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Breaking Down Limitations: Reconsidering Neurodiversity

Breaking Down Limitations: Reconsidering Neurodiversity

Sometimes, you have to break away from society, take a step back, and show everyone why they are wrong.

     Often, society sends a message that it is not okay to be different. That we should all look, act, and think in a very similar way. When unique people spring up, it poses a threat to the masses. Yet, many times, it is absolutely impossible to not be different. Not everyone has the genetic ability to be a size two. Not everyone can hear or see. Not everyone learns and thinks the same way.

     Neurodiversity is a new term for something I have experienced my entire life. It functions as an umbrella term for people with learning differences, dyslexia, or, like me, an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. While I am not exactly qualified to give a detailed explanation of ASDs, I can offer a brief, basic definition. The term “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” broadly includes symptoms in varying degrees of severity relating to difficulties in socialization, communication, and repetitive behaviors. ASDs can be complicated to understand and explain because every person on the Autistic Spectrum is unique, and their symptoms can be very different.

Autistic Spectrum Disorders are something I have known forever. But society does not understand them. It does not embrace them. It holds a stigma against people with ASDs in a similar way to which they hold a stigma against the deaf, the blind, and paraplegics. This stigma provides stereotypes and assumptions with which we need to break.

            Since I was very young, I have been working to prove to other people that there is nothing “wrong” with me. Some adults in my life just thought that my family was crazy for seeking a solution when I was performing close to average for my age. They asserted that it was okay if I was just not as intellectually gifted as my sister. But a psychologist told us differently. She pointed out that the areas in which I was excelling were areas that I should not be that good at if I was average for my age, and the ones where I was performing poorly were ones which someone with my performance in the more challenging ones should have no problem. So it was concluded that my mind does not work like a “normal” person’s. I am not neurotypical.

            Although my view of the world is different than that of many other people, I am not intellectually disabled, non-verbal, or intellectually below average. In middle school, when we all had to write a compliment for every person in the class, the majority of the ones given to me said, “You’re really smart.” My peers had no idea that the seven hours I spent each day in school is not what taught me anything I knew. They did not know I absorbed information just by looking at it. They did not know that I was fighting my impulses in order to keep myself balanced and calm. They just thought I was some smart, quiet girl in their class. And that image was my goal all along.

            I realized relatively recently that most people do not understand ASDs because they do not realize they have come into contact with people who have them. I thought that if people knew they knew people with ASDs they would better comprehend that ASDs are not a disability, but rather a difference. Maybe they would understand that there is nothing wrong with me, I just go about things differently than them. Unfortunately, breaking a stigma is not that easy. One friend that I told about my ASD told me I was lying. She argued with me, telling me that she knew I was joking and that there was no way I could possibly be Autistic, that I was far too “normal.” Another friend was confused, and then admitted that he was not entirely sure what Autistic Spectrum Disorders entail, but he was fairly sure I could not have one, because he had heard that people with them cannot make friends. These are the statements and assumptions that hold up the negative stigmas associated with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. These are the thoughts that I want people to break away from.

            Trying to break stereotypes can be dangerous. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on labels. There is a fine line between defining yourself by a characteristic and letting that characteristic define you. In our label-obsessed culture, as soon as people know something falls into a category, they make attributions about it. A person who was unfamiliar with me, but knew I had an ASD would likely assume that I have obvious trouble communicating, act strangely in social situations, and would probably guess that I am mentally disabled. Yet, these symptoms do not describe me particularly well. In my efforts to break stereotypes about ASDs, I know I need to let myself precede my label. Otherwise, instead of breaking a stereotype, I could be letting a stereotype break me.

If you never break with your trepidation, you cannot find your actual limits.

            In my personal attempt to break away from society’s vision of what I can and cannot do as a person on the Autistic Spectrum, I learned a lot about myself. While I have been awaiting the intellectual challenges of college since I was seven, the closer it got, the more apprehensive I became about it. Touring schools, filling out applications, weighing the merits of different schools all brought anxiety. I do not deal well with change, and, going to college, everything changes. Not only do I now have a different style of classes and professors than I was used to before, but I live in a different place, with different people, in a different environment than I had my entire life. My three best friends since preschool (they are triplets) are all dispersed at different colleges. It is the first time ever that the four of us have not gone to school together.

            The prospect of these changes loomed over me throughout my time in high school. By senior year, when I was making a decision about where I was actually going to spend the next four years of my life, I was overwhelmed by need to consider these factors. But I did, and I made my decision.

            In August, I moved into Bryn Mawr, filled with excitement and trepidation, so worried that I would not be able to deal with the transition well and petrified that I would not be able to navigate a new social scene all on my own.

As I experience new things and grow as a person, I must break with my expectations for myself, or risk holding myself back.

            There is an age-old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” This goes along fairly well with my philosophy concerning facing new situations. I know that, if I stay within the scope of things I know I do well, I will never reach my full potential. So, I pretend to be confident in what I am doing, and figure that this is the best way to find my limits. And it is. I have surprised myself many times with what I actually have the ability to accomplish.

            Last year, I joined my high school’s mock trial team. While I am very good at remembering details, and that is helpful with mock trial, I sometimes question my ability to speak in front of large groups of people. I figured that, since most of mock trial is pre-written and rehearsed, I should be fine. Well, our attorney mentor apparently decided that my speaking skills were good. She assigned me to do closing arguments, which, if you do not know, are a recapitulation of everything that has happened in the trail with the bias of ensuring that the jury knows your side is correct. Closing arguments cannot be written before the trail. This frightened me more than a little, but it was too late to back out. So, I figured I would just have to fake it. I learned everything there was to know about the case and prayed that would enough to give me the confidence I needed to get through the competition, to “make it.” On the day of our first competition, at the end of the trial, I stood up, barely able to speak due to my nervousness, expecting myself to give the worst closing argument ever. Somehow, I got through my five minutes. Somehow, I managed to make a convincing argument. At the end one of the jurors, who were actually members of the Pennsylvania Bar Association scoring us, commended me on my speech and how I did not utilize notes. My mentor came up to me after and said, “I know you are not planning on it, but please go to law school.” It was a great moment for me. I realized that I have the ability to communicate well to groups of people when I am on the spot.  

            Breaking my perception of myself has allowed me to grow and change and become a more well-rounded person. Recently, I have learned that, despite having much anxiety over change, I can thrive through it. It does not have to break me. I can use it to make myself better. I simply need to abandon any expectations that limit me.

Throughout my life, I have found that breaking stereotypes and expectations is the only way in which any person or group can discover his actual limitations. If someone clings to what he knows, he cannot grow, develop, or expand his horizons. Similarly, if we are not willing to break away from society and its expectations for us, we cannot possibly develop fully into our own persons. Breaking is absolutely part of who we are, and we cannot be ourselves without it. 

Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Molly Mac Dougall

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