What it's like to be different in a world that pretends to value difference.
I remember my first attempt at small talk.
I walked up to my kindergarten teacher and asked her what she was doing. She said, “What does it look like I’m doing?”
I decided to leave her alone.
For days, I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. People asked each other stupid questions all the time. That’s how they started conversations. For me, it didn’t work. People didn’t think I was trying to start a conversation. They just assumed I was stupid.
For most of my life, I tried hard to be likable. I followed the rules, at least as my strange brain understood them. Twenty years later, I was still having the same kinds of interactions.
I couldn’t even get compliments right. If I tried to say something nice to someone, it made them feel awkward.
School was torture.
Most of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference between teasing and bullying. Hugs confused me. If a guy asked me out, I couldn’t decide if he was serious or just kidding.
One time at a party, a girl smiled and flipped me off. I thought it was a new joke. I didn’t grasp she was being mean.
So I tried it on one of my friends.
It made her cry.
Off and on, I took breaks from trying to be likable. I sat with the nerds at lunch. It brought me relief. They didn’t have any rules. They just said what they were thinking. We had great conversations. Still, some of us hungered for universal acceptance. We didn’t want to be popular. We just wanted to feel like we were enough for the world.
It didn’t occur to us that words like “normal” and “likable” are rooted in exclusion. You can’t have normal or likable without weird and unlikable. So tag, we were it. We were the ones the cool kids used to define themselves against. Therefore, we would never be accepted.
If they accepted us, they’d stop being popular.
They’d just be.
I thought the exclusion would stop after entering adulthood. Surely grownups had better things to do than maintain social hierarchies. As it turns out, that’s almost all they do.
The exclusion doesn’t end.
The word exclusive takes on all kinds of positive connotations. You can get exclusive deals. You can join exclusive clubs. You can enjoy exclusive benefits. All it means is that someone else is being denied those things for some reason, usually because they can’t pay.
Bullying and exclusion extend well into adulthood, and it’s always the same people who get excluded. It’s the atheists. It’s the disabled. It’s the neurodivergent. The popularity contests turn into jobs, promotions, and awards.
Neurodivergents know a little bit about exclusion. Maybe you’re autistic like me. Maybe you’re ADHD. Maybe you deal with anxiety or depression. Maybe you’re antisocial or borderline. Maybe you fall somewhere on some other personality spectrum. Maybe you don’t have a diagnosis. You just don’t fit. It doesn’t matter what you try. You always feel like a leftover puzzle piece.
Everywhere you go, you’re excluded.
Experts crank out research about you that disregards your humanity. They compare you to animals or robots.
They treat you as subhuman.
Everyone focuses on our deficits and weaknesses. They talk about what we can’t do. They tell us what we can’t accomplish. They paint vivid portraits of the lives we can’t live.
They act like it’s our “disability” or “disorder” that holds us back. They talk about accommodating us, but they don’t. They simply train us how to accommodate them.
They teach us how to act more like them. They teach us how to think like them, look like them.
They don’t get it.
Our entire lives, we hear this:
"I want to like you, but..."
"You're extremely qualified, but..."
"You're doing excellent work, but..."
"I want to support you, but..."
The allistic, neurotypical world always talks about gratitude and self-acceptance. They tell everyone to love themselves. Except us. They tell us we’re fundamentally flawed.
They tell us to reject ourselves.
Our teachers yell at us. Our bosses yell at us. Our parents and family yell at us. So do our friends. When they aren’t yelling, they’re making fun of us or just teasing us. We often can’t tell the difference. When we ask for acceptance, they throw a self-help book at us that was written for someone like them, not us.
It doesn’t help.
Giving a neurodivergent person a self-help book is like telling someone to build a car, then giving them a recipe for bread. These books tell us to get out of our own way. They tell us we’re imagining our problems. They tell us we’re limiting ourselves with our negative self-talk. It’s all in our heads.
It never crosses their mind…
Maybe it’s them.
It’s all these neurotypical people. It’s their biases and prejudices. It’s their continued assumption that we can’t contribute anything to their world or show them a better life. They’re the ones holding us back. They’re the ones limiting our beliefs.
