Go time's "Neurodiverse Gophers" episode - a critique
I recently listened to the go time episode about neurodiversity and found it pretty upsetting. I found that Johnny brought up a lot of problematic ableist statements that I feel didn't get the pushback they deserved from his co-hosts. This detracted from the actual message they wanted to convey.
While I don't want to harp on Johnny too much, he offers a host of stereotypical takes on neurodivergence. These takes showcase exactly what we (I have been diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD, and am undergoing an assessment for autism) have to deal with. The co-hosts have done a great job discussing the topic at hand while avoiding the elephant in the room: the consistently ableist comments and questioning by Johnny, which is why I feel compelled to write this article.
I am about to look through a number of statements that stuck out to me and give them the rebuke that I think they deserve.
Framing the conversation as "us vs them"
Johnny's first intervention frames the topic as a contentious, even adversarial: he wants to play "the devil's advocate". Who is the devil here? Why frame things this way? This shows a lack of curiosity, will to listen.
Johnny: Allow me to play devil's advocate a little bit. […] Why did we feel the need to come up with a label for this? Like, why the otherness? Why the specialty? Why the branding? Is it because it makes it easier to talk about? Why?
I find this genuinely interesting question (who coined the term neurodiversity and neurodivergence, and why? What do they mean?) that gets drowned out in aggressive questioning. The "otherness" is because society "others" neurodivergent people, and because they don't accommodate them, disables them (which was articulated by the answering co-hosts). The first stone was laid: Johnny's rhetoric of "us vs them" wasn't clarified, when that is arguably the most important issue in public discussion.
Neurodivergence as a "choice"
This same thought, that neurodivergent people somehow put on a label to gain some nebulous benefits comes up over and over. Johnny points out that as a black engineer, he understands what being atypical means (and what an alienation it must be). There is such a small step to take to apply that understanding to the idea that other people might feel atypical in a way that stretches beyond individual differences, and to listen to their experiences.
Johnny: So to me, when you say that “Okay, well, even within our own peer groups, we seek to differentiate ourselves",
Johnny: Like, it’s become so easy to just use that label to apply to any and everything, if you don’t require some form of diagnosis from a professional. And that’s the fear that I have. Or not a fear, but that’s the concern I have with coming up with these terms, although useful… People can just be like “I don’t need a diagnosis." I can just say I’m neurodiverse.”
No one chooses neurodivergence. It is part of your fabric as a human being. It just is "invisible" and poorly known or understood. No one seeks to "differentiate themselves", what people seek is making their difference visible.
I challenge anybody to walk around wearing an "I am autistic" badge and see how far that gets them and how many kudos they get for it. I challenge anybody to disclose at work and see if they are really better off. In the most unfortunate case, if someone "pretends" to have ADHD so they can work less, that's a case for HR and unrelated to the topic at hand. The podcast is about "neurodiverse gophers", not "gophers pretending to be neurodivergent to get out of jail for free". If Johnny has concerns, let him make a show about that, backed by evidence that this is actually a problem worth discussing (it's not).
Instead, this shows how neurodivergent people are expected to play the game of normal society and not make waves. How the dominant group feels threatened (Johnny mentions fear later on) when its privilege is being exposed.
Putting on a label (which is a decision, and I don't think one anyone makes lightly) is helpful for a host of reasons:
finally having a tool to work with and understand yourself
finding fellow neurodivergent people
raising awareness and understanding
The last one is the most significant. Society conditions us so hard at "passing", at "masking", that you might not even think of yourself as neurodivergent (you could just feel burnt out, depressed, misunderstood, disorganized). The increasingly frequent adult diagnoses are a consequence of people being more aware of these labels and understanding themselves better. My life outlook fundamentally changed when I could relate to the problems autistic people face.
I would rather this didn’t become yet some other flippant thing people just put on their Twitter bios, and stuff, and just walk around like it’s some sort of badge of honor. “I belong to a club of fellow neurodiverse people”, because that’s not a joke. It’s not a joke. To label yourself such a thing is not a joke.
There is a weird obsession with people putting their labels on Twitter bios and conference badge labels, possibly to make themselves look cool. Like, duh, that's literally what a conference badge or twitter bio is made for. If you don't like the way a person presents themselves, don't talk to them. Win-win. People can put whatever they want on their badges.
Framing neurodivergence as a deficiency to be overcome
This to me is an example of the fundamental misunderstanding at play here: framing neurodivergence as a medical problem, as a deficiency that the neurodivergent person has to work hard at to "overcome" to be recognized as a valid member of society. That it is on the marginalized person to put in even more effort, rather than for society at large to change. For example,
Johnny: Bringing this back - by simply saying “Hey, we now have a name for this thing.” If you wake up Saturday morning, it’s not that your dog died the other day, you just have a mental deficiency of some kind. If you’re angry because somebody cut you off, it’s not like “Oh, this a-hole cut me off because they’re a bad driver, it’s because I have a mental deficiency.”
