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About this post: Discover the unique journeys and strengths of neurodivergent individuals as we explore how diverse cognitive processes can lead to incredible gains. Join us in celebrating the superpowers of neurodivergence and understanding the importance of accommodating diverse needs.

My husband recently brought up that when I had told him how I’d learned to drive, he remembered looking at me like I was an alien. It had always stuck in his mind as odd, but now as he was coaching our kids in soccer, he began to see that sometimes neurotypical methods didn’t seem to work well for them either. Maybe then it wasn’t just me, but that having neurodivergent ways to get the same outcome wasn’t quite “alien.” It’s just a facet of human diversity.

In driver’s ed class, we took a pre-test on driving rules and I scored the lowest in the class. I hadn’t paid much attention to driving, and was very happy to be a passenger, without the burden of having to pay attention to things like directions or traffic signs. I was good at memorizing things though, and the following week, I scored the highest in the class.

Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into actual driving ability. I sailed through the written part of the drivers exam, got my permit, and then embarked on the very, very bumpy road of driving.

At first, my instructors tried to be calm, but I wasn’t getting it, and as patience fell away, I realized I had to figure out another way forward. It felt like a lot to coordinate the different parts- when to look up or around, when to move the wheel and how much, and when and how much to tap the brake. Other people seemed to do these things in fluid motions, but it wasn’t working for me.

I decided that since I was good at school, I could memorize and implement, and so I’d apply that process to driving. I made notes. 

Make a left turn: 1) look into left side mirror. 2) look over shoulder. 3) Push down (down =left) on indicator. 4) Gradually press brake to reduce speed. 5) Look ahead to ensure lane ahead is clear. 6) Turn steering about 90 degrees to move into left lane. 7) Accelerate while turning wheel. 8) Turn off indicator.

I did this for every maneuver I could think of, and my driving skills took a significant and noticeable turn. Even if the instructors thought my methods were ridiculous, and even if my husband thought years later that it sounded like I was an alien learning to drive, I was pretty proud of myself that I figured it out and got my license.

Neurodivergence is a process not an outcome 

Neurodivergence is about the process, not what others see as an external outcome. If I kept my methods to myself, it’s possible I might look outwardly like any other student driver, but I got there very differently. It was a longer, more taxing, much more emotional, and misunderstood process, but if I didn’t talk about it, no one would know. I wonder though what the process could have been like if the others teaching me were more equipped with understanding different styles of learning, how much more smoothly it could have gone. 

Luckily, I’d felt proud that I figured out my method, but I’d been privileged enough to have had many “wins” so far in my life. I was able to feel proud of my abilities, even when different or sometimes lacking, but I know this isn’t the norm for most people. Many people are ostracized when they think or do things differently, so rather than use their strengths and processes, they work on conforming to a neurotypical world, even when that means performing below their potential.

Neurodivergence refers to when someone’s brain processes and responds to input in ways that are different from the neurotypical brain. It’s like having a different kind of wiring. Still, even in someone that experiences neurodivergence, that doesn’t mean that each circuit within their brain is wired differently. We have countless brain circuits for countless cognitive processes. Maybe one person has unique wiring of circuits related to auditory processing, but not for circuits involving visual processing. Maybe another person has unique wiring for many different circuits, while another has neurodivergent wiring for only a couple circuits. We all probably have some neurodivergent circuits, but maybe the more one has, the more someone tends to identify as being neurodivergent. The more neurodivergent processes, the more frequently those differences come up when living within a neurotypically framed world.

Neurodivergence is a difference not a deficit

Neurodivergence becomes unfairly framed as deficits when we fail to appreciate and celebrate difference. I often bring up the example of left handed scissors because it’s so easy to understand – the absence of left handed tools makes left handedness a deficit.  Acceptance of the need for inclusive tools resolves the issue and allows all types of handedness to thrive.

In another example, autism can be seen as a disorder, as a deficit in the ability to generalize or to see the big picture. It’s also often seen as a deficit in shifting, leading to unusual fixation on details. Flipping the narrative, others have suggested that rather than a compilation of deficits, autism can be seen as a “detailed oriented cognitive style.” People with autism see things in ways that others can’t, and the details they pick up can lead to incredible gains and discoveries.

People with dyslexia are thought to have a learning disorder, but when taught in inclusive ways, they can thrive and even become avid readers and writers. And their unique way of processing information gives them above average skills in critical reasoning, three dimensional thinking, and creativity. 

Similarly, some people consider ADHD a superpower. The tendency to daydream allows minds to wander into creativity. Sometimes not immediately jumping into a task (aka procrastinating) allows your brain to subconsciously work on that task, leading to better solutions and outcomes. The drive to jump from topic to topic can lead to making unlikely connections, weaving things together into unique perspectives.

Do you need to treat neurodivergence? 

No. Neurodivergence does not require psychiatric treatment. Still, many people, neurodivergent and neurotypical, can benefit from psychiatric treatment when they’re experiencing symptoms that cause distress or interfere with their function. Neurodivergent individuals do tend to have higher rates of psychiatric difficulties but it’s important to clarify that it’s not their neurodivergence that requires treatment!

In autism, there can be high rates of anxiety and when that occurs and is distressing, that anxiety can be treated. In ADHD, a little bit of procrastination may be good for creativity but if it’s to the extent that the person really can’t regulate it when needed, treatment can be helpful. Not all people on the autism spectrum require psychiatric treatment, and neither do all people with ADHD. 

Neurodivergence as a superpower

Neurodivergent isn’t a medical term, but it’s a lay person’s way to self-identify as someone whose brain processes information differently than the norm.  It can feel like a liability, but hopefully, it can also feel like a little bit like a superpower.

I hope that we can all get to a place where neurodivergence is accepted, included, and even celebrated. This requires that all of us work at being open to acknowledging divergent processes and needs. It requires being open to accommodating, when possible, an individual’s unique needs and methods. And lastly, hopefully more and more people feel comfortable exploring various methods, feeling out what works best for them, and then openly voicing and engaging in their preferences. 

Written by Tejal Kaur, MD, founder and medical director at graymatters

**At graymatters, “treatment” can mean many things, and most importantly, is something that’s tailored to the needs and the perspectives of our clients. It can lean towards medical, towards psychological or somewhere in the middle. Working with a therapist familiar with neurodivergence can be one way to not only work on overcoming challenges, but to also learn to unleash your superpowers! **

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