April 11, 2019

Today, at a high school, I gave a speech on neurodiversity. Here’s what I said…

Good morning! Happy Thursday. I secretly hope – okay, maybe not so secretly – that this will be a Thursday that changes your life. Why? Because I’m here to talk to you about something that changed my own life – the concept of neurodiversity.

You guys heard a bit about neurodiversity in a video earlier, but to sum it up, neurodiversity is a fact of life: Different people have different kinds of brains!

But it’s also an idea: The idea that different kinds of brains have different strengths and perspectives, and having a variety makes the world a better place.

So, why me? Why did your school pick me to come and talk about this?

Well, I’ve been writing and speaking about neurodiversity for a couple years now, but the story of how I got into it begins much earlier – as early as high school.

Now, maybe you all get along great with one another, but there was this one girl in my high school class who didn’t get along very well with anyone.

I mean, maybe she had friends outside of school, but at school? Nobody really liked her, because she was super annoying and kind of weird.

For one thing, she was always pointing out everyone’s mistakes. Including the teacher’s! She’d raise her hand and be like, “Excuse me? You spelled a word wrong on the whiteboard!” or whatever.

For another thing, she was absolutely clueless about drama. There would be cliques, and rumors, and people being mad at one another for random reasons – and she would never pick up on any of it, like she was in her own little world.

For another thing, she was always raising her hand and asking tons of questions. A lot of the time, teachers would say, “We went over this already!” But there was always some tiny specific thing that she didn’t quite get.

For another thing, she was always climbing random stuff. She’d be up on a ledge, or a rafter, or the top of a closet – somewhere you’re not supposed to be – and people would be like, “Aaa! What are YOU doing there?”

Anyway, let me just say, she didn’t exactly fit in.

Well… that girl was me. But, spoiler – I turned out fine!

In high school, I caught everyone’s mistakes. Now, as the Chief Technology Officer of a marketing company, it is literally my job to make sure that everyone else’s work is technically correct.

In high school, I stayed out of drama. Now, I have wonderful, deep friendships with people who are kind, and who value my kindness, as well as my sincerity.

In high school, I needed clear explanations with precise detail. Now, as a writer, I can give other people such explanations, which helps them to understand things they didn’t before.

In high school, I wanted to be up on top of every obstacle. Now, having trained in parkour for the past ten years, I’ve learned to get on top of higher and higher obstacles – which apparently makes me cool?

Nevertheless, in spite of all this, I still had a lingering sense that to some people, I would always be super annoying and kind of weird.

Fast-forward to age 28, which was just a couple years ago. That is when I learned, for the first time, that all of my weirdness has a reason. Apparently, I am autistic!

Suddenly, everything about me began to make sense.

Why do errors jump out at me? Because autistic people notice tiny details. We catch things that other people miss.

Why does drama go over my head? Because autistic people also miss things that other people catch. When we hear a person say something that’s different from what they actually mean, we tend to take it at face value.

Why am I so precise and literal? Because autistic people experience so much misunderstanding and miscommunication with things that aren’t clearly defined, like body language. So when something is possible to clearly define, like a homework assignment, we really want to do so.

Why do I feel drawn to places that are high up, separate from everyone else? Because autistic people take in so much information through our five senses, that everything seems loud and bright and shiny to us – and honestly, pretty overwhelming. I like to tuck myself away in a corner, because it gives me some safety for my senses.

So here I was, feeling like I’d just discovered I’m a mermaid or something. It definitely helped my self-esteem, but it didn’t change the fact that the world is not built for mermaids!

That’s what a disability is, after all. I mean, think about it: What happens when you take a mermaid and put her on dry land? Her special ability becomes a disability.

Likewise, I struggle a lot in some situations, and do super well in others.

I don’t do well with big-picture planning, but I’m great at zeroing in on the details.

I don’t do well around drama, but I’m great around people who say what they mean.

I don’t do well with vague instructions, but I’m great when I know all the steps to follow.

I don’t do well in noisy crowds, but I’m great in small groups or one-on-one.

People with other disabilities, like ADHD or dyslexia, need different things than I do. But you know what we share in common?

People usually aren’t that curious to learn why we act the way we do.

If they were curious, they’d ask. If they asked, we’d answer. If we answered, they’d understand. And if they understood, they would empathize.

So here is my neurodiversity challenge to you: Get curious, and ask more people more questions. It doesn’t have to be all scientific, like, “Please explain the complexities of your neurology to me!” or whatever. Start simple.

“What has been the funnest part of your day so far?” That’s a question that will tell you what someone finds easy.

“What’s something that you really wish you could skip today?” That’s a question that will tell you what someone finds hard.

“What are you excited to do this weekend? What if it was a month-long weekend? What if it was a month-long weekend and you had a million dollars?” These are questions that will tell you what someone is passionate about.

But let me make one thing very clear: This is not just about talking to the weird kids, or the kids with disabilities. And in fact, if you’re putting people into those kinds of boxes in your brain, you are missing the entire point.

Neurodiversity is bigger than just disabilities. Neurodiversity includes you. No matter how you think, you’re gonna find someone who isn’t like you.

Do you think in a straight line, where one thought leads to the next – or do you get a bunch of random ideas, and then look for connections?

When you walk in a room, do you pay more attention to the structure of things, their function and purpose – or do you notice the color, the patterns, the way the light hits the wall?

The way that you perceive the world, the things you pay attention to, the things you like – none of that is identical to anyone else.

So this is a fact, just like neurodiversity is a fact: Some things about you are just plain weird.

If that thought makes you cringe, makes you afraid of losing your friends – stomp out that fear right now! Because listen, you are NEVER going to be able to accept others until you first learn to accept yourself.

And if you’re trying so hard to be “normal,” you know what else you’re never gonna be able to do? Be awesome. Be incredible! Surprise people with your unique ideas and fresh perspective – and also surprise yourself. How? With the coolness you discover in people you never thought to talk to before.

Please, talk to them. Talk to us! Talk to everyone.

Get curious about individual people, go out of your way to satisfy that curiosity, and you will discover just how beautiful neurodiversity can be.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.