Thinking through how to talk about Neurodiversity

The point of this article is to provide evidence for the claim that we shouldn’t talk about neurodiversity as a fixed and tangible category that does affect some people and doesn’t affect other people. People exist in societies, not just as individuals, but as people who interact with other people. Diversity is a fact, but how it is defined is dependent on societal structures, not the scientific process.

Classification and categorisation is often arbitrary. Meaningful, but arbitrary. Sometimes acknowledging that means that the thing we value loses its value, but it doesn’t always have to mean that. Sometimes things can become more meaningful once we recognise that the reason that it means something to us is just that: because it means something to us. It doesn’t have to be that deep. Other times, it means that we can let go of ideas that limit our understanding of the depth of humanity.

Here’s an article on how being alive has perhaps never been more confusing, especially because we have lost the tool that might help us make sense of it all. It might not make sense to start off with this, but it is important to establish ways of thinking and processing. It is about the difference between logos and mythos.

Logos is, roughly speaking, knowledge gained through the world of science, reason and observation, through which we can understand the material world and the things in it, the laws of cause and effect in our environment, and how to navigate the more literal aspects of our world.

This is experiential knowledge. It is built off the knowledge of the past, but it is very much a product of who we are and how we are taught to understand the literal. In the same way, we’re taught to think about the abstract. But the difference is how those things are moralised, used, and priortised.

On the other hand, mythos has been described by Armstrong as having to do with “the more elusive aspects of human experience”: all of that which cannot quite be explained in terms of the literal, mundane, or rational. It covers stories of supernatural events and experiences — the actions of a god or gods, if you like — which are not literally true by the standards of logos, but are meaningfully true in some other sense: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.

A lot of the ways that we explain the world nowadays are in the realm of logos. We reason, we observe, we understand the material world and ourselves through it. We know why we feel a particular thing because we know the science of it. We interact with the literal world. These are important aspects to our being, but social scientists exist because we interact with the literal world through the world of mythos too:

In fundamentalist forms of religion, the stories from the sacred texts are true, and anyone else’s form of mythos is at best nonsense that should be forbidden, and at worst an existential threat to the real truth. But anthropologists and sociologists have long pointed out that belief and action inspired by mythos are not only entirely compatible with the world of logos, but provide multiple important social functions.

In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas describes how societies around the world have historically built their own concepts of the “clean” and “unclean” alongside myths and rituals which maintain and enforce social boundaries.

I could put my shoes on the table here. I could peel an orange in a way that you dislike. I could leave a clean but full pot of water in the sink, making it difficult for you to use the sink. I could put sheets of toilet paper on your chair, and even though it looks clean, the associations you might have make it so that you don’t necessarily want to touch it.

If you are reading this thinking you’re not really a mythos kind of person — because you are not religious and have never had a supernatural experience — you are incorrect. Do you support a sports team, and do you feel ecstatic when “we” (the players you have never met or played with) win? Do you have an old shirt you should really throw out, but you refuse to do so because it feels “special” in some way? Do you feel people should treat you especially nicely on your birthday? Do you avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk? Have you ever been moved by a piece of art in a way that can’t be put into words? Do you get excited when you find an unusually large potato chip? Have you ever stopped on a perfectly ordinary street, in the rain, looked at the ordinary houses or a certain whorl of tree-bark, and thought “my god, the world is here, and it really is alive”?

The crux of the article is about the difference between explaining something and feeling something. The fact that “EXPLAINED: blank” Youtube videos have proliferated means that people are seeking out an explanation for everything that they enjoy. They need a reason to enjoy it, rather than just for arts’ sake. The author argues that this takes away a little bit from the art of living. This article makes its own point about personhood in doing so: we are explainers and we are feelers; life for life’s sake; art for art’s sake.

This kind of “EXPLAINED” video is emblematic of a few things right now, but I see it also as part of the over-categorisation of regular life. We feel the need to label and box a lot of emotions and behaviours, partly because some of those emotions and behaviours have been ridiculed in the past and so having a way to talk about them is to have the ability to demonstrate how they work, what the importance is, and to notify people that they are more normal than they think. It is useful for community building. But it also contributes to an interesting construction of the individual. From this article on the Mirror of Your Mind, on AI and mental health.

Videos explaining how symptoms of ADHD may present themselves have resonated with hundreds of thousands of women; the comment sections are full of testimonials like “This explains my whole life” or “I just went to the doctor and got diagnosed, I’m 32 and wish I knew this earlier.”

I had a similar feeling: Until TikTok’s For You Page served me these videos, I didn’t knew that ADHD individuals have a different brain chemistry and structure as well as chronically lower dopamine levels, which contribute to distractibility and greater risks of addiction. ADHD symptoms also commonly mirror those of trauma and CPTSD, and women are frequently undiagnosed with ADHD. Basically, I felt like I was hearing all my problems explained to me in under a minute. Years of therapy had never given me such insight.

