Neurotypical Privilege: What is it?

It’s time to write another blog piece about neurotypical privilege! And yes, I think about this stuff all the time, unfortunately. (I have to.) So I have new insight on almost a daily basis.

A lot of people don’t know what neurotypical privilege means; even a lot of neurodiverse people don’t seem to know what it means. But my life is a study of it, so I’m in a unique position to describe what it is and how it affects neurodiverse people.

I am a neurodivergent person. What that means is my brain works differently than most people’s. Yes, I know—everyone’s brain is unique. However, mine is unique enough that I have a good deal of difficulty functioning in society on many levels.

I am bipolar, autistic, and have PTSD. I have a lot of trouble communicating with people sometimes, and I’ve had trouble maintaining steady employment and housing. My neurodivergence has put me in prison (for self-medicating), and has brought me into conflict various times with the police (for nonviolent behavior, to be clear). I have difficulty maintaining relationships of all kinds, as well, and not because I’m a jerk—this is one thing I’ve never been accused of by anyone who knows me—but because I’m flighty, have trust issues, and I often misinterpret what others say and am misinterpreted in turn.

Even though my neurodivergence has caused this level of disruption in my life, I still have some measure of neurotypical privilege. NT privilege is, like most other types of privilege, a spectrum…and I won’t even get into the interplay with other types of privilege, because that gets too complex. I’ll leave that discussion to others.

As some of you know, I’m waking up today alone for the first time in weeks. The man better known to y’all as Boy—my partner—went back to California yesterday. Hopefully he’ll be back soon.

Boy is schizophrenic, and he has even less NT privilege than I do. It affects every aspect of his life at all times, and is completely disabling. This isn’t, however, because he’s not capable, intelligent, or fully functional, because he is. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He may function in a different way and on a different schedule, but he’s completely able to take care of himself. He has a rich and full life.

The immense majority of Boy’s problems come from other people’s ableism—their mistreatment of him based on their apparent need for him to function like everyone else.

People interpret neurodiversity—and/or what is called “mental illness”—as dangerous. When they see someone acting in a way that’s different than the norm, they get angry and afraid. But statistically, neurodiverse people are much more likely to be hurt by neurotypical people than the other way around. Both Boy and I are prime examples of this. I’ve been taken advantage of and worse during psychotic breaks. Boy has been beaten into a coma, and has been wrongfully arrested and involuntarily committed on various occasions. On none of these occasions were either of us armed or posing any actual threat to anyone. We were just being who we were born to be.

The stories of many of these incidents are peppered throughout my blog and my Tinkerbell anecdotes, if you’re incredulous or interested in the specifics.

Boy and I—especially Boy—are often kicked out of public places (libraries, parks) and private businesses for doing nothing else besides cheerfully being neurodiverse. Restaurants suddenly have no tables available when we show up. We’re followed around stores because we’re suspected of shoplifting (we aren’t). So many laws and rules are targeted at people like us: vagrancy and loitering laws, involuntary commitment laws, forced sterilization laws, the right to refuse service, and “no shirt no shoes”, for example.

Neurodiverse people aren’t hurting anyone by loitering/muttering to themselves/”babbling” (word salad isn’t actually a thing, people—we make perfect sense if you know us). The vast majority of our behavior is completely benign, and even when we’re in the midst of a psychotic break we’re really unlikely to be violent. We may have trouble following instructions (you would too, if you were in our state of mind), but we’re just scared and confused. If we’re treated with respect and compassion, the situation is likely to be resolved quite peacefully and to the benefit of all.

But instead, we’re treated brutally—hurt, killed, imprisoned, kicked out. People think we deserve it. That we’re doing something wrong.

We’re not doing anything wrong. We don’t deserve it.

Neurotypical privilege is the ability to get through life without being hurt/killed/imprisoned/oppressed/harassed, etc., simply for having a brain that works differently than the norm.

I’m sure I’m missing some points and/or conveying stuff in a way that confuses some people. I’m happy to discuss and clarify, and welcome being called out on anything I’ve gotten wrong. But anyone who wants to argue the very existence of NT privilege, or say they have a schizophrenic cousin and so they know better than I do…please just don’t.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and neurodivergent activist. You can find her (and her neurodiverse characters) on Amazon.

Don’t Assume You Understand Neurodiversity. You Don’t.

