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The Struggles of Being Neurodivergent in Social Justice Spaces

“Dutch Clean.”

Those two words basically tore my world apart. I told my then-boyfriend’s mother that I wanted to give his house a good “Dutch Clean.” To me, that was an innocuous concept I thought everybody knew about. It’s a series of housecleaning steps (like airing mattresses and using vinegar water and a squeegee — never Windex — to wash windows), done in the militant, precise style of many Dutch huisvrouwen. Even beloved Canadian author L.M. Montgomery briefly discusses this in her classic “Jane of Lantern Hill.” I thought it was a good thing to do to support my busy, hardworking boyfriend. But as I spoke, I watched fury fall over the face of the woman I thought would eventually become my mother-in-law.

“Us non-Dutch like a clean house too,” she snarled.

It’s been a year, but I can still feel the chill that sank over me. I stammered an apology and explained it wasn’t about doing something better than a non-Dutch person, but rather a specific system of cleaning, just as there are specific recipes for bread. She made a flimsy excuse and left. Within an hour, my boyfriend had called me. “Did you use the term ‘Dutch Clean’ to my mother?”

I explained what it meant.

“Well, it’s racist against her because she’s Ukrainian.”

Two weeks later, I was single. More happened during that time frame, but it’s all along the same vein. His family misunderstood something I said or did and got angry. False accusations spilled forth with no chance for me to tell my side. It didn’t matter that I was extremely physically ill, which was aggravating my mental condition and leaving me with severe brain fog. It didn’t matter that I was trying only to help. All that mattered was that I’d committed the unforgivable crime of not magically knowing how they felt and what they wanted. Maybe a different person might have made the connection between his mother’s heritage and the possibility that referring to something Dutch might offend her. I did not.

That pattern has been a constant in my life.

I’m not neurotypical. My brain is formed and wired in a unique way, leaving me with several diagnoses. I’m amazing at some things, like writing, cooking and community organizing. But those strengths exist alongside some unusual cabling.  I feel emotions more strongly than many neurotypical people, and it takes far more emotional labor than average to get through a day. There are other functions of daily life that are next to impossible, like grasping social cues or understanding hints. It’s rare for me to comprehend what someone wants unless they directly tell me. For example, if my friend says they are tired, it won’t register with me that I should go home and let them rest.

As a child, I had a significant person in my world who would literally ignore me unless I phrased my question or request in the manner he preferred. Of course, I never knew what that was. Communication was an exercise in frustration, confusion and shame. To anyone I regularly interact with now as an adult, I explain that I’m neurodivergent (ND) and don’t grasp indications. If they want something from me, they have to directly explain. Some people are willing to do that.

I was, for a while, heartened at the push within the activism community to include disabled people. I learned the word “ableist,” meaning prejudice against people with disabilities, including neurodiverse people. Understanding ableism gave me a way to express the sense I’d had for many years about the unfairness of holding someone’s disabilities against them. But as I move deeper into activism, I see it’s not so rosy. The intersection of disability is negligible at best, and neurodivergent people are frequently pushed out. There are also issues surrounding those with physical disabilities, but that isn’t where my major challenges lie, so I’m not going to speak to it; I’m going to confine my comments to that which has to do with neurodivergence.

Unfortunately, the activism community has a serious ableism problem. Yes, the world at large is ableist too, as exemplified by my opening anecdote. But the wider world is not the entity that claims to be making space for those who are different.

For neurodivergent people, social justice culture can be a minefield. When I’m interacting in those circles, I frequently feel more vulnerable and less accepted for my differences than anywhere else. I believe this is due to a simple concept the social justice movement has embraced: impact over intent.

In the general population, if you mean well and are following basic social rules but then slip up, people tend to try to figure out your intentions. Did you mean to offend, or did you just not know the right thing to say or do? They might not like what you’re doing, but unless it seems like you were intending to cause harm, the convention is to politely indicate why your words or actions were problematic, and what you can do to rectify the situation.

In the social justice community today, the impact often takes precedence. I’ve been seeing glimpses of the idea for years, but a recent conversation with someone in the movement clarified it for me. She claimed that people have the right to get angry at someone who offends them, no matter the intent. If they feel bad, you are automatically in the wrong and must accept their wholly justified anger and attempt to make amends (but the offended party is under no obligation to accept). And it’s not their job to educate you or explain to you what they want and need. She brushed off any protestations on my part that this is grossly imbalanced.

The Anger

I’ve heard stories from many neurodiverse people who participate in social justice about misreading social cues or not understanding a convention and inadvertently upsetting someone. When we are lucky, the offended person quietly explains the error and accepts an apology. When we are not, we end up facing anger, vicious verbal tirades, social rejection and more. It is this action of overt anger at a disabled person for a function of their disability that I wish to discuss. When I say “getting angry” or “punishing” throughout the rest of this article, I mean actions such as shouting, berating, telling off, ostracizing or giving the silent treatment without explanation.

It should be noted that many neurodivergent people find it traumatic to have anger directed at them that they did not try to provoke. Receiving unwarranted anger can trigger PTSD and affect their health. The silent treatment is particularly distressing, as they generally don’t understand what they’ve done and have not been given a chance to explain their intentions. Instead, the offended neurotypical has imposed intent and is now punishing the neurodivergent person for what they’ve personally constructed to be their meaning.

