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The ‘Standardisation’ Of Neurodiversity By Mainstream Culture

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How many times do we look at someone with autism, dyslexia, or any neurodivergent condition, and call them ‘bechara’? But we don’t ever stop to imagine how invalidating it can be for them as they struggle to survive in a world that sees them as half-human.

They face challenges and invalidation everywhere, sometimes even with the population that should stand by them–doctors and therapists.

This is an image from the movie Dear Zindagi that speaks about mental health. The image has a speech bubble that reads, "Hum itni kursiyan dekhte hai ek khareedne se pehle, phir apna therapist choose karne se pehle options dekhne mein kya problem?"
If such a large population is different from the norm, then why should there be a norm?

The Everyday Neurodiversity

The concept of neurodiversity describes the idea that it’s normal for people to think and understand in a way that’s different from the rest; there is no ‘right’ way to do it. It is meant to refer to the natural diversity of humans, but is usually used in the context of autism and other neurological disabilities.

Shifting the focus from the common perception that these conditions–autism, ADHD, dyslexia and others, deteriorate the quality of life, it acknowledges that societal barriers are the main disabling factor.

Every day, neurodivergent people are met with pity, sympathy for their ‘misfortune’. They are mocked. Their decisions are seen as less important than that of their neurotypical counterparts; they are seen as troublesome, impulsive, and even dangerous.

 

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Be it in a school, or the workplace, anyone with autism or ADHD or other conditions struggles for acceptance, because their behaviour does not fit the norm.

We keep ableist slander floating around like it’s in the air. How easy it is to keep using words like ‘pagal’ (crazy), ‘idiot’, ‘lame’ in the most unthinking manner, without ever realizing how we target an entire section of our society.

Around 30-40% of the population is considered to be neurodiverse. If such a large population is different from the norm, then why should there be a norm? If all of us are unique, we all behave differently.

Yet, in our society, there is a typical way of behaving, and a deviation from that. Surely all of us are neurodiverse in some ways; then what even constitutes a neurotypical functioning?

Representation Of Neurodiversity In Popular Culture

Popular culture and media has started to give representation to neurodiversity. But a flawed one as to how a person with a neurodivergent condition looks like. It can be called, to some extent, responsible for fostering the image of a neurodivergent person as a caricature figure, or an existential problem, rather than sensitizing the audience about the issues faced by them.

Of course, there has been a great change in the way disability has been portrayed in movies–a shift from seeing disability as a punishment of one’s karma in Jeevan Naiya (1936), to paradigmatic attitudinal shifts, in Taare Zameen Par (2007), to acknowledgement and acceptance, in Margarita With A Straw (2014). But many Bollywood movies, much loved by the masses, still create problematic depictions.

Margarita with a Straw that shows neurodiversity
A scene from the movie ‘Margarita With A Straw.’

Movies like Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004) and Tom, Dick And Harry (2006) portray disability in an extremely insensitive light. The Golmaal series (a favourite among comedy lovers) shows Tushaar Kapoor with a speech disability, and brutally creates a laughing stock out of disabilities.

Others like Tera Mera Saath Rahe (2001) and Koi Mil Gaya (2003) show neurodiverse conditions as an object of pity and sympathy.

And then comes a generalisation that settles in the audience’s mind–that all people with disabilities look the same. Shah Rukh Khan played a person with Asperger’s Syndrome in My Name Is Khan (2010), and a major public perception that sprang was that all autistic people look and behave the same.

This stems from lack of diversity in movies; more movies could show different representations of the same disorder. Such depictions invalidate a lot of differently abled people, and make their integration into society as normal people more difficult.

Neurodiversity Affects The Workplace, Communication And Everyday Life

“Most workplaces, or educational spaces, carry a very strong imprint of the productivity ethic, which stems from the capitalist view of the system. The idea of productivity is based on a certain kind of physical and mental labour. So any kind of ‘abnormal’ behaviour can interrupt that view of work, and that is very heavily punished. So, most people have to spend their life without being rewarded for any kind of capacity that they are capable of showing”, says psychotherapist and psychologist, Prachi Akhavi.

In interpersonal relationships too, a major expectation from neurodivergent people is that they will follow the same social norms and emotional cues, which becomes a gap in relationships, unless there is some kind of intuitive relationship, which takes a long time and patience, love and will. It may hamper any kind of emotional attachment that can develop.

Sharing an experience, Akhavi, said, “I knew someone who worked with autistc people. She used to say, when talking of her profession, that ‘bacche aise karte hai’ (children do this) or ‘bacchon ka khayal rakhna padta hai (we have to take care of children).’ I later found out that these ‘bacche’ (children) were thirty-year old adults.”

 

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There is always the sense of dependence and an urge to take control for a neurodivergent person, by any caretaker, be that a parent, doctor, and even therapists. This lack of autonomy does let them be confident of their abilities.

With healthcare, it becomes very tricky. Neurodivergent people are adults, and they should have the right to choose for themselves. But society at large is not ready to see them as adults. The perception remains that a neurodivergent person hasn’t developed, but they need to be given the chance to develop their capabilities.

No Diagnosis–A Tougher Situation

Sometimes, a diagnosis comes in very late. Because there is no medical test that can be done – diagnosing a mental or behavioral condition and giving someone proper support can be quite difficult. The situation and symptoms are different for all.

“From the patient’s point of view, a diagnosis allows them to verbalize and conceptualize an experience which they otherwise have been unable to understand. It gives them a language to talk about themselves, an articulation of their own experiences. So that way, a diagnosis is very helpful”, explained Akhavi.

A photo of a person in a therapy session
Sometimes, a diagnosis for neurodiversity comes in very late.

An inability to diagnose or the biases that can delay it, can be very difficult and can be very harmful. Such situations lead to a lot of invalidation for these people, and mental health issues stemming from rejection. “Any kind of oppression stems from some kind of dismissal—that my experience is not given space, and validation. If they don’t understand it, they will try to control it. This control is the foundation of that oppression”, observed Akhavi.

The need of the hour is to make a shift from the ‘normal’ way of behaving, and also from the various expectations slapped onto every aspect of life. So why not just do away with a norm, and accept the diversity?

Acknowledgements: Prachi Akhavi (akhavi.prachi92@gmail.com)

Note: The author is part of the Dec ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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