Growing up in Botswana, I had a lot of friends. We’d hang out at school and play at each other’s houses in the afternoons. We were close, and we did not fight much. I felt happy with my friends and like I had a place there. I didn’t even have to think about having to fit in. One day a new girl came to our school from South Africa and was sitting alone. I approached her to be her friend and find out more about her. I introduced her to my friends, and she seemed happier and like she was finding her feet. About a week later, none of my friends were speaking to me, and I had no idea why.
I feel like everyone has a story like this from when they were younger, in which a friendship you felt was completely solid and unquestionable randomly burns to the ground. I went to speak to one of my best friends in my former group and asked her why I was suddenly being shunned, and she said “The new girl told us not to talk to you.” I eventually stopped going to school. It seems excessive, but my younger self could not make sense of this set of circumstances: my best friends stopped speaking to me because some person they hardly knew told them to.
I couldn’t understand these social dynamics nor find acceptance of the situation. I realised that I didn’t understand the unspoken social rules of relating to people, which is something that apparently comes naturally to most. I spent so much time obsessing about what I said, how I said it, and whether or not people liked me that I became unhappy, and couldn’t understand why other people didn’t struggle the same way. Later on in life I’d come to learn that this had something to do with the fact that I – and many others – have anxiety and are on the autism spectrum. This information has helped me understand how I relate to people and the world. It has helped me understand that I was a target of bullying because of my neurological makeup making me more trusting, friendly and people-pleasing. This helps me draw boundaries for myself now, but at the time, I withdrew from people because I was too scared to continually be rejected.
The problem of being an outcast carried itself to my life in South Africa. Life is very different in Botswana. It is a lot slower, and people are very friendly and kind. I ended up being socially quite different to South Africans. I was seen as different and weird; I was often made fun of without realising it. I tried to make friends but it never lasted. I eventually made two friends, both girls who were kind-of social outcasts as well.
I never knew what it meant to be different, because to me I was just myself. But the way people treated me showed me I was different, and – especially – that I was different for a girl. I was often punished for not being socially acceptable and came to learn that the phrase “socially acceptable” is only another way of describing what normal is. If you don’t like, talk about, or embody what is socially acceptable, you are seen as abnormal, and you may find yourself having a hard time fitting in.
Our social definition of who is “normal” actually has very little to do with who a person is. It’s easier to define someone who is just “different” – which will usually be someone uncool because they don’t like what everyone else likes, are annoying because they talk about something they enjoy a lot or because they are very hyper, or are just considered weird because they don’t talk a lot. Opposed to this, someone who is normal is just…normal! They don’t do things differently from everyone else! They don’t upset the balance; it is easy to just be around them. Can you think of some people like this?
Social norms are formulated based on an unspoken agreement of what is or is not socially safe, desired, or acceptable. Some social norms are based on logical considerations that make life better for everyone, for example, not being violent in social settings. But there are some detrimental social norms that have no real logical basis, and have been formulated out of a place of prejudice against certain groups of people. For example, in the past, women were not allowed to attend university because it was considered “normal” for us to want to stay at home, raise kids and serve husbands. This created a lack of access to education and freedom for women, which has changed over time due to protest.
The reality is that “normal” is created and maintained by social pressure. People are bullied and rejected if they don’t do what people are deeming as “normal”, so there is a lot of pressure to ditch your authentic self and act in a way similar to what is seen as normal. This happens for girls more than boys, because there are stronger pressures on girls to act in a socially “acceptable” way, mainly due to the pressure placed on girls to be matched with a man to marry. This really should change.
Neurodiversity is a word to describe the fact that our brains process information and react to it differently. This means that we all socialise, learn and work differently, and that our ability to pay attention and regulate our moods is different. Everyone contributes to neurodiversity, but this concept also falls prey to the idea of “normal”. There are two conceptual categories called “neurotypical”, representing people whose brains process and react in a socially defined “normal” way, and “neurodivergent”, representing those whose processing deviates from this norm.
You may have noticed that there are some people around you who have loads of energy and struggle to concentrate in class, who might even say they have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Or there are kids who are very quiet and read a lot, or are very obsessed with specific interests. And there are people around you who sometimes get very angry or frustrated and you don’t really understand why, who may seem very different from your social definition of normal. You may have heard of the term “autism” or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) to refer to people who experience life this way. Maybe you feel this way yourself, like me!
The word disorder suggests that there is something inherently bad about being neurodivergent, but this is absolutely not true. Some people have very advanced neurological disorders that impair their physical function. Otherwise, a neurological disorder is only debilitating if society rejects the characteristics of the disorder, and does not make considerations for these characteristics in school and work. This is unfortunately mostly the case because of the social stigma against being anything but what is considered normal.
It’s important to note that we usually recognise boys who are neurodivergent more than girls, because girls’ behaviour is more strictly policed and deviations from social norms are punished more harshly. Neurodivergent girls end up masking their differences for social safety, but they still remain. A recent Austraian study found that 80% of girls on the autism spectrum are not diagnosed correctly by their doctor!
Why does it matter?
Knowing about the characteristics associated with different types of neurodivergence – like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia to name a few – helps us understand ourselves and how we relate to people better. Neurodivergent people, like me, may struggle to concentrate, keep deadlines, manage time and finances to keep up with the world of neurotypical, consistency-driven people. Knowing the way our brains work can help us be kinder to ourselves and find ways of studying, working and interacting with people that are better for us. Additionally, our neurotypical friends can be more understanding of the different ways in which we act and experience life. This leads to acceptance.
Tell us: Do you sometimes feel different or left behind? How do you remind yourself to stay true to yourself? How do you celebrate neurodivergence?
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