Opinion Columnists 27 Dec 2020 Shreya Sen-Handley | ...
Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the recently published Strange: Stories, the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, and a forthcoming book of travel misadventures.

Shreya Sen-Handley | 2020, the year I learn I am neurodivergent

Published Dec 27, 2020, 6:46 am IST
Updated Dec 27, 2020, 10:47 am IST
Mutants with a mission to change the world for the better, you are superheroes, not villains
Young neurodivergents, like you, are the real X-Men (representational image)
 Young neurodivergents, like you, are the real X-Men (representational image)

The year-end roundup is a festal favourite; a December convention. What is there to celebrate this pandemic year you wonder. But if, instead of asking ourselves how the year shaped up, we asked how it shaped us, would it seem such a wasted year? This solitary annum, without even stepping outside, we’ve learnt more lessons than in a score of uneventful years.

We’ve learnt that our sons-of-the-soil leaders care nothing for the true sons of the soil: the farmers, labourers, and key workers. We’ve unexpectedly found antivaxxers amongst friends and neighbours, who, in ignoring science and the common good, will ensure the world remains vulnerable not only to Covid, but a hundred vanquished diseases making a comeback. Most of all, we’ve discovered important facets of ourselves; a love for baking, an allergy to webinars, or quite simply, who we really are.

 

What I learned changed my life. I discovered I am, and have always been, autistic. One of the many definitions of autism offered up by the internet calls it ‘a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, and relationships. It is a “spectrum condition” that affects people differently and to varying degrees’. I have what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome. Modern medicine however doesn’t see it as a syndrome, but another way of being; atypical, but by no means “abnormal”. No more “wrong” than being brown in a white country or a woman in a man’s world, but subjected to the same marginalisation as any group outside the mainstream.

 

Did I know I was different? Yes; having been insistently told all my life. Whilst watching the Rain Mans and The Big Bangs had I suspected I might be one of “them”? No, they never felt true to life. Did it knock me for a six? OMG yes. Was I distraught and crestfallen? Confused at first but then, it brought me peace. My life seen in this new light suddenly made sense.

They say you can’t change your past, but this mindboggling new knowledge did just that. It transformed my view of the life I’ve led, which is the next best thing. Mistakes, misunderstandings, the mistreatment I’ve borne- much of which I’ve never forgiven myself for, I now could. We all blame ourselves for so much, but the failure of the neurodivergent to conform and resultant societal exclusion, leads to anxiety, stress, heart disease, and often early death. A recent study of people who had discovered their autism in middle-age revealed how life-changing this is. All of them attested to how they had internalised a lifetime of being told they were “wrong” and “bad”. Routine censure and rejection for their unconventional responses had taken a terrible toll on their physical and mental health.

 

Over the last nine months of reading, analysing and embracing it, I knew I wanted to help prevent this eviscerating future generations of the neurodivergent. Related to the unearthing of my own “condition” was the stressful process of autistic assessment someone I loved dearly had embarked upon. My discovery had been a blessing for me, but what would it mean for this young person?

Mercilessly bullied at school, they were already aware of the dangers of atypicality, so I endeavored to present them with the positives. To tell them all I knew, which was the merest splotch on a spectrum of neural states so vast that one in 66 people in the world inhabit it. But when I told him it was as much a gift as a curse I was not dissembling (“Auties/Aspies” can’t). Gifts this young man was already displaying in abundance; topping nationwide exams and mathematical challenges. Atypicality not only gave them an approach to life that was original and creative, it equipped them with application not always found in the mainstream.

 

Putting my arms around him (“Aspies” develop a defensive bubble they allow few into: I was lucky to be one of them), I reassured that being different wasn’t bad. But for the men and women who lived, loved, ideated and worked differently, for reasons of sexuality, belief, neurodiversity, and more, there would have been no advances in science, art, or ways of living. Without the likes of Einstein, Newton, Emily Dickinson, and Bach, this planet would have been a much poorer place (long before 2020). They are the atypical to keep in mind, not Sheldon or Rain Man. Young neurodivergents like you, I encouraged, are the real X-Men. Mutants with a mission to change the world for the better, you are superheroes, not villains. You forge ahead to accomplish so much, surmounting the peer understanding and support you lack.  

 

Besides which, minds can be changed, I emphasised, even if it’s one person at a time, and feels like it’s taking forever. Providing information is the first step towards dispelling the misconceptions that drive the prejudice you face. There are so many things people don’t know. For example, the autistic are often very bright, sometimes exceptionally so, but with some there is a few-seconds lapse before verbal information registers. This doesn’t make them stupid, or deaf, or even vague (I always thought I was that). Their brains just work differently. The penny drops infinitesimally slower. But drops with the power of a bomb. Because what they then do with that information has often changed the world. 

 

Ironically, in a year in which I completed writing my third book ‘The Accidental Tourist’, I found out just how much of an accidental tourist I was on this earth. In beginning to understand myself, I learned to forgive too, not just myself but those I’d felt had let me down and/or misbehaved. We’re all bad at “getting” those we perceive as different, and the only thing that makes the neurotypical more culpable is that they are the norm: the muscular majority, with the power to change how society works. How it perceives difference and treats it. The ignorance and prejudice with which it greets divergence is often not deliberate I’ve realised. Differences frighten people, and scared folk will lash out. For my young superhero, and millions of young ‘uns like him, a standing back to consider, a little thinking over, and even a tentative welcoming in, is a large part of what they need from society.

 

My resolution for 2021 is to convince, if not the typical into seeing the worth of the A, then the atypical themselves of their own value. To exhort them to continue charting their individual course, because neurodivergence, instead of a stigma, is a strength and should be a joy. But it isn’t yet. Let this column in which I “out” myself be my first salvo towards this end.

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