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A train arrives at a busy subway station. Many different people on the platform wait to get on the train. Some are blurred as they are caught by the camera mid-motion.

Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/Getty

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Adapting to the neurotypical world is not the same as conforming

Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/Getty

by Jack Ori + BIO

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As an autistic person, this is how I draw the line between adapting in a way that’s good for me and simple conformity

I was first diagnosed with what was then called Asperger’s syndrome when I was 33, after years of finding some tasks easy that others found impossible, while also not being able to grasp other, basic skills. I taught myself to read at the age of four, and I spent most of my childhood with my nose in books meant for much older people instead of playing with other kids in the playground.

As I grew older, I became the target of bullies. I was picked on in high school because I carried a large bundle of pens and pencils, and threw a fit if the rubber band holding them broke or if someone didn’t give one back. But I also achieved a class rank of 15 out of 300-something without ever cracking a textbook outside of class.

And after graduating college, I constantly got in trouble at jobs that were far below my ability level because my social skills were not on par with my ability to do the job. For example, at one job, I was looked down upon by my boss because I ignored attempts to make small talk so that I could concentrate on my work; I was eventually dismissed for ‘not being a team player’. At another, I was written up for things such as putting my feet on an empty chair while taking notes at a meeting, which my supervisor felt embarrassed him.

By the time I was diagnosed, I’d survived domestic violence at the hands of a drug-addicted partner, the loss of a number of friendships, and constant career changes in an effort to find what was missing in my life. At that time, my focus was on resolving all the problems so that I could be seen as ‘normal’ and achieve something other than a growing mountain of student debt and an impressive number of burned bridges.

It didn’t take long for those priorities to shift. Once I was diagnosed, I learned that certain things were just part of who I was. For instance, the therapist who diagnosed me played a video of a panel discussion involving several autistic people. But I couldn’t focus on the content because there was a fan on in the background making too much noise. When I mentioned this to the therapist, she didn’t know what I was talking about, only hearing any background noise at all if she strained her ears.

If you don’t mask perfectly, others might realise you are different and reject you

Sensitivity to noises that others didn’t hear – and, I later discovered, to flashing lights – was not something that could be changed. Similarly, no matter how many poor performance reviews I got, I couldn’t get my mind around the idea of going to work to socialise rather than to get work done efficiently. I couldn’t understand why I should let co-workers distract me by talking about the weather or a TV show, or regularly put my work aside to participate in birthday parties for people in other departments whom I’d never met. To this day, I have a hard time understanding why these were unspoken job requirements when they interfered with people doing the job they were hired to do.

At the same time, I was determined to never use my autism as an excuse for failure. For a while, I was a special education teacher in North Carolina, and it was nearly impossible to manage behaviour issues because the parents wouldn’t reinforce discipline at home; they’d often say something like: ‘My child has a disability and can’t help their behaviour,’ even though the child was capable of modifying some behaviours. That didn’t sit well with me. In my case, it was tempting to attribute behaviours that annoyed others – like my tendency to get distracted and forget to put something away – to my autism, rather than doing anything to solve the problem. Instead, I decided I’d rather take as much responsibility as possible for my behaviour, even if it meant having to make extra efforts to learn or do things that come naturally to other people. I didn’t want to be like the woman who once told me that she didn’t see why she, as someone who is autistic, needed to learn social skills rather than the world changing to accommodate her lack of said skills.

Many neurodiverse (or neurodivergent) people struggle with the idea of ‘masking’, which is hiding who you are in an attempt to fit in with your neurotypical peers. Examples of masking include imitating neurotypical conversation patterns, such as making small talk when it bores you, or refraining from self-soothing behaviours people may find strange, such as working in a completely dark room, rocking back and forth while talking, or listening to the same song again and again. Masking often feels like complete conformity and comes with a side of pressure; if you don’t mask perfectly, others might realise you are different and reject you. This is what the woman I mentioned was likely getting at with her comments, and I wholeheartedly agree that people shouldn’t feel pressured to hide who they are in order to succeed.

