The Neurotypical’s Guide to Being Neurodivergent
Everything you need to know about being neurodivergent.
May 28, 2021
Hey there. My name is Annaliese Simons (she/they), and I am a junior at EBHS. I’m disabled and neurodivergent — more on what that means later — and this series is a place for me to provide information and personal insight to explain what that’s like.
I’ve written for Bear Hub about being disabled before, but a few things have changed since then. I was recently diagnosed with autism, which clarified a lot of things I didn’t quite have an explanation for. The diagnosis has also enabled me to both better work within the restrictions my disability gives me, and acknowledge the strengths it provides.
I’d like to make a few things clear before I begin. The first is that autism and other forms of neurodivergence are not curable conditions. They are lifelong developmental differences, and they provide both restrictions and advantages. Pursuing a cure narrative hurts autistic and neurodivergent people and prevents us from being fully accepted by others, and many people who push for a cure refuse to listen to neurodivergent perspectives.
My second note is that I am only one person. No two neurodivergent people have the exact same set of behaviors, opinions, or necessary accommodations. This is also true within more specific communities, like the autistic community. The opinions I discuss in this guide are based on my own experiences with autism and ADHD.
If you have been recently diagnosed with autism, ADHD, or another kind of neurodivergence, know that you are not alone. A diagnosis is not the end of the world — it’s simply a label, meant to help you understand more about yourself and your needs.
Glossary of Terms
A non-exhaustive list of terms used by the neurodivergent community.
Disability: A condition that significantly impairs an individual’s function. Disabilities can be mental or physical, and it is often an individual’s choice to identify as disabled.
Neurodivergent: An umbrella term used to describe conditions that are related to cognitive or developmental abilities. There is no widely agreed-upon set of conditions that fall under the umbrella, but the most common are autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and OCD. Some people with these conditions prefer the term “neurodiverse.”
Neurotypical: A term for anyone who is not neurodivergent.
Stimming: Short for “self-stimulatory behavior.” Refers to a set of behaviors involving the repetition of movements, sounds, or other behaviors. Anyone can stim, but it most commonly occurs in neurodivergent people, especially autistic people.
Echolalia: The repetition of sounds or vocalizations made by another person. Up to 75% of autistic people may have exhibited the behavior.
Nonverbal: A state in which someone is unable to speak. They may want to speak, but there is a mental block or other inability preventing them from doing so. When someone is nonverbal, they may use alternative forms of communication such as writing, AAC, or sign language.
AAC: Stands for “augmentative and alternative communication.” AAC is any method of communication that does not utilize speech, and is often used by nonspeaking autistic people. However, anyone can use AAC, not just neurodivergent people.
Hyperfocus: A state in which someone is almost obsessively focused on something. Hyperfocus can make it very hard to do anything else, even basic tasks like using the bathroom. Though hyperfocus can be a positive thing in terms of productivity, it can also have negative impacts depending on the situation and how long it lasts. This mostly occurs with ADHD.
Executive dysfunction: A state in which it is very hard for someone to get anything done, even if they want to. Mostly occurs with ADHD, but can occur with other forms of neurodivergence.
High-functioning/Low-functioning: A pair of terms intended to describe how much support an autistic person needs. While these terms are widely used in the medical field, many autistic people don’t like them, because they can be restrictive and are often not wholly accurate.
Person-first/Identity-first language: The two prevailing kinds of language used to refer to neurodivergent people. Identity-first language is preferred by most neurodivergent people, and puts the identity before the name or noun. An example of this would be “a neurodivergent person” or “they are neurodivergent.” Person-first language is the opposite, and puts the name or noun before the identity. An example of this would be “a person who is neurodivergent.” If you don’t know which kind of language someone prefers, ask them!
Special Interests + Hyperfixations
Being neurodivergent affects our interests and hobbies.
Have you ever loved something so much that the people around you would call it an obsession?
Many neurodivergent people, specifically those with autism or ADHD, have interests or hobbies that neurotypical people might consider “obsessive”. These topics or activities bring us comfort and allow us to express ourselves or engage with others. They can even translate into careers or fields of study. Generally speaking, there are two terms used to describe these interests.
The first kind are known as special interests. This term is specifically used by autistic people and describes persisting, long-term interests or activities that bring them comfort. Special interests can help autistic people interact with the world — my longest special interest, storytelling, helps me understand and empathize with other people. Special interests can change over time and sometimes shift or go away, though it’s not quite as common for them to do so. I had a special interest in LEGOs for many years, but it eventually became less intense and is no longer an activity I spend much time on.
The second kind is known as a hyperfixation. This term is primarily used by people with ADHD, and describes interests that are all-consuming for a fairly short period of time, usually a few months at most. At the end of that period of time, the person usually stops being interested in the subject. Hyperfixations can come back and often work in cycles — I have returned to hyperfixations months or years after I first had them. Though the term is mainly used by those with ADHD, hyperfixations are not specific to them (unlike special interests, which are only experienced by autistic people.)
I am autistic, and I also have ADHD. This means that I have both special interests and hyperfixations. To give you a better understanding of the differences, I’ve created a chart.