Johnny: There’s a very clear line between somebody who is thinking they’re on the spectrum, versus somebody who has been diagnosed and has sought treatment, and hopefully has overcome, if it’s something that can be overcome.
So you have folks that are on that end of the spectrum, where through no fault of their own, this thing is part of their life. And then you have folks on the other side, who basically perhaps haven’t yet developed sort of the mental fortitude, or haven’t put in any work into, or haven’t sought assistance, having the resources, if that is at your disposal.
Johnny: You decide that “I am neurodiverse, and that’s just the badge that I walk around with at conferences, a label” - if that’s your thing, then I think you’re doing it wrong, and I think you’re doing an injustice to actually those who actually suffer from some debilitating condition.
No neurotype or cognitive type is a "mental deficiency", a "debilitating condition", something you "suffer" from. Maybe you can frame diseases of the brain as deficiencies, but surely the brain one is born with is not, it just is.
What makes someone neurodivergent is having a neurotype that doesn't align with the society around them. And while the neurodivergent person can work hard at adapting just to exist in such a world (something they have no choice but to do), it is up to society at large to find ways to be more inclusive and not disable these people. It is the friction between a society made for people with a different neurotype that is debilitating, that causes suffering.
How much effort and pain people are suffering through is something that the medical establishment has historically had a difficult time dealing with and recognizing. It is however something the neurodivergent individual know extremely well, sadly. It is not up to Johnny to judge how much effort a person has to put in before they are accepted as worthy of accommodation.
This is, out of personal experience, one of the really traumatic things about autism. People will perceive you as arrogant, a jerk, as an asshole, when you are not (how can you try not to be an asshole? By the simple virtue of trying, you are not an asshole). Which means that they will frame you as using your autism as an excuse to be an asshole. This turns into damned if you do, damned if you don't. My strategy was to never say anything, ever, out of fear of being misunderstood.
Who is deficient here? The deficiency here is the mismatch between communication styles, and the person suffering from it is the autistic, the neurodivergent person. It is a two-person job to overcome the issue.
What neurotypicals would benefit the most (literally) from understanding is that disability accommodations benefit everybody. The world is not a zero-sum game, and everybody experiences varying amounts of disability, whatever their baseline might be. You might be frustrated, tired, or overwhelmed–wouldn't you like a quiet room to rest? If tensions arise at work, wouldn't it be helpful to have a formal way to resolve communication conflicts? If your coworkers are too loud, wouldn't you find it useful to have noise-cancelling headphones on hand?
Do self-aware and neurodiverse people also bear some responsibility for the places they find themselves in, or they put themselves in? For example, if I know I get tired of people very quickly, because if I talk to too many people for too long, it starts to affect me, I can’t function properly. Is it then not upon you to manage that in some way?
People do indeed manage, which means you won't see them doing so, since they leave. Or they manage poorly, and suffer the consequences. Neurodivergent people, by virtue of being a minority, can't exercise responsibility for the places they find themselves in. Per definition, neurodivergence is having a neurotype that diverges from the norm, meaning it's a relative concept–if a neurotypical finds themselves in a room full of autistic people, it would indeed be their responsibility to make the neurotypical person feel included.
If I’m a conference organizer, do I bear the responsibility for making you feel comfortable beyond what I would normally do to accommodate any other group?
I mean, you have no responsibility for anyone. However, if making certain accommodations would allow more people to feel included and participate, wouldn't you want to take that step?
So, what to do?
Johnny's final intervention is an excellent way to close this article.
Johnny: They have to tell me in what ways I can help. Simply telling me that you’re neurodiverse doesn’t tell me anything. For that matter, I’m neurodiverse, right?
The thing to do is what you should do you they realize you are in a position of privilege.
First, listen. If someone tells you they are neurodivergent (and they might say that out of frustration, anger even, with a communication style that might be uncomfortable to you), they are taking a significant step in disclosing to you. The least you can do is show empathy instead of challenging them.
Second, educate yourself. There is a wealth of information pertaining to neurodivergence on the internet, from personal biographies to concrete guides and strategies to accommodate different neurotypes. It is not on the neurodivergent person to educate you, although many would be happy to.
I don't want to harp on Johnny per se, because I feel he walked into this blindly and without preparation. If anything, I wish the co-hosts hadn't let the statements stand as they did or even concede that "Johnny has a point." It is not easy to be confronted with your privilege without becoming defensive (ask me how I know), it is not easy to learn how to listen and not center yourself. But it is a muscle that can be practiced, and your own life becomes richer for it.