The Paradoxes of Life When You’re Neurodiverse

GoodTherapy | The Paradoxes of Life When You're Neurodiverse

by Anthony Cavuoti, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, in Torrance, California

The Paradoxes of ADHD and Dyslexia

If you have dyslexia and/or ADHD, you probably feel like Cassandra at times, both blessed and cursed by the gods. You have sublime insights and useful, innovative ideas, sometimes intentionally and other times quite by accident. Yet more often than not, the significant people in your life focus on your vulnerabilities, completely missing the nuanced complexities that you perceive. It is maddening when people focus on things you struggle with and how you cannot inhabit the conventional rules and modes of operating that people take for granted while you are somehow finding your own way through a different set of rules and avenues. 

The Battle Between Your Gifts and Conventional Ways of Being

More often than not, you come out on top, baffling others as well as yourself. Most, even those closest to you, do not see the invisible gifts and the originality of your effective ways of doing things because they aren’t conventional. You may often hide or ignore this side of yourself, attempting to do things as prescribed by society in an effort to fit in. Instead, trying to play by these rules amplifies and brings attention to your weaknesses while minimizing your strengths. 

Such strategies may have become an unconscious habit for you. If you haven’t had any validation of your gifts, you may not even realize their significance. Too often, the originality of your insights and effectiveness of your methods go unnoticed or are impulsively dismissed as inconsequential. This is devastating, especially when you’re still coming to terms with your perceptions and abilities. In the near future, those perceptions and abilities may be able to alter the fabric of culture as we know it, but most of the people in your life do not notice. 

It Begins in Childhood

Children naturally try to orient themselves to their environment. If a neurodiverse child is raised in an invalidating environment that demands they be neurotypical, the effects on their development can be devastating. Compare this scenario to that of Cinderella, who at the beginning of the story never experiences a valid reflection of her worth; instead, she is subject to the distortions of others’ ignorance. 

Even worse, a child could be raised like Mowgli in The Jungle Book: his unusual abilities of mind are seen as taboo, something that’s going to bring disaster upon him and the jungle. Those around him seem well-meaning, but they do their best to make sure he doesn’t use his man-powers. In the end, though, the survival of both Mowgli and his friends depends on him utilizing his unique abilities as a human. 

An unaffirming, invalidating environment can harm a child’s development, especially if that child is neurodiverse. Cinderella, we all know, is mistreated, underestimated, and sabotaged. Mowgli’s growth is stunted by those who raise him while trying to control how he becomes an adult human. But Cinderella’s true path comes when someone sees her true self and treats her with dignity, and Mowgli’s humanity turns out to be the only path to salvation for the jungle.

Finding a Way Out

Despite the challenges society raises for neurodiverse individuals, we can learn how to free ourselves from unhelpful entanglements and experience more of the full range of our abilities while minimizing frustration.  

Share Your Gifts with Those Who Will Appreciate Them

There is a strange irony for neurodiverse folks like us: what we say is often so deep, layered, and sophisticated, and at the same time sparkling with rich, complex emotions in a wide range of feelings, that unsophisticated people are unable, unwilling, and unmotivated to plumb the depths and traverse the range of what we’re expressing. 

It is like trying to explain the significance and the excitement of finding a missing link fossil to an unmotivated butcher who is focused on their daily affairs, who, besides beer and bowling, has no real interest outside of their work. No matter how smart they are, they will never understand and appreciate what you are expressing. Instead, you should explain your discoveries and insights to a curator of fossils at a museum or an evolutionary archaeologist at a university. Too often, the “butcher” is our family and our acquaintances. (I have nothing against butchers — God knows before I became semi-vegan, I cherish their services.)

Let me try another analogy. Let’s say you have a rich appreciation of panel wine, and you are trying to give it to someone that never drinks anything but beer. They will have no appreciation of the sensitivity of the grapes that go into making panel wine, how you cannot force it to reveal its flavor but must coax it. Certain things can only be gently coaxed out. Michelangelo realized this when he was making his sculptures. The beauty is already in the stone; the sculptor cannot will it — they have to first be able to receive what others cannot perceive, the magnificence and beauty in the stone, and have the skill and patience to invite the stone to reveal itself. This can never be forced; it has to come from a sincere desire to reveal.

You have to be alert and selective about who you share the strengths of your neurodiverse mind with, knowing that some enlightened people will appreciate the full range of your intellectual and creative powers. It takes an active mind and discernment to determine who will and won’t get you and to identify what barriers hinder even enlightened people that do not get you, such as fixed worldviews, traditions, group loyalties, and other factors that people cling to as a way to find and maintain their orientation and identity. 

