How do you operate in a world that’s not designed for you?
How do you make sense of instructions that weren’t written for you?
How do you navigate expectations that weren’t set with you in mind?
These are big, personal questions and, thankfully, we’ve started taking a look at the answers at a cultural level and not just at the individual level.
But until we see some serious change to a culture that privileges white, male, thin, neurotypical, heterosexual, cisgendered, hierarchal, and non-disabled ways of living, we’ve got some adapting to do.
It’s easy to think that these adaptations are a constraint. A limitation of what’s possible.
And honestly, sometimes they are.
But often, these adaptations are leveraged as strengths.
Truthfully, I didn’t think these questions belonged to me for a long time. I thought I’d been gifted with talent, intelligence, and at least a bit of charisma and that I really should be able to make it all work pretty easily.
It wasn’t until I ran straight into a wall of burnout after college that I started to question whether that was really true.
It’s been 16 years since I hit that wall. Since I sat on my professor’s couch and cried that I just didn’t know if grad school was the next step for me. Since my mom took the truck up to Syracuse to move down the furniture we’d already moved into my grad school apartment.
And over those 16 years, I’ve tried to fix myself. I’ve tried to become the kind of person who operates in this world naturally, who follows the instructions to a T, and who easily meets and exceeds expectations.
But last year, I got curious.
As I talked about some of my own breakthroughs and personal successes in terms of leaning to manage myself better and execute on ideas, I got gentle messages from folks urging me to be careful about not taking neurodivergent experiences into account in the way I explained what I was working with.
At first, my reaction to these messages was the deep concern that comes along with inadvertently harming someone or making them feel like they don’t belong.
But then, once I understood their own experiences better, I started to wonder: is my experience really that different than theirs? Or rather, do my experiences fit the norms as neatly as I’d like them to?
I found myself wanting to reply that I appreciated their messages, truly, and this doesn’t come easily to me. It’s the hardest work I’ve done in my life.
Over time, the evidence grew and grew. No, my experience didn’t fit the norms. It might be different than other people’s but my sense that I didn’t belong to the shoulds and supposed-tos of culture, relationships, productivity, or emotions became clear.
At the same time, I was hearing even more women talk about themselves and their experiences in ways that felt haltingly familiar.
I brought up my suspicion to Sean. “I’ve started to wonder if I’m autistic,” I said.
To his credit, he didn’t say, “Yeah, I knew that already” but he did listen with an I’ve-been-waiting-for-this-conversation sort of composure.
While this knowledge has laid bare some very real challenges I have in navigating the world and my relationships, it’s also helped me make sense of my strengths—and see them as things that are genuinely unique.