I’m going to write another bitchy blog post, because I’m organizing my thoughts. I invite all people to read, and comment if you want, but this is really a conversation that needs to happen within the neurodiverse community, without paying a lot of attention outside input.

I love the term neurodiversity (or neurodivergence*). When I first heard it,  a light came on in my mind. I finally had a word for something I’d felt my whole life: that “mentally ill” isn’t the right word for who I am, because I’m not ill. This is just my personality, and you can’t (nor should you want to) cure me of it. (Yes, I want/need some symptoms treated, but that’s a different discussion.)

The problem is, the term “neurodiverse” is a catch-all term for A LOT of different sorts of people. This is one of those “duh” statements, but I think we need to meditate on it. I hear a lot of people say “I’m neurodiverse, too,” (or, worse yet, “my aunt is neurodiverse”) as a precursor to statements indicating they think they understand what life is like for ALL neurodiverse people.

Ugh. Amirite?

I don’t want to stop using the term “neruodiverse”. I lurves it, and don’t want to complicate the language by having more and more terms, or just labeling ourselves with our diagnoses. “Neurodiverse” expresses an idea about all of us, that we’re not ill and are okay the way we are, and thus is a good catch-all term.

But we all need to check ourselves when we start thinking we understand what it’s like for all people under the neurodiverse umbrella. There’s a huge spectrum not only of different diagnoses under that umbrella, but also of levels of marginalization. Some of us struggle daily with the problems our neurodiversity causes us. It’s affects everything we do, and every conversation we have with others. Other people’s neurodiversity has only a minor effect on their lives.

If you have minor clinical depression, for instance, you’re neurodiverse in my opinion (unless you choose to not identify that way, of course). Depression is something I experience, and is super shitty. It can make you miss work, sabotage relationships, hurt yourself. But, in the case of minor depression, most people won’t know you have it unless you tell them.

mentalOn the other end of the spectrum is my partner, Phoenix. He has schizophrenia and can’t even walk silently into a room without people reacting to his neurodiversity: his strangeness radiates from him like a glow—a beautiful glow, in my opinion, but not in the opinions of most others. He’s one of the very best, coolest, smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but most folks will never know that because their reactions to him are almost uniformly negative. They avoid him, or have a (misguided) “protective” anger reaction (for instance, they call the cops on him for yelling and pacing in his yard. They beat the shit out of him for talking to himself, because they think he’s “talking shit” about them). At best, they pity him and don’t take anything he says seriously.

You can imagine the effect this sort of marginalization could have on a person. Phoenix is positive and confident, but he’s told me on various occasions that before I came along, he thought he’d be alone for his whole life.

I, for the sake of you knowing my viewpoint, fall somewhere in between that. I struggle daily with my bipolar and PTSD on an internal level, and it’s been a defining force of my entire life path. It’s destroyed more than one relationship, and caused me to seek out abusive and toxic ones. It’s landed me in prison. It’s made it extremely hard for me to maintain employment for more than a few years at a time, and has cost me many promotions because of latent bias (and no, I’m not being paranoid. I have direct evidence). The list goes on. But in my daily interactions, at least at times I’m not in crisis, people generally just think I’m a little bit eccentric or “off”. It certainly colors their reactions toward me, but they might not even guess at first blush that I’m neurodiverse. Plus, I have the advantage of not being one of those people that comes off as creepy. At least it doesn’t seem like it, usually, based on how I’m treated (I mean, I’m not creepy, right? Tell me if I am). So my neurodiversity doesn’t isolate me in that way (though it will cause me to self-isolate at times).

So, what I’m saying is, someone with minor depression can’t know what it’s like for people like me, or people like Phoenix. And I can’t know what it’s like for someone with Autism, or schizoaffective disorder, etc. But I can probably identify with what other neurodiverse people go through better than most neurotypical people can, and I will endeavor to listen and be accepting—to be a “safe space” for other neurodiverse people to express their feelings and experiences. I will never say neurodiverse people are “doing it for attention” or any of those other horrible, marginalizing things neurotypical (or self-hating neurodiverse) people say.

The reason we label ourselves as neurodiverse is to try to seek out people who understand what it’s like for us, and will listen and accept us for who we are. Thus, it’s very, very important to be careful of behaviors in the community that can cause us to marginalize and isolate our peers even more. We need to be there for one another. Let us remember to listen and be good allies, as well as good peers.

* I don’t like that this term as much, for the silly reason that I don’t like the novel Divergent. We all have our quirks.