A simple example from my own life is when someone was insulted when I set out a plate of snacks during a visit. I was following the teachings of my upbringing (and Emily Post), trying to show her respect and hospitality as I understood it to be expected in the particular situation. She interpreted this as me making a dig at her weight, and there was no convincing her otherwise. She’d imposed intent onto my actions. She had not informed me ahead of time that she didn’t want snacks when she came to tea; she expected me to magically just understand that and follow her wishes.

Breaking It Down

What does this mean in a social justice construct?

Person A (neurotypical, but otherwise marginalized) wants something from Person B (neurodivergent) that they have not clearly explained. B, due to their disability, cannot understand A’s want and therefore doesn’t fulfill it. According to the logic created by the concept of impact over intent, A now has the right to punish B because not getting their want fulfilled had a negative impact on A. Alternatively, B might actually know what A wants, but due to disability cannot give it. Again, A is entitled to punish B if they decide that not having their want fulfilled has negatively impacted them (even if their expectations were beyond B’s capabilities).

Every neurodivergent person I know can tell versions of this tale.

Of course, being neurodiverse doesn’t necessarily absolve one of a harmful act. We must be accountable for our deliberate wrongs, and accept that even our unintentional wrongs may cause harm and apologize if they do. But impact over intent has resulted in many people refusing to even try to make the distinction between honest mistakes and deliberate aggressions, applying the rule in an equal swath for all. This completely ignores the concept of intersectionality, where you are supposed to understand that people’s different situations and lived experiences affect how they view and interact with the world.

Behind the Anger

Many people come by their anger honestly. They are tired of those who deliberately provoke by asking foolish questions, of people demanding their attention and emotional labor, and of those who intentionally waste their time. Sometimes saying the wrong thing causes harm, like misgendering a nonbinary person, which can occur due to neurodivergence or disabilities such as aphasia or memory loss. All of these are valid concerns.

A friend with the same condition as me accidentally misgendered someone in an online discussion group. It was once within a long conversation that she made the slip. As soon as this friend realized her error, she apologized. But people piled on, scolding and berating her for hours. She begged them to stop, explaining her condition and how this was causing her severe distress, only to be accused of trying to center the conversation on herself and avoid the consequences of her actions. No matter how much she apologized, the fury continued until she left the group.

In my experience, many neurodivergent people who participate in social justice discussions and activities can tell similar tales. I have my own as well, most of them traumatic. Always prioritizing impact over intent puts neurodivergent individuals at a huge disadvantage because we are unable to predict the impact. We have to walk blindfolded through a minefield where a neurotypical person can at least see the spots of dead grass under which the mines are buried. Yet the mines are as unforgiving to us as they are to someone who at least could see them. When I pointed out the unfairness of this, I was told that we were unfortunately caught in the crossfire. We were the inevitable collateral damage, and we just need to accept that.

No, we don’t.

The Crossfire Isn’t Inevitable

People with disabilities need and deserve accommodations. Most people (you’d hope) know it’s not OK to get angry at a blind person if they step on your foot, or blame a wheelchair user for not being able to climb stairs. Yet I continually see some neurotypical activists berating the neurodivergent for not making the connections our brains don’t have the infrastructure to make. They are basically seeking to punish someone not for a choice they made, but for who they are. That’s ableism.

Expecting someone to do what they are unable to do, refusing to give them the tools that might allow them to do it (clearly explaining what you want), and then punishing them when they fail is abuse. Most neurodivergent people have lived with this their whole lives and understand (though we rarely give voice to it) that agonizing powerlessness of being punished for something you can’t help. It’s deeply shaming and profoundly harmful. It’s heartbreaking how many activists will abuse neurodivergent people without qualm. It’s even more heartbreaking how many others stand by in silence.

The wider world does it too. Again, refer to my opening anecdote. But the wider world is what we’re seeking to change. The social justice movement is supposed to be the mechanism of that change, not the enablers and the amplifiers of the status quo.

When I try to point this out, people respond by saying things like “I am not obligated to be polite.” Sure, you’re not “obligated to be polite” when someone is cruel to you, but I believe you are obligated to not actively seek harm when someone doesn’t understand and simply needs more information. And being hostile in the ways I’ve discussed above does actively cause harm.

Everyone is entitled to their feelings, but I don’t believe it’s right to express them in a way that does undeserved harm to someone whose intentions were not cruel. No one owes their emotional labor to anyone, but if you refuse to explain to someone what they did wrong, why do they owe their emotional and mental labor to attempt to figure it out? When you order a coffee, you tell the barista what you want so you can actually get it. Why do you expect different from the rest of the world?

Telling people to “just Google it” is often not helpful, especially if it’s not clear what you’re asking them to learn more about. Not every person can easily Google due to disability limitations, and research isn’t infallible. I’ve read Post’s Etiquette cover to cover; however, following those conventions hasn’t always worked (refer to my opening anecdote). Preferences vary from person to person. Many articles on social justice engagement contradict. The activism community doesn’t agree on all of their own rubrics, so how is someone who has trouble with socialization supposed to figure out which rules apply to which person?

Conclusion

Most neurodivergent people who work in social justice do so wholeheartedly and are happy to learn how to do it better. But our disabilities result in mistakes being made along the way: unintentional offense, lack of understanding and the continual need for clarification. When you place expectations upon us, they have to be within the parameters of our actual abilities, not what would be the most convenient for you.

Our disabilities require accommodation and understanding not only when it’s easy, but when it’s difficult. That’s inclusion. If you’re not willing to accommodate or at least tolerate someone’s disability without getting angry in spite of the inconvenience to you, that’s your business. But then you have no right to call yourself an intersectional, inclusive social justice activist, because you’re not.

Getty image by Wellphoto.