Too often, people attribute their lack of comprehension to you, thinking that, once again, you misunderstood the subject or what is really going on, or assuming that you aren’t intelligent, even if you expressed your idea flawlessly. Other times, you may make a pretty profound mistake in word choice or a certain link in the chain of your explanation, and all they see is your mistake, leading them to dismiss you completely. For example, in my first draft of this article, I meant to say Cassandra but I accidentally said Sophia. I did not catch this mistake at first; someone could have taken this as impeachable proof that everything I say is erroneous and incongruent, thinking, “Well, he does not know what he’s talking about; someone that can make such a fundamental mistake is actually a flawed tool. Such a mind can’t be trusted.”

It is as if you are a Michael Faraday in the 18th century. You know about the invisible, underlying pattern of electromagnetism as well as how it could serve humanity as a new source of power. Yet you are so bogged down by mundane experiments and responsibilities, so hindered with various speaking engagements, and so limited in your mathematical understanding that no one takes you and your findings seriously, but only as a source of amusement and fascination.

5 Strategies to Help You Flourish

To keep up the Faraday metaphor, my main purpose in this article is to help you identify with your discovery of electromagnetism and not your ineptitude at doing things conventionally. Here’s my advice to you, disguised as advice to Faraday.

  1. Prioritize your time and resources to focus on electromagnetism and other activities that stimulate you, and give yourself downtime to recharge. For me, that looks like reading and being around interesting people and setting aside vistas of time throughout the week to reflect. For you, who knows? That’s something you can explore. 
  2. Do not take your environment as a reflection of you. Continue to glean from multiple environments and resources, both conventional and unconventional. Connect with other people that are interested in electromagnetism. Find ways to translate your vision into something practical and/or give it a sound theoretical basis. For instance, you could write a novel where the main characters in an advanced society used electromagnetism as part of daily life in the 18th century.
  3. Be intentional about what environments you put yourself in. An acorn needs to be in the right environment for it to grow; similarly, making an effort to find and put yourself in environments that are conducive to your growth as a complete human being is essential. This includes your attitude towards yourself. Internally identify with yourself as the discoverer of electromagnetism and its implications, rather than aligning with the collective assumption that you are an eccentric entertainer. Find environments that support your emerging sense of self and avoid those that diminish it. Cinderella will never find validation with her stepsisters and stepmother. Superman will never possess his strength around those that carry Kryptonite. Jesus marveled at his inability when he was in Nazareth, his hometown. Go where you need to be to realize the potential of your full self. 
  4. Find someone with the tools to complete your work in a conventionally acceptable way if you can. I know this sounds like it contradicts what I wrote above, but stick with me. Just like a writer needs a good proofreader and editor, you may need a video editor or streaming editor, a cowriter or a power-point designer — someone who can translate your work into a format that other, more conventional thinkers can digest. 
  5. Accept that you are always going to struggle more than most (at least in the beginning) to make your real and deeper self happen. It is always worth the struggle to show up for yourself, no matter how far the distance and how many the obstacles. 

Times Have Changed

Everything is happening so quickly that both new and old are being reinvented with unknown implications; this is right up your alley if you have ADHD or dyslexia. Your ability to prognosticate, to anticipate where the wind is blowing and pick up on culture and society’s tectonic shifts, is finally being recognized as the gift it is. You do not have to wait two years, 10 years, or 20 years for it to happen anymore.   

You are always going to be ahead of your time as a neurodiverse person. You are always going to be faster, at least one step ahead, than the rapid pace of societal and cultural evolution. No matter how much the walls seem concrete, no matter how solid the doors appear, no matter how much it seems that society is in a state of permanent solidification, go forward with your innovative ideas anyways. Focus on the emergence of the unknown that is coming through you more readily than others. You may even be part of the emergence in a way, similar to how Albert Einstein was a continuation of Maxwell and Faraday, or how Charles Darwin completed the work of the evolutionary theorists prior to him. 

Questions and a Word of Warning

Here are some exploratory questions to ask yourself: 

  • What are some of the challenges you face as a neurodiverse person in going forward with your higher ability while working on the tools and resources to ground it? 
  • How are you accepting and integrating your feelings as you go forward? 
  • What forces are you more keenly aware of as you more fully come into yourself? 
  • How are you becoming aware of your unique needs in the face of the strengths and weaknesses of society and culture that are both supportive of your emergence and oppositional at the same time? 

You want to be a Nicolas Copernicus and not a Giordano Bruno. You want to build solid cases for your arguments before proceeding and be cautious at times about who you share them with: You do not want to get yourself metaphorically burned at the stake of others’ collective misperceptions.

A therapist can help you navigate these dicy, tempestuous waters. Start your search for a therapist who can help you realize your full potential today.

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