It never crosses their mind that we might have strengths. We have talents and special abilities.
We don’t have to be like them. We don’t have to think or act like them. We don’t need lessons in how to pretend to be like them, or accommodate what they consider normal.
We need to learn how to be ourselves.
We can do things they can’t.
We can see things they miss. Some of us excel at math. Some of us excel at writing. Some of us excel at sports and dance. Some of us have leadership skills. With a little help, you can do anything you want. You just can’t do it like them.
You don’t have to.
Something magical happened in my late 20s.
I finally stopped caring for good.
After nearly three decades of faking normal, I stopped trying so hard to fit in. My approach to life changed after my fiance dumped me for the third time, after cheating on me twice. I remember our last conversation.
I kept asking, “Why?”
He finally said it:
“There’s this black hole inside you. There’s something missing. I don’t know what. It makes me sad to be around you.”
Still, I have to thank him for that. At least he was honest. He gave me something to chew on.
I stopped dating for a while. I took a break from parties and bars. I reconnected with the joy of solitude. I started spending nights at home, just reading. I went on long runs in the woods.
I learned to love my black hole.
That’s when I started reading psychology. People had been telling me I was different for most of my life, but they didn’t quite know what it was. I couldn’t afford actual therapy, so I had to figure it out for myself. At first, I thought I was a sociopath, then maybe a psychopath.
Some of my friends agreed. “Maybe that’s it.”
“That sounds like you.”
That didn’t make perfect sense. I still cared about people. I felt emotions. I just didn’t know what to do with them.
Finally, I landed on it.
From there, I began developing my own version of how to win friends and influence people. It’s rooted in the knowledge that some people find black holes beautiful. You just have to find them. You have to weed out the ones who only want you to smile.
It doesn’t help a neurodivergent person to teach them how to act more like a nuerotypical person. Not really. It didn’t help me.
That’s called masking.
All it did was set me up for failure.
I was still uninvited from parties. People still gossiped about me. In my experience, masking only leads to deeper feelings of insecurity and deficiency when the mask falls off.
Masking helps everyone else.
It makes their life easier.
By my late 20s, I’d gotten pretty good at masking. It was exhausting. Neurodivergent people invest huge amounts of energy accommodating everyone else’s social norms. It wears us out.
After so many hours, we can’t do it anymore.
We shut down.
We have to practice the art of being unlikable. We have to learn it’s okay to disappoint social expectations in certain ways. If someone calls us quiet or shy, that’s not an invitation to open up — not for us. We’ll just be the quiet ones. We’ll be good listeners.
We’ll be the “mysterious” types.
We can reserve our smiles for the times when we’re actually happy. We can reserve our life stories for the ones who earn it. We can think before we say something. We don’t have to fill every minute with small talk. We can have real conversations about real things. If someone tries to impose some social rule on us, we can say no thanks.
We can anticipate being misunderstood.
We don’t have to play the influence game. If someone doesn’t like us, then they can just not like us. We don’t need a bunch of little tricks to change their mind. We can leave them alone.
We can move on.
We can focus on our skills. We can let other people network their way into fancy jobs. The neurotypical people say, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” For us, it’s definitely what we know.
It’s what we can do.
Those of us on the spectrum will probably never feel the warm glow of total acceptance or unconditional love from neurotypical people. It’s fine. We have books. We have interests and hobbies.
We can find a purpose.
We have pets.
You can care about people without needing their constant approval. You can respect them.
That’s simple enough.
Battered children hug their pillows late at night. They do it for affection. I learned that from a school special. I remember thinking it was brilliant. That night, I gave it a shot.
Sometimes, these commercials about child abuse ran during my afternoon cartoons. My mom caught me watching one. She gave me this look, almost like a confession.
“You know you’re not abused, right?”
I was going to let it go, but she brought it up again later that night. She told me to never bring my personal problems to a teacher. They wouldn’t understand. They would tell the government, and the government would take me away.
I thought my mom was normal.
