This weeks blog comes from Peter Benyon, who is the Team Manager for Student Engagement at Derby College. In this quite brilliant blog, Peter discusses his own experiences of neurodiversity and how that has impacted upon his personal and professional life.
I am not a problem to be solved, however that does not mean that I have not got problems I wish to solve.
I am neurodivergent, which means that my brain works in a different way to the majority of people. In comparison to the majority (not all) people:
- I struggle to manage my enthusiasm, meaning that I will get easily distracted and may dominate when it is not appropriate or productive to do so.
- I struggle to self-regulate my energy levels, meaning that I burn-out easier and can be inconsistent.
- I struggle to sleep, meaning (when added to the above) I get grumpy and ill-tempered.
- I struggle to regulate emotion, meaning I can be over-assertive at best and downright aggressive at my worst.
- I struggle to focus on things that I know are important but that do not interest me, meaning I can easily get into a mess with my finances, my relationships and life in general.
- My default is to trust impulse rather than reason, meaning my decision-making can become impaired and I will be over-confident when I don’t actually know what I am doing.
- All of the above affects my mental well-being, meaning I experience debilitating anxiety and depression periodically.
But, with these struggles, I also have many strengths:
- I am generally positive and enthusiastic, meaning that I am good to have around and spread my enthusiasm.
- I am funny and unpredictable, meaning I am entertaining and can lift “the mood”.
- I am intelligent and quick thinking, meaning I can come up with solutions and ideas better than most.
- I am decisive and confident, meaning that I am a good leader.
- When I am interested and committed to something, I take it to the “nth degree”, meaning that I will research, investigate, analyse, evaluate and create at a rapid rate.
- I am imaginative, meaning I will see things that many others will not see.
- I am gregarious and wish to connect with people, meaning I am caring, empathic and self-less.
- I am generous, meaning that I give up my money, my time and myself for the benefit of others.
My main difficulty is that society in general is not constructed or organised for people like me. Society is constructed and organised for the majority, whose brains process the environment around them, their senses and feelings and the information they are provided with in a way that makes interaction with society and the people within it more understandable and easier to manage. Please note, at this point, that I understand that this last sentence may appear both patronising and naive – I know everyone has problems relating to others and understanding the world around them – but I will argue that difficulties with “theory of mind” affects people who are “on the autistic spectrum” and those who are not, and I am in the minority, meaning that my differences do not get understood in the realms of “normal” (not that I believe normal exists beyond the minds of people who wish to be normal on a meritocratic level). Many of the difficulties that we have are based on not understanding each other. My grievance is that the majority sets the standard and the norm and therefore, those of us outside of that, feel ostracised, disregarded and isolated.
All of the above is not to say that I am not successful. I am successful in both the professional and personal arenas; I have a good job and lots of qualifications; I have a wonderful family with love and laughter. This is why I will not label myself as a problem, or my neurodivergence as a problem, but I will not say that I do not have problems with myself and our society.
This is the dilemma of inclusion: how do we solve problems by removing (preferable) or adapting (practicable) barriers, without maintaining the status quo of problemising those with impairments and divergence? We are a long way from answering this question. But we have come some way.
The movement away from the medical model of disability (“you have the problem and we will cure your problem”), towards the social model of disability (“we recognise that society, organisations, institutions and the built-environment is constructed in a certain way which creates barriers for people with impairments and/or differences, in turn creating disability, and will make it our responsibility to remove these barriers”) and maybe even, one day, arriving at a human rights model of disability (“ditto to the social model, apart from recognising that the individual with impairments and/or difference is not passive in the process and has their own responsibilities, character, identity and culture based on their impairment and/or difference, which is valuable in its own right and should be protected”) is in process but it is not one train on one track, rather it is a plethora of trains on a variety of tracks heading in a number of different directions at different speeds. I guess that, if you want individuality and inclusion, you are going to get this level of idiosyncrasy and, therefore, intricacy.
So, with this level of intricacy, what do we do? Well, in my opinion, – formed through working for the last 18 years in the largely under-funded and under-resourced realm of further education – we should all focus on developing patience, and then use the cognitive-space this patience provides to facilitate empathy in ourselves and others. This is my opinion because it is my observation that this is where we are most lacking:
- We criticise those that think differently from ourselves, judging their bias for not being our bias;
- We want those that judge us, or break our own moral code, to be publicly-shamed and punished;
- We self-isolate in the echo chambers of social-groupings and social media;
- We use anger and disgust as a measure for justified action; and
- We don’t ask the “other” for their experience, thoughts or reason and therefore miss one whole side of reality.
It is also my opinion because I believe it is the only viable and pragmatic answer. But it is not simple.
The interesting thing is that patience is very much like respect, in that you need to give it to get it. I understand the principle of many minority groups, which is that if it isn’t given, it’s going to need to be taken. I really empathise with that (remember at the beginning when I wrote about being overly assertive and sometimes aggressive), but I do not believe that it works because, if we look back through history, generally things have changed when a) a mutuality is established, b) groups listen to one another and c) empathy ensues. I’m not saying that assertion (or aggression) is never the answer, but it cannot be the only answer. To truly show patience, we need to put our grievances and anger to one side. We need to be the example, because we can be the example. We have the genuinely valuable experience of being on the outside looking in; we hold the trump card. We need to be patient and wait for the other to realise that we have society’s added value that it is craving. But we don’t passively wait, we actively communicate with and support the other until their theory of their own minds catches up with our own. This is our opportunity.
To conclude, I advise:
- Listen to the other (typical or different),
- Rotate your view as far as you can to “their” view without expecting them to do the same (yet),
- Fill in the gaps in reality (by doing above), and
- Be patient.
We all have problems, but don’t let us be the problem.