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I’ve never been as unwell, mentally, as when I let myself believe the lie that I needed to be more like everyone else, and my inability to do so was a fault.
The first time I entered a system that wasn’t set up for me was in the first grade when I moved from a small church preschool into the Georgetown ISD public school system.
Because I am multiply NeuroDivergent (Autistic, ADHD, Anxiety, Hyperlexic – a few I’m willing to share at this time), many systems in the world were not built to take my needs into consideration.
I can thrive within systems that weren’t built for me as long as those systems are willing to let me flex them to my needs and DO NOT treat me like I am the problem.
Unfortunately, NeuroDivergent People are frequently treated like they are the problem whenever they cannot mirror those who the systems were built for (and favor).
The problem is NOT NeuroDivergent People, the problem is the rigid systems and the blame placed upon those of us who struggle (due to a lack of equity when those systems).
Placing blame on someone for being unable to thrive when they don’t have their basic needs met is cruel and can have deadly consequences (especially if the person who is blamed believes the blame that is placed upon them).
In elementary school, I struggled to learn in a classroom environment that was set up to cater primarily to one type of student. Those of us who struggled to fall in line were frequently punished or used as examples of cautionary tales.
It was assumed that every student in the classroom learned the same way and had the same brain and abilities (even if it wasn’t true).
Those of us who needed more support learned differently or struggled to sit still, quiet, and attentive were not seen with compassion. The environment was not modified for us. We were not given more support, flexibility, or consideration. Instead, we were treated as if our struggles were behavioral problems that needed to be punished out of existence.
When I struggled to be still and quiet (because I needed to be able to move around more in the day and had too much bodily energy that was building up but had nowhere to be released), my recess was taken away – expatriating the problem.
I was treated as if I was the problem when the problem was that my needs were not being met.
I needed extra time to move and get energy out, but my punishment (for needing more time to move than my peers) was increased restrictions on my movement.
Because “everyone else was sitting still,” “everyone else was looking at the teacher,” and “everyone else was nice and quiet,” I was expected to do those things too.
My inability to do these things was interpreted as intentional refusal, disrespect of the teacher and classroom, and non-compliance.
I wasn’t given support, I was expected to “change my behavior” while nobody bothered to look into the root cause of why my “behavior” was different from the behaviors of my peers.
It was bad enough that everyone around me thought I was the problem (and needed to be molded into something “acceptable” enough not to “annoy” and “inconvenience” those around me).
It got worse when I began to internalize the negative things I heard people around me saying about me – that I was bad, stubborn, rude, difficult, rebellious, annoying, sensitive, needy, an inconvenience, worthless, and bringing everyone around me down. It’s a lot to put on a first-grader.
In elementary school, I felt like a broken person, a mistake who couldn’t get things right, despite their best efforts.
It’s at this young age, I first remember thinking that the world (and everyone in it) would be better off without me. This dark thought still creeps into my head occasionally, but I can often shake it off, dismissing it with some logic (when my sense of self-worth is high).
If my self-worth is at a low point (as it was when I was in elementary school and as it was in the months leading up to my Autism diagnosis at the age of 29), this thought (that I’m a burden on the world and everyone I know) becomes terrifyingly real.
Being treated like I’m the problem when the problems are shitty systems that favor an “average” group of humans (excluding outliers like me who fall outside of those “norms”) is bad enough.
It’s even worse if we believe these lies – that it’s our fault we can’t keep up with everyone else. Especially when everyone else has an ideal environment that is naturally nurturing and accepting of their needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
NeuroTypical (if such a thing exists) weaknesses are socially accepted (because they’re common). NeuroDivergent weaknesses, however, are less accepted in society (because they are seen less frequently).
The same is true for NeuroDivergent and “NeuroTypical” strengths with one caveat:
Because NeuroDivergent strengths are seen as “special” since they’re less common in society, this can lead NeuroDivergent People to be exploited for their strengths.
Additionally, when we have strengths that are seen as “better” or at a higher level than the “average” population, this can cause people to ignore or deny our weaknesses and struggles – because we’re expected to be almost superhuman (and good at EVERYTHING).
An example of this in my own life is when I entered elementary school with an advanced vocabulary and reading level but struggled with other subjects and the “basics” of class conduct and etiquette – something my peers didn’t struggle with.
Because I was gifted in one area, I was expected to be gifted in ALL areas.
Whenever I struggled in any subject or with any expectation, it was seen as an intentional refusal or laziness, meaning I was punished whenever I needed help – which made me reluctant to ask for or seek help when I needed it.
From an early age, I learned that asking for help, appearing confused, or being caught for not “following along” would result in ridicule, scorn, and punishments.
This has made me a master at figuring things out on my own and acting like I know what’s going on long enough for me to figure out most situations.
I also am really good at hiding my confusion, acting like I know what’s going on (even if I have NO CLUE what people are talking about).
Being treated like I was, the problem made me ashamed of my weaknesses and struggles.
This shame made it impossible to reach out and ask for help (or adjustments to the environment around me) when I needed it.
Getting out of school and into the real world, where I had more control over my environment and the world around me, did make my life easier (whenever I didn’t find myself in systems that needed me to conform – like in school).
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