I thought it was normal to scream at your kids. I thought it was normal to throw things at them. I thought it was normal to shove them. I thought it was normal to hide from your mom under the bed, scared to make a sound.
I thought it was normal for adults to walk around the house for hours, talking to themselves.
Almost everyone has felt unloved, at one point. You can’t do anything right. Nobody likes you. Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants to hear your problems. Everyone wishes you’d go away. For a neurodivergent person, that never stops.
We live in that space.
We spend all day waiting for that magical moment when everyone stops paying attention to us.
We love the shadows.
We don’t want attention. We learn to make ourselves smaller. We learn to make ourselves invisible.
It’s a survival skill.
Nobody wanted to be my friend. I tried chasing kids down on my bike. They fled. Sometimes, I tricked them into hanging out with me. They played my games. They ate my snacks. They broke my stuff. They stole my stuff. They made fun of me.
Then they left.
Eventually, I started hanging out with the other rejects. They didn’t judge me. We had fun together. My mom hated it. She made me stop. She would rather I be alone.
Hate can worm inside you. Your own brain starts yelling insults. Once that starts, it’s hard to climb out.
Early on, I learned a lesson. I would have to learn it a few times before it sank in. Your desire for approval and acceptance gives the wrong people too much power over you. When you stop trying, you take that power away.
The first step is to do something.
You have to get outside your head. When I was a kid, I spent most of my time outside. It got me away from my mom. I got used to spending long hours by myself. I rode my bike. I explored the woods. I played imaginary games with myself.
Our house had a big basement. I spent time down there, reading or tinkering with my dad’s tools.
I learned how to amuse myself.
Those habits kept me going through high school and college. I started playing the cello. My parents said we couldn't afford a cello, so I practiced during my lunch. I stayed late whenever I could. I borrowed one from the school and lugged it home on weekends. I made first chair. I made the county and state orchestra. Later, I started running. I joined the track and cross-country teams.
I made varsity, barely.
In college, I traded those in for rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking. I made new friends, but I kept my distance. We climbed and hiked together, but we didn’t share secrets.
I kept my past to myself.
Outdoor sports opened up a new world. I ran 5Ks and 10Ks. I ran half-marathons. No matter how awful the world got, I could escape onto the backroads and out into the woods. I made friends with crows, deer, and vultures.
I made friends with coyotes.
Sometimes I still screwed up.
I fell in love with someone. I tried too hard to get them to love me back. I trusted the wrong person. I thought I could be friends with someone who didn’t deserve my friendship. It hurt, but I always recovered. I remembered the lesson.
Not everyone deserves your love. Not everyone deserves your friendship. Not everyone deserves your smile. Not everyone deserves your laugh. Don’t give it away.
The same goes for your time.
Make them earn it.
All that rejection only made me stronger. It taught me the value of spending time alone. That’s how I got good at the cello. That’s how I got good at running. All of those things require you to spend a lot of time by yourself, focusing.
People confuse being alone with being lonely. They think you have to be around other people to have a good time. They think if you’re not social, you’re miserable.
There’s nothing wrong with solitude.
It’s a strength.
You don’t have to love yourself. You don’t have to like yourself. I’m not even sure what that means. For us, it’s not about accepting ourselves or whatever else they call it.
It’s about forgetting ourselves.
We leave ourselves behind. Maybe we never silence all those negative voices inside our heads. We distance ourselves from them. We find something to do. We learn things.
We make things.
We focus on what’s in front of us. We focus on what’s around us. We get interested in that.
All the rejection fades out.
It becomes an echo.
It doesn’t matter.
Fighting the mean voices just gives them more power. The harder you try to lock them down, the harder they fight back. So just leave them alone. Make a truce. Let the mean voices call you fat, dumb, ugly, and everything else. Maybe nobody loves you. Maybe nobody accepts you. Maybe nobody will ever understand you.
You won’t get anywhere trying to please the mean voices. You won’t get anywhere changing yourself to make them happy. I didn’t.
You can only become more yourself.
Most people have a major weakness. They don’t know how to spend time alone. They don’t know how to deal with real rejection. They can’t handle the pain. They only know how to give in to peer pressure. They only know how to conform.