TikTok is a space designed to create confirmation bias — or more accurately, engagement bias. Whereas a therapist might question the usefulness of identifying oneself as permanently aligned with whatever struggle one is experiencing, engagement-driven platforms help frame conditions as points of identity, badges of honor. If users find they are rewarded primarily for producing content on a certain condition, belief, or identity, it can skew their motivations and self-definition, making them believe at some level that it is the most interesting and likable thing about them.

Part of the logic of defining the self so much, down to particular behaviours and emotions, is to create new categories to market to: “Just as capitalism engenders the belief that our value is determined by our productivity, “social” as a business category influences our concept of the self, encouraging us to see self-categorization on platforms not only as self-realization but as a source of capital”

In this article on the Buzzfeedification of Mental Health, the author notes how a lot of people have been angry about the assertion that ADHD is highly linked to capitalism, partly because it shakes the foundations of identity making and categorisation. Categorisation and diagnosis are useful when people invalidate your feelings about something and for developing techniques to move through the world, and they can also be unproductive because of the way it can box someone in. Both statements are true. The internet is used to make and shape identities but people also do that a lot outside of the internet too.

The zeitgeist moves in swings and roundabouts; cynically, and with some of the hubris of Jonah Peretti and Buzzfeed, I feel that I could predict and write about some of where we might move next if I spent some time looking at what people are writing, then what they are not writing, and finding a synthesis. We could be moving towards a period where categorising yourself is the uncool thing, thereby creating its own category. The point is that people change and society changes and that change is predicated on what came before. Because capitalism is part of our society, identities are formed and shaped within it. It isn’t something to feel bad about, it is something to be aware of.

What I like most about this article is the incorporation of perspectives that aren’t American and the discussion about how brain chemistry is totally different in different parts of the world. I always like to be reminded that some of what I do is meaningful for me and meaningless for someone else.

The much more obvious answer is that mental disorders, while influenced by genetic factors, are largely caused by trauma and context, and that oppressed groups of people experience way more trauma under capitalism, and are way less able to navigate the context of American society because it was built without them in mind, and in many cases to intentionally harm them.

The point to all of this, when you’re engaging in how workplaces, sites of capital making, can engage in supporting neurodiversity, or new ways of categorising, is to think about people’s agency when they are categorising, self-defining, and exploring these emotions and behaviours in relation to them.

We can take this very literally and say “this is brain difference, the science makes you different”, but what if people don’t think of themselves as different? They might find solace in the categorisation of their behaviours, and they might feel that new ways of thinking about what they do are liberating, but some people might not. What about people who don’t want to be labelled as different? What about people who become more ostracised because of the focus on them? Those people who were once at the periphery will now be the focus, and that can be uncomfortable. If you’re looking to encourage supportive and diverse workplaces, you need to recognise when people don’t want support or attention.

The second thing to consider is how we think about what science says. Science doesn’t do anything. Science is a repetitive process that is used to uncover truths, so there’s nothing about science that is “true”. Epistemologically, the science doesn’t make or do anything to anyone who has different brain functions. It is how we think about those differences and what we consider to be “normal” or “different” and how we as a society treat those people. A society that focuses on the productive nature of a worker is always going to examine neurodiversity as a hindrance on productivity.

To me, this seemed like an obvious, even rote point — no mental illness is just chemical. Illness of all kind, and especially mental illness, is contextual. Sure, inherent brain differences would exist in any society, but what makes a brain difference maladaptive, what makes it hard for people with neurodivergent brains to exist, be happy, thrive, is the societal structure around them. This is not a new nor particularly controversial point — it’s essentially the social model of disability, which has been advocated for by disability activists for generations.

It can be summed up as, “you might be different, but the thing that makes you feel encumbered, bad, unhappy, and incongruous with the world is not the difference of your body or brain, but the lack of structures to support you and your differences, and capitalism’s need for a population of always-productive bodies and brains.”

Now, the way that our health system works is very different to the American health system, where you need an official diagnosis from a psychiatrist in order to be able to pay for meds on your insurance. It’s a cyclical system where your diagnosis, or your category, reinforces your need for meds, and your meds reinforce the need for your category — in order to keep getting them, you need to keep your diagnosis. This system would have major effects for people who work in workplaces which aren’t supportive of neurodiverse people, because those people need to disclose it to their workplace, the institution which offers them their insurance. People understand themselves through those diagnoses as well, creating community and awareness. This is great, but it is also based on the idea that you need a particular diagnosis, treatment, and self definition.

It is great that people find community in those categories, but it is important to use and contextualise the category appropriately. When we feel that difference is inherent to us, this can lead to us establishing rigid boundaries around who you relate to and interact with. The point of bringing awareness about neurodiversity is not to encourage relationships only based on neurodiversity or the understanding of it. It is to encourage us to build understandings of how to act into our relationships. Your relationship, the workplace, the school — these are all institutions where we can change something in the system, rather than in the individual.