In fact, I quit the traditional workforce and opened a freelance writing business partially so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure to be something I wasn’t. But I still needed some of the skills that come more easily to neurotypical people in order to succeed. So the question remained: how do you draw the line between adaptation, or making changes that are personally worthwhile, and simple conformity to what the neurotypical world expects people to be like?

For many people, it’s confusing, at best, to try to find the line between adapting and conforming. Claire, who identifies as AuDHD – autistic with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) – finds the entire question of where to draw the line almost impossible because she was trained to conform from an early age. As a young child, she was encouraged to sit on her hands during school lessons so that she wouldn’t engage in hand-flapping, and that habit has stuck with her through adulthood. ‘I will regularly people-please,’ she says, ‘and that’s behaviour that I’ve learned from a very young age to try to get by and adapt.’

Something as simple as thanking someone for feedback might otherwise be elusive to me

In my own life, I’ve navigated this issue by using an analogy from my writing. Both fiction writing and magazine writing can be somewhat formulaic; there’s a structure to each piece that readers expect, and pieces that deviate from that structure may not be published or read. However, within that structure, I have the freedom to express original ideas or explore a well-known trope from an unusual angle – if I make the concession of adhering to that structure. It’s always an option not to engage with a magazine or editor I feel uncomfortable with but, if I do choose to do so, I need to adapt my natural way of being as a writer to meet their expectations if I want to publish with them.

Similarly, if I want to succeed at a job or in a relationship, I need to understand the rules governing that space and prepare to adapt to them. I can always choose not to do so in favour of not changing anything about who I am, but then I am also choosing not to engage with that job or person.

An openness to adapting on a personal level does not mean that neurotypical people should not make changes as well. Brian R King, who identifies as neurodivergent and coaches neurodivergent people and the parents of neurodivergent children, suggests to me that, when we think about how neurodivergent people can succeed in the world, the most important question is how to make society more inclusive, ‘so that it adapts to these unique ways of being’. His reframing reminds me that I’ve been guilty, at times, of thinking that there is a contest between neurotypical expectations and neurodivergent reality, and that one must win out. The problem with thinking that way (as opposed to the more flexible vision that King suggests) is that it creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality, as if it’s simply the case that big bad neurotypical people are imposing their behavioural demands on helpless autistic people, who must conform or die. That’s overly dramatic and simplistic.

As I mentioned earlier, I chose to nope out of the types of jobs where being social with your co-workers seemed to be more important than doing high-quality work. The type of social skills that these jobs required took a lot out of me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need any social skills at all. In order to run a successful freelancing business, I need to be able to communicate effectively with editors, network with them and with other writers, and be able to articulate and set boundaries with others. Otherwise, I might end up with little work or, conversely, too much work because I failed to say ‘no’ appropriately. I’ve spoken with business coaches to learn the best way to respond to emails from potential clients – something as simple as thanking someone for feedback might otherwise be elusive to me. Similarly, I’ve had to break down abstract concepts such as ‘be sure to network’ into specific action items.

A key question is one of whom you are doing it for: yourself or someone else?

So, in keeping with my decision to earn a living in my own way, I learned which skills I needed to develop in order to be successful. Similarly, I’ve learned skills for communicating in relationships, the value of setting boundaries, and how to tell the difference between unhealthy behaviour by friends or partners and behaviours I simply don’t like.

For me, this is where the line between adaptation and conformity lies: if I’m working hard at learning a skill that doesn’t come naturally because I need it in order to do something I want to do, that’s different from doing it merely to meet others’ expectations. This consideration may help people with all flavours of neurodiversity figure out how to draw their own lines.

Of course, the choice I made isn’t the only valid one. Many neurodiverse people have a different set of skills than neurotypical people; for some, the dream is to work at a job where everyone is expected to be the expert on their special interest, or where their idiosyncrasies are celebrated rather than derided.

That view is equally valid, and for people in that situation – assuming you can find such a job – the choices made with regard to adaptation will be different. Some people may feel that they shouldn’t change at all, and instead have found a part of the world that is adapted to them.

Whatever the case may be, if you’re deciding whether to change some of your behaviours or learn some new skills, a key question is one of whom you are doing it for: yourself or someone else? This might not always be an easy question to answer, but it’s a strong starting point for drawing your own line.

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9 October 2023