On the mechanics of neurodiversity

So, I’ve had some thoughts recently about neurodiverse ways of thinking which were inspired by a feedback report I wrote up for some of my students. These particular students are neurodiverse, which means they think or behave differently than what is considered typical. However, from my own personal life experiences, neurodiversity has always felt like a burden, like something was wrong with me because I just didn’t get what others seemed to get so effortlessly. So, this discussion is my way of trying to understand myself better and how my difference is valuable rather than burdensome.

In this discussion, I kind of go back and forth between two different views about autism and dyslexia. One of these views is that autism and dyslexia are something to be fixed because they create deficiencies for the individual. The other view is that society creates the appearance of deficiencies because it doesn’t naturally tolerate certain differences in thinking and behaviour. So, accommodations can be made. Yet, the first view is so ingrained in me, I default to thinking that the problem is me and I don’t deserve accommodations. If I can just change or learn enough, I can be normal. So, I dip into this attitude towards myself in order to figure out why it’s an inaccurate one to have and how I might change it.

It was mentioned to me that some of my students may have mild dyslexia, so I pay attention to how they read aloud and spell words in my sessions with them. I notice sometimes they use letters that seem to make no sense in terms of the individual sounds in a word. For example, they might insert a k into a word that has no k sound in it (I don’t mean words like knee). The other pattern I notice is that they often leave out sounds altogether, usually vowel sounds but not always. For example, ‘because’ becomes bcus or ‘favourite’ becomes favite. It appeared to me that there was a missing link: my students seemed to have trouble linking the individual sounds a word makes to the letters that correlate to each of these sounds, as though there is a breakdown between Point A and Point B in the processing of language. And after doing some research, dyslexia can be understood as a different way of processing language, so it might not be so much as a missing link causing problems. It might be more accurate to say that neurodiverse thinkers simply get from A to B differently when compared to their typical peers. This also relates to autism in a way.

For a moment, I am going to digress a bit into personal examples of how I process communication differently and how certain strategies have helped. If you stay with me, I promise I will come back around to the point about dyslexia!

For me, I process language and social interactions quite differently to many of my peers. It takes me awhile to work out the nuances in verbal and non-verbal communication. I have to explicitly focus on what I want to say, how I’m going to say it and the individual words I need to use to make my meaning more clear and ‘natural’ (as in what will be interpreted as natural). And because I have focused so obsessively on trying to become more natural and fluid in my communication, I feel my experience gives me a kind of superpower. I can understand other people when their patterns of language processing are considered ‘atypical’, such as autism and dyslexia (though, dyslexia may not be so atypical, but different than average I suppose). And I feel I am good at helping individuals discover their own patterns, like I do with myself.

In order to catch up to where I was ‘supposed’ to be, developmentally speaking, I had to kind of artificially learn the links in order to process my social interactions in a normalised way, which means I had to be explicitly taught (or, much more commonly, I had to explicitly teach myself). Yet, because this is artificially taught and learned, it still seems mostly unable to reach the nuances of social behaviour or the nuances of language, unless it’s practiced repeatedly.

On the one hand, I don’t want to change who I am. I want to be accepted for who I am, quirks and all. But that’s not actually what I mean here. For me, if I could learn a strategy that would help reduce the amount of exhaustion and overwhelm that social interactions often cause, I would take it in a heartbeat. On the other hand, the most effective strategy for me, so far, has been mindfulness (rather than mechanically trying to learn how to interact with people). That goes to say, however, that I have not received much professional social training – I have mostly done it myself through trial and error, which is often laden with errors. There are too many damn nuances! So, how do I know if I could have learned how to fit in better? In fact, the most success I've had in this area is when people HAVE explicitly taught me social rules or even how to fake social rules.

