Neurodiversity, unschooling and radical acceptance

One of the most profound shifts I have experienced over these years has been in my understanding of neurodiversity. As with just about everything else, moving away from a mainstream perspective has allowed me to relax into living and observing life in a way that is both far more nuanced and far simpler at the same time. In the early days of being a mother, when mainstream thinking was a weight I couldn’t quite shake off, a diagnosis felt like a way of pathologising a young child and something to be wary of. The negative words that are bandied about so freely when describing someone else’s way of being certainly added to the worry. The constant inference by others (particularly in the education system) that something is ‘wrong’ is a powerful thing. In fact, neurodiversity was always a part of my life, but even my own lived experiences diminished under this pervasive mindset that there are right and wrong ways to be.

Later on, and after many years of knowing my child, and some of living without school, the diagnosis came at my child’s request. At this point it felt like a way to understand more, and for them to identify more clearly where the challenges were likely to be for them in life. Although a diagnosis was important to them as part of their identity, it wasn’t essential in our day-to-day lives. We had long since separated neurodiversity from ‘something wrong’, although my child, through their own research, was aware of the negative stereotyping around autism. In our context, this language of diagnosis, with words like ‘disorder’ and ‘pathological’ seemed entirely incoherent.

In an unschool context, neurodiversity is not problematic. There is nothing to be pathologised when people live together with an understanding of each other’s needs and unique ways of being. Depending on the day and the situation, if we invited a stranger into the house and asked them to point a finger at which among us is ‘different’, I think they might struggle. Some days, there will be clues. There could be an argument over different sensory needs, or a person who is simply finding the world overwhelming that day. Perhaps an activity that had been planned is now feeling too demanding, and we are figuring out what to do with that. Or, they may see us playing a board game together and struggling to stay on track as everyone interprets the rules in different ways.

But, the stranger is just as likely to find themselves in the middle of a revolutionary conversation about the way the world should be run, or about some futuristic invention. Maybe they would walk into a room filled with laughter, where a game of Minecraft is in full flow, or be asked to listen to a song that someone has just memorised in Welsh or Polish. They’re likely to be invited to a history or geography quiz and find themselves embarrassed about how little they remember of what they learned at school, and perhaps they would be offered something someone just baked. Depending on the baker, the recipe will have been discarded early on in favour of experimentation, and there will be a stack of mixing bowls toppling in the sink. Alternatively, the recipe has been followed painstakingly to the last full stop, ingredients measured with precision, and the kitchen table wiped down between steps. It doesn’t really matter how it was baked. It will still taste good. They might understandably assume that the person who always seems to be out and about at workshops and groups must be neurotypical. And certainly, in those small, respectful groups, they would see a happy, confident person. They would see people who have a deep love of animals, and who can’t stand lights that are too bright, certain textures, annoying noises or dishonesty, and whose thinking is sharp, funny and always way outside the box.

Most often, a day in this house is a mixture of all these interesting things. And in the absence of anyone wondering if this is how things are supposed to be, this is just the way things are. It isn’t always necessarily easy, and we are all challenged at times by our own needs and expectations, but I’m not sure that’s different from any family. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the profound nature of unschooling and how it challenges the notion that there is any ‘right’ way to be. How the spectrum of ‘normal’ is a spectrum limited only by our imaginations.

I am reminded of something from childbirth. In 1955, Dr. Emanuel Friedman of Columbia University carried out a study of 500 women in labour. The conclusion of this study was that the average labour takes about 14 hours in total, and that cervical dilation progresses on average at 1.2cm per hour, plotted on a neat curve. Friedman’s Curve was the gold standard in hospitals around the world until quite recently. The result was millions of women being labelled with ‘failure to progress’, as they were not dilating speedily enough, leading to inductions and cesarian sections. The obvious problem with this study, beyond the small cohort of participants (all Caucasian and in their ’20s), is that it took ‘average’ and called it ‘normal’. There is nothing abnormal or pathological about a labour that takes more or less time. Just as there is nothing abnormal or pathological about neurological differences. Diversity is normal.

There is plenty of evidence (and I’m saving that for another post), that neurodiversity brings with it many unusual and advantageous skills for humanity, from pattern-spotting and hyper-focus to excellent memory, heightened sensory abilities, and visual thinking. It stands to reason that there is an evolutionary purpose to us all having different skills, some more specialised than others. How would we survive as a people if we were all the same? Who can that possibly make sense to? Sometimes, I find myself watching some particularly awful (but successful) politician or businessperson, and I wonder at how mediocrity and dishonesty are accepted within the spectrum of ‘normal’ on society’s Friedman’s Curve, whilst some of life’s most interesting and honest people are pathologised. I wonder at how it will play out for our society, this dismissing of those who naturally lie beyond some made up curve. What skills, perspectives, abilities and voices are we all missing out on?

One of my children sometimes has trouble sleeping because they start thinking about infinity, and the thought overwhelms them. I can identify with this. As a child, when I lay in bed in the dark, I would often find my mind going to infinity, and I would experience a rising sense of panic that actually everything was totally beyond my control. In my mind, I would imagine putting the universe in a big box, so that there were neat boundaries to it. I would have a moment of relief before the inevitable question of, “But, what’s outside of the box?’ At which point, my mind would descend into a panic of infinite boxes.

The fear of the unknown, of the mystery of life. Is this why we want everything so neat and orderly? Is this why we convince ourselves that everyone must fit specific norms, follow a system, learn the same things, be the same way? A desire to keep the world an orderly, labelled place with no room for things that challenge the illusion. Is it fear of difference that leads to the pathologising of difference? Or are we in that familiar place of ‘othering’ and discrimination? Where the majority (or the most powerful) decide which aspects of humankind to revere and which to dismiss?

I recently read an interview with Kristy Forbes, an autistic PDA Australian woman. She talks about radical acceptance of our children as our own lesson. How the only real option is to look for the connection and let go of the desire to control. To not impose our own ways of being and behaving on someone else, then judge them for how well they comply. I wonder how this concept of radical acceptance would look on a collective level. Not of one group accepting another, but of all us accepting each other’s different ways of being. Innovative, challenging, honest, liberating? It wouldn’t plot neatly on a curve or fit inside any box, but deep down we probably all know that’s an illusion anyway.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.

–Rumi

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