherent brokenness. Medically disability and divergence is often treated as a hindrance, an obstacle, something to be cured or fixed. This translates to how we socially tend to treat most disabilities in our culture; the disabled, and neurodivergent become an individual fault that needs to be fixed. This creates a false equivalent that, that when a body does not fit neatly into a norm: it is broken;it needs to be fixed.
In the neurodiversity movement, there has been a push for recognition,social inclusion and respect for disability, cognitive difference and neurodiversity. The neurodiversity movement teaches us to fight back against ideas of brokenness, against the idea of neurological norms, compulsory neurotypical behaviors and an intrinsic idea that there is only one right way of functioning. The dichotomy of wholeness vs.brokenness must be ended.
To combat ableism, it is important to begin to recognize the ways in which we shame neurodivergence in people. We must begin to shift away from the idea that there is only one way a mind should function. The variations and diversity of the people, their behaviors and their abilities is never ending. We live in a neurologically diverse world and it’s time that we all take steps to embrace that reality rather than shame it.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person with dark braids. They are smiling and there is a brick wall behind them. Source: Blink O’fanaye]