For example, one of the eye-contact strategies I was taught was when I was in the Army. Someone, I can’t remember who, told me the trick to looking people in the eye was to look at their forehead. “The other person can’t tell that you’re not looking him in the eyes,” he told me. I got a chance to practice this in a situation that made me feel quite proud of myself. A 4-star General was visiting my company’s field site in Saudi Arabia, and he came to my station. Of course, I and the two other higher-ranking guys with me snapped to attention as soon as the general entered, and the general then chose to talk to me. At the end of our conversation, he complimented me – “a young Private in the army” – for being able to look a general in the eyes while talking to him. After he left, the other two guys playfully gave me a hard time, saying I hogged the whole conversation and that the general didn’t even look at them. I loved this kind of banter and felt so pleased with myself. Coming back around to being explicitly taught social skills, this was one of the times it worked so well for me.

And there are several other times when explicit social training worked really well for me and helped me navigate different situations. These types of strategies helped me kind of ‘tape together’ the gap between my individual behaviour and the social norms that guide collective behaviour. This gap exists possibly because I am simply much slower than typical in processing the nuances of social interaction. Or possibly because I am just wired differently. Whatever the case, explicitly taught social skills can help because they can speed up (or patch up) the 'delays' I have in relation to my more typical peers. This can also help decrease the exhaustion of trying to figure it all out on my own.

So, how does this all relate to my discussion about dyslexia and changing my attitude towards myself?

Well, partly, it’s about helping my students improve their skills in spelling and reading. Just as I benefit from being explicitly taught certain skills that many people take for granted, mildly dyslexic students benefit from being explicitly taught phonics. My students would have been taught phonics from a very young age, but like me, they could simply have been slower than typical at processing the nuances of phonics or they could be wired differently. Whatever the case, reinforcing phonics does help and is, I believe, one of the main strategies for helping dyslexic children. But I can see that this is also exhausting for my students because they have to work extra hard at breaking down the sounds of language. So, I help them with mindfulness, as well. Mindfulness also helps with the embarrassment that often comes from not being able to do what most of your peers seem to be able to do so naturally (I so relate to this!!). I try to help them by saying that it is completely ok to stop if they’re feeling overwhelmed with practicing. In fact, I tell them to stop and return to it another day. I tell them, “it’s totally ok.”

On the other hand, this discussion is also about the mechanics of neurodiversity. My epiphany came to me through an understanding of dyslexia AND autism, whereas before I didn’t have much understanding of dyslexia at all. Having knowledge about the two gives me greater insight into neurodiversity, and I feel I can understand dyslexia better because of its similar mechanics to autism. I don’t have difficulties in spelling, but I do process language and communication differently to neurotypical people, and it seems that dyslexic people do, too. Getting from Point A to Point B wouldn’t be a problem if the points didn’t go all the way to Z.

There’s not just a Point A and a Point B, in my mind. There are multiple related points in a complex topic (including English spelling rules!!), and I have to understand each of these points in order to fully appreciate the whole. With dyslexia, it might mean that there are so many nuances of language that need to be understood in order to get the spellings right every time. It’s not enough to understand that the combination ‘ie’ can make the long E sound when it can also make the long I sound. Your mind starts to think, “Why? I need to understand why it’s a long E sound in some cases and a long I sound in others in order to know when to use it correctly.” So, they take a detour without even knowing it in order to absorb these rules. Not even a detour really. They are following a different path to get to a more complete understanding. But there’s not enough time to do that because your peers are already taking it for granted, perhaps simply by memorising the rules. So, you end up appearing to have so many broken links because you didn’t have time to make all of them. Then you start to be hard on yourself. You might ask yourself, “Why can’t I just get it like everyone else seems to get it?”

Oh, how much easier life would be if we could just memorise ‘normal’ behaviour or the right letter combinations for each and every possible variation. Meh. Not going to happen. It’s very often the creative mind of autistic and dyslexic individuals which needs to explore every possible angle and nuance of a given situation. This is a gift. Accommodate us, and you might find that we perform to our full potential, which is very likely to be enormous.

P.S. I also wonder about the insights that could come from other manifestations of neuro-diversity. Psychopathy is also a special interest of mine, for example. I simply loved the TV series Killing Eve!!