We don’t have that problem.
Psychology tells us that 75 percent of people care more about fitting in than being right. That’s too bad. That explains the majority of our problems. We’re the outcasts.
We’re the outliers.
We have the power to drive real change.
We keep the truth alive, no matter how unpopular it gets. We often feel alone, but we have a heritage. We knew the earth was round before anyone else. We understood how germs spread when everyone else thought it was evil spirits. We accepted evolution. We don’t wait for ideas to become trendy.
We do the right thing.
The cool kids know how to manipulate public perception. They learn spin. They don’t have what it takes to be true leaders. That takes guts. It takes the courage to do the right thing for the right reasons, not because it makes you look good.
It’s not always bad to be unloved and unaccepted.
It’s a strength.
I’m not sure anyone can love every part of us. I don’t think unconditional love exists. Love always has conditions. Love isn’t a feeling. It’s not something that just happens. It’s not always about hearts, hugs, and kisses.
It’s a decision.
You can decide to love someone. You can choose to take care of them. You get to set the terms and conditions.
Maybe you’re unlovable.
In kindergarten, the school gave us an IQ test.
I overanalyzed the questions.
I didn’t finish.
The administration contacted my parents. They urged special education. They wanted to stick me in a room full of other rejects. Back then, special education teachers didn’t think we had special gifts. They didn’t call us misunderstood.
They thought we were dumb.
They didn’t use alternate teaching methods. They watered things down. They slowed things down.
They dumbed things down.
It still happens.
Other kids called me a retard, almost every day. Teachers considered me unteachable. Faced with humiliation, my parents talked the school into giving me a second chance. They got a bunch of workbooks. I spent most of my summer at the kitchen table, filling out worksheets.
The work paid off, sort of. The school backed down. They let me stay with the “normal” kids. For the next ten years, everyone considered me on the low end of average.
Teachers still yelled at me. They punished me for doing what everyone else was doing. They used me as an example for the rest of the class. I spent a lot of time inside my head. When teachers lectured over slides or read assignment sheets to us, I let my imagination run wild. I wrote stories. I read.
I did anything but pay attention.
It made them angry.
They called me a slow reader. They thought there was something wrong with my brain. They didn’t get it. I could read faster. I didn’t want to. I wanted to imagine every page like I was there. I wanted to predict what would happen next.
I was slow.
Things changed in middle school. We finally got these things called textbooks. They contained all the knowledge I needed. I read them for fun. I learned how to read for information, not pleasure. Suddenly, my grades improved.
I discovered that if you really enjoyed a book, you didn’t have to take forever to read it. You could finish it. You could remember it. You could read it again and again.
There were a lot of great books out there. If I wanted a chance to read them all, I’d have to pick up my pace.
Teachers stopped yelling at me.
I could space out in class all I wanted. I could take naps. Teachers called on me. They asked questions. They thought they could embarrass me. It didn’t work.
I had the answers.
My teachers also started handing out these things called assignment sheets and schedules. I decided to start paying more attention to deadlines. Finally, they left me alone. Some of them even started to like me. They started to see, I wasn’t dumb.
I was just different.
Of course, some of my teachers couldn’t accept that I was smart. They accused me of plagiarism. I had to explain to them exactly how I did the assignments. They let me go with warnings. For me, the lesson was pretty clear.
Don’t be too good.
When I was 14, the school tested me again. This time I didn’t care. I didn’t think about the questions. By then I knew how to take tests. I knew how to eliminate wrong answers.
I finished a little early.
The administrators contacted my parents. This time, they told them I was gifted. I belonged in different classes.
Here’s the interesting thing:
Gifted education wasn’t harder. It was easier. The teachers were nicer. They gave me more options for assignments. They encouraged my creativity. They didn’t expect me to memorize everything. They focused on the big picture.
I still tuned out. I still slept whenever possible. Some of my teachers let me get away with it.
Either way, my struggles ended. Nobody thought I was dumb anymore. My parents stopped worrying that they had an idiot for a daughter. They let me do what I wanted.
