Our society is not very good at listening to neurodivergent folks. When we’re not being told we are lazy, the things we ask for are routinely ignored.
Sometimes the way that this happens is very subtle, and even the people who say they value accessibility sometimes say hurtful things when they are not paying attention. Here are some examples.
1. “You seem like you are okay” or “You seem normal”
This is a common reaction that I get when I disclose to someone that I have an invisible disability. Maybe people think they are being reassuring. It implies “don’t worry, you don’t seem like you’re crazy”, which I guess maybe should be comforting in a world where “crazy” is so stigmatized. But when someone says it, it feels like they’re not actually acknowledging what I’m telling them as truth. It feels like they’re not listening and they’re not interested in hearing what I have to say.
When people say “you seem normal”, it just sounds like they are afraid of neurodivergence and “crazy” people. It’s a veiled form of ableism.
“Normalcy” isn’t possible, and it’s not the goal, so trying to reassure me that I seem normal is really useless.
2. “Have you thought about seeing a therapist/counsellor/doctor/psychologist?”
On the surface this question seems like a legitimate reaction when someone talks about their mental illness. After all, therapists are supposed to be the people who can help with these kinds of situations, right?
The reality is, when people say this, they are usually stating the obvious. They are just making this suggestion because they don’t know what to say.
Before suggesting seeing a therapist or other mental health care professional, ask yourself two things: First, did this person ask for my advice? And second, is it likely that they haven’t thought of this already? If the answer is yes to both questions, then it is an appropriate thing to say.
The only other situation where it might be appropriate is with someone who is extremely close to you and that person is having trouble recognizing that they need more help than you can give them. Otherwise, just don’t.
If you literally don’t know what else to say, I would suggest learning some active listening skills. You should probably be asking, “is there anything I can do to help?”.
3. “The first step is to talk about it” or “it’s so important to be open about your feelings”
First off, I know that these are completely true statements and I agree with them. However, they have become the meaningless buzzwords (buzz phrases?) of mental health, and they reflect the short depth of understanding that most people have about the issue.
I talk and write about mental health a lot, and these phrases are often the response I get when I propose political solutions to mental health issues. I have also heard people say this as their only response to people with depression or anxiety talking about what they are going through and asking for what they need, which is an incredibly disrespectful way of ignoring what people are actually asking for. Too often, this is the only thing people know how to say about mental health.
People want to see mental health and disability as an individual problem that individuals have and should solve on their own. Talking is often the first step, but what about steps two through ten? When we constantly redirect back to step one, it’s because we’re avoiding the responsibility that we have for helping people, which may be more difficult than talking.
4. “Do you really think you have aspbergers/depression/bipolar/[insert label]?” or “Have you been diagnosed by an actual doctor?”
Our society has stereotypes about neurodivergent people. When someone discloses that they have one of these conditions, it’s common for our perceptions of the person to not match what the stereotype is, and that might be confusing.
It is often difficult for people to reconcile that someone they love might be both a fantastic and competent person and also neurodivergent or mentally ill.
Part of the problem is representation: people who have these conditions are very poorly represented in pop culture. Additionally, neurodivergent people are often the victims of othering. Mentally ill homeless people, drug addicts, and nonverbal autistics: our culture sees them as “other”. The default is to be scared of them, and to to associate with them with the people we like or love becomes needlessly scary.
Here’s the thing: the difference between the people in your life who are neurodivergent and the “other” people who are neurodivergent is probably only a matter of money and social supports.
I am one of those “competent” people with mental illness. I have a full time job and a home and a savings account. But I’m also ill and I’ve had serious crises in my life. Those crises were horrible and have had a lasting effect on me; I would not have gotten through them without the support and compassion of the people around me. Somebody else with similar issues but without access to money and social supports would easily end up on the street with nowhere to go. I am serious when I say that is the only difference, but our society perceives those “other” people a lot differently, as less deserving, than me.
Seriously, there is no need to be scared of the neurodivergent. We are generally not very dangerous.
When someone discloses to you a condition or illness, it’s none of your business what their doctor has said (or hasn’t said). What matters is your compassion and what you do to make sure their needs are met.
5. “Everyone experiences that”
This is a really important one. This is a response people give when I talk about specific symptoms. If I mention that my disability causes me to struggle with taking good notes in meetings, people will say “but everyone has trouble with that”.
Taking notes while simultaneously holding a conversation is a skill. Like any skill, some people find it easier than others, and practice will likely make you better at it. So yes, technically, everyone might have issues with that at some point. But I am exceptionally bad at it, especially considering how much practice I’ve had. I get by because I have a good memory for conversations, I write things down after meetings, and when I need to, I make an audio recording.
This is an excellent illustration of neurodivergence: everyone’s brains work differently, and everyone is better at some things than others. “Nonverbal learning disorder” is just a label for a particular set of pronounced strengths and weaknesses that I happen to have.
But it doesn’t mean that “everyone experiences that”. When I say I suck at taking notes, I mean I really suck at taking notes, and it’s not something I can just work on.
It’s similar to when someone says they are depressed and the response is about general sadness. There is a big difference between being sad and being depressed, and it’s very important not to confuse the two. Everyone has been sad at some point. Only some people have been depressed. Saying “everyone experiences that” is dismissive.