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Developing Self-Acceptance of Neurodiversity

Personal perspective: Accepting ourselves can help us understand differences.

Key points

  • Many neurodiverse people have difficulty processing external stimuli, such as lights, noises, and smells.
  • Some neurodiversity can come from trauma, autism, ADHD, or a combination of those—but everyone is different.
  • For the neurodiverse, social and personal struggles can lead to anxiety and depression if not supported.

"It's just like one of those pregnancy bellies!" I said to the woman next to me, whom I had just met only minutes before.

"...Those what?" She asked, not unexpectedly, probably hoping I was not talking to her.

"Those pregnancy bellies," I continued, my internal dialogue catching up with me as the words left my mouth—Kaytee. Stop talking. You're going to embarrass yourself like you always do.

"Like in sex-ed class!" Kaytee. Really. Shut up. You're making it worse.

"Ah." She said, pretending to look at something on the other side of the street.

Unfortunately, she had nowhere to go due to the thick crowd. We were pushing our way through downtown Medellin, Colombia, following our guide's prompt and wearing our backpacks in front of us to deter pickpockets. Due to my neurodivergence, which manifests as traits of autism and sensory processing struggles, I find that I often struggle in social situations, especially those where there is open-ended socialization. But only recently have I become OK with this realization.

Source: Pixabay/Pexels
Introverts love having time and space for self-reflection.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

I wish I could use this transition to say something like, "I wasn't always awkward. As a child, I gracefully navigated the social climate with ease..." But unfortunately, this is not true.

As a child, my mother remembers me becoming very upset at certain sounds, lights, or even patterns of clothing. "That's normal child behavior," my pediatrician would say, attempting to explain my unwillingness to wear shirts with certain fabrics or to consume certain foods. "She will grow out of it." It was the early '90s, and we had very little, if any, understanding of neurodivergence outside of words like "autism," which was (and still often is) highly stigmatized and often avoided.

Back then, giving a child a label such as autism or even ADHD was often assigning them a lifetime of being "different." I was always highly articulate and excelled easily in school, so teachers often assumed my differences were the result of behavioral issues (and maybe I had some of those, too). Not having a full understanding of how my brain processed things differently, my behaviors and outbursts were penalized with detentions or time-outs, which seemed to succeed in making me behave for a short time. My mother did not want me to be labeled and receive all of the stigmas that would have come with it, and in hindsight, I think she was trying to do the right thing. Things were different then. Today, those diagnoses would likely fill my chart, but with much less stigma following me into the classroom—and maybe much more support and understanding.

As I grew, I found I developed sensory issues in other areas. Certain patterns send my arms shivering with goosebumps. Particular sounds immediately provoke irritation and discomfort. I cannot stay in a room with a blinking light, and I become highly activated by small sounds that are often undetected by others.

This is normal, I told myself in college. I'm just easily irritated. I just have to stop being so easily irritated. I assumed everyone was bothered by the things that bothered me—the normal self-centeredness of a high-school and college student kept me in a state of denial. But deep down, I knew I was different.

Yes, I was likely also easily irritated (years of undiagnosed anxiety and hypervigilance will do that to you), but there was also something more. Most people were not bothered by sounds, patterns, and textures in the same way I was. Most people did not become flustered to the point of not being able to focus just based on where they sat in a room or agonize for days over a social conflict that they felt unable to navigate. Still, as it is difficult to differentiate between normal stressors of youth and signs of something deeper, I continued with the self-blame. "You'll grow out of it," I heard from others as well as myself.

At first, I thought I just had social anxiety. Because even small conversations where I am caught off guard make me feel like I am being held hostage, the simple act of a salesperson greeting me at the entrance to a store and asking what I was shopping for overwhelms me. I will avoid certain stores if they seem empty, unable to handle salespeople ready to pounce on new browsing prey.

I would try to convince myself that it was all in my head and that I could be bigger than this quirk I possessed: See, we will go to the same store next week and try again, and you can prove to yourself that it's no big deal. But then I would go back to the same store and hide behind a display to avoid the same salesperson. How long had I lived like this, thinking it was normal behavior?

It wasn't until graduate school that someone made me really stop and think. "I'm the same way," a classmate said to me as we sipped chicory iced coffees in the New Orleans heat between classes. I looked at them quizzically. "You know, your discomfort with situations that other people don't even think about."

"I'm just uptight," I again attempted to brush it off with a laugh.

"No, I understand because I am the same way. You don't have to mask anymore."

I had been masking for so long.

With the expansion of social media, the world has become more aware of issues of neurodiversity, among other common mental health and social terms. This has paved the way for people to understand more about themselves while embracing our differences. Like many people who have survived childhood trauma, I often wonder if my neurodivergence stemmed from those experiences or if it was there all along. And, as traumatic responses such as PTSD and C-PTSD are a form of neurodivergence, I'm sure the argument could be made either way. But it doesn't matter to me where it "came from," only that I understand and accept these parts of myself.

These days, I am open about preferring a quiet night in with my partner and our cats to a loud social gathering. I spend quiet mornings writing at coffee shops, and this makes me feel like I have gotten my social interaction. I want more friendships and crave deep connections with others—but I struggle to make those connections.

I still panic when salespeople try to talk to me, and I am working on not saying so many awkward things to random people—but I have embraced this part of myself and will share it proudly. I'm good at nothing if not having a giggle at my own expense, which I think helps. As self-acceptance is a major struggle for many neurodiverse people, I find that being open to discussing my "quirks" can help make me relatable. Or maybe I just assume so.

If you are struggling with self-esteem or self-acceptance, seek the support of a therapist who understands. If needed, find one that is neuro-affirming.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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