- Short; usually anywhere from a few weeks to a few months
- Highly intensive; can overpower my special interests or work in tandem with them
- May come back; I have returned to hyperfixations months or years after they’ve ended
- Typically only one hyperfixation at a time
My hyperfixations usually manifest through the media I’m interested in. I’ve hyperfixated on video games, TV shows, book series’, movies, and webcomics in the past. These hyperfixations also tie into my special interests in writing and storytelling, and I will often write about what I’m hyperfixating on. My current hyperfixation is the video game series Ace Attorney, but past highlights include the show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and the movie Promare.
- Long-term; can last for many years or be lifelong
- Intensity can vary; can be very intensive or less intensive
- Can have many at once; the reported average is 8 at a time
I’ve had lots of special interests throughout my life. They have developed at different times, and with a few exceptions most of them have not gone away. My longest special interest is storytelling. When I was younger this manifested in stories I would tell with toys or to myself, and as I got older it started to manifest in tandem with my special interest in writing. Other special interests that I have include science fiction and fantasy, politics (especially social issues and various rights movements), and the history of LGBTQ+ representation in media.
It’s important to remember that while special interests or hyperfixations can appear to be obsessive or unhealthy, they bring neurodivergent people comfort and allow us to engage with things we enjoy. My special interest in storytelling is the lens through which I view the world, and it makes me a more empathetic person. The things we love make us human, and for neurodivergent people, they are also part of who we are.
Neurodivergent people, especially autistics, have different communication methods and needs.
Interacting with other people is a core part of life. But for many neurodivergent people, especially autistics, it can be stressful and difficult.
Autistic people tend to have a hard time processing and understanding social cues, like facial expression and verbal tone. Many of us also take things at their literal meaning, which can mean we misunderstand jokes or sarcasm. Additionally, our stimming may seem disruptive or rude to neurotypical people, many of whom don’t understand why stimming is helpful.
All of that can make it very hard for us to fit in or keep up with social interaction. That’s not to say it’s impossible for us — autistic people can have friends and conversations just like neurotypical people can, and some autistics are better at social interaction than others. However, conversations or social situations are typically harder and more draining for us.
I, personally, have a hard time understanding when people are being sarcastic or making a joke. I take people’s requests or instructions very literally, which may lead to misunderstandings. And I often assume people are mad or upset with me when they’re not, which is because I can’t tell the difference between many facial expressions. These difficulties made it hard for me to make and keep friendships, especially when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older and better at communication, I’ve been able to forge strong bonds with my friends while also expressing my needs as a neurodivergent person.
An easy way to help your neurodivergent friends is to clarify what your intended tone was if or when they ask. If you were being serious, don’t pretend you were joking, and vice versa — it’s unhelpful and might make us confused. You can also use tone tags if you’re having a conversation over text or other kinds of messaging. Tone tags are used to express the tone of a message so that nobody is confused about what the intended meaning is. They’re formatted as follows: “/s” stands for sarcasm, “/j” stands for joking, “/srs” stands for serious, and so on.
If you think tone tags could be helpful for you and your friends, there are many expanded lists available online. Not every tone tag will be helpful, but many have become staples in my everyday conversations and make it a lot easier for me to understand what people are saying. And as with any relationship, clear and open communication is key for success!
Stimming helps neurodivergent people stay calm, among other benefits.
Stimming, which is short for “self-stimulatory behavior,” is a set of behaviors involving the repetition of movements, sounds, or other actions. Though anyone can stim, the behavior is most common in neurodivergent people, especially autistics. Stimming can be more or less visible, but with a few specific exceptions is almost always a beneficial action for neurodivergent people.
There are a few reasons that neurodivergent people stim. One is to relieve sensory overload or counteract negative sensory input (see Sensory Sensitivity). Another is to provide positive sensory input. A third is to relieve anxiety or stress, or to provide self-comfort. Whatever the reason may be, it is important that neurodivergent people be allowed to stim. Stimming is an expression of our neurology, and in almost all cases is not a behavior that needs to be punished or corrected.
Some examples of common stims are:
- Hand flapping
- Leg tapping
- Playing with hair/jewelry
- Hand or finger movement
- Neck movements
Another form of stimming is vocal stimming, which is the repetition of sounds. This can include echolalia, which is the repetition of sounds or words that another person made or said. Not all people who use vocal stims experience echolalia, and not all neurodivergent people use vocal stims. How much or how little someone stims may depend on their mood, environment, or other factors.
It is important to remember that while stimming may seem strange or disruptive, it is one of the ways neurodivergent people stay calm and can help regulate our emotions.
Many neurodivergent people are extremely sensitive to sensory input.
Oftentimes, people will describe noises they don’t like as “being like nails on a chalkboard.” These noises make them highly uncomfortable and can even be physically painful.
Neurodivergent people, especially autistics and those with ADHD, often have major sensory sensitivities. Our brains process sensory input differently than neurotypical people’s brains do, which means that different kinds of sensory input can be highly disturbing for us.
An individual person’s sensory triggers will not be the same as all or most other neurodivergent people’s triggers. The kinds of stimuli that create adverse reactions are highly personal and can be affected by trauma or other individual experiences.
Though no two neurodivergent people have the same sensory triggers, here is a list of some common ones:
- Textures of various foods
- Clothing textures
- Loud or sudden noises
- Flashing lights
When neurodivergent people become too overwhelmed by sensory triggers, we may experience something called sensory overload. We might have meltdowns, panic attacks, or need to stim to provide positive sensory input. If a neurodivergent person has sensory overload, they may become nonverbal and have to use alternative forms of communication. Always ask before offering assistance to someone experiencing sensory overload.