I enjoyed memorizing tables, charts, and dates. Sometimes I focused so much on the details I lost sight of the main point. Over the years, I learned to find a balance.
Studying became fun.
My time as a student informs what I do as a teacher now. I never call a student dumb. I know what it feels like. If someone struggles, it doesn’t make them dumb. It means they need something different. I try to give that to them.
Learning specialists understand now that people process information in three main ways. Some people are visual learners. They learn by seeing. Some are auditory learners. They learn by hearing. Others are kinesthetic learners. They learn by doing. That’s basic stuff, and yet many schools still aren’t doing it.
I’m not a very good auditory learner. I learn better by seeing and doing. It would’ve been nice for teachers to understand that. It would’ve been nice to know.
I figured it out myself.
There’s this idea called multiple intelligence theory, developed by Howard Gardner and Elisabeth Hobbs at Harvard. Standard IQ tests are terrible at measuring someone’s intellect. They’re too narrow. They’re designed by a small group of people who define “intelligence” in a very specific way. In reality, there’s a lot of different ways to be smart. Here they are:
- Verbal-linguistic intelligence
- Logical-mathematical intelligence
- Spatial-visual intelligence
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
- Musical intelligence
- Interpersonal intelligence
- Intrapersonal intelligence
- Naturalist intelligence
- Existential intelligence
Most people excel in one of these areas. Some excel in several. Either way, schools should try to present material that links up with these intelligences. A musical can teach history. A poster can teach math. A short story can teach conflict resolution.
A dance can teach chemistry.
The best teachers don’t stand in front of a class and lecture. That’s boring for everyone, even normal people. Education experts have been talking about flipped classrooms for a decade now. It’s time to make them the standard.
Teachers don’t need to give lectures. They don’t need to lead discussions where five students participate while everyone else stares at the wall or watches the clock.
Students can learn the basic material outside of class. They can read. They can watch videos. When they get into a classroom, they should be doing. They should be working on projects.
As a teacher, I don’t have to worry about whether students are paying attention. I’m not the center of their world. I make videos. I assign practical readings. For some of my classes, I’ve written my own special mini-textbooks. I share these resources with them. I give them projects with loose guidelines.
I let them work. I hang around to answer their questions. I show them how to use research tools.
I’ve been doing that for years now.
Students like it.
There’s a big difference between learning and teaching. Most teachers still think if they’re not the center of attention, they’re not doing their jobs. All the research I’ve seen says otherwise. Students don’t need lectures and lecture halls. They don’t need classrooms with desks all facing the same way. They don’t need teachers up front, running the whole show.
Students need classrooms with furniture that moves around. Experts call these active learning spaces (ALCs).
They’re not even that expensive.
They need teachers who act more like guides, mentors, coworkers, and supervisors. We don’t have to reserve this for “gifted” students. Everyone deserves it.
I’ve used these methods with “remedial” students. Guess what? They love it. They learn more. They turn in better work. Here’s a shocking fact: more than a third of developmental or “remedial” students are misdiagnosed. They don’t belong there.
I can give “remedial” students the same material as my other students, and they do just fine.
They’re smart, if you give them a chance.
I’ve been there.
I get it.
If you struggled in school, I can almost guarantee you it’s not because you were dumb. There wasn’t anything wrong with you. There was something wrong with your school. They made assumptions about you. They didn’t give you a chance to prove how smart you were, or how good you were at something.
You don’t have a learning problem.
You’re just unteachable.
He said my mom was fine.
She was hiding lightbulbs in the freezer. She was stuffing loaves of bread between the couch cushions. She wasn’t sleeping. She couldn’t sling two sentences together.
But she was totally fine.
What a great time for a summer trip. Who doesn’t want to spend all day in the car with a paranoid schizophrenic, followed by three or four nights in a hotel?
My dad dragged us on more than one vacation when my mom’s mind was caving in. He pushed reality out of the way to focus on what mattered to him. He paid for a hotel. He made plans. He was going to keep them. He ordered us to have a good time.
When things got bad, he dumped her on me. I had to follow my mom around on the beach while taking care of my brother. My dad sat on the balcony and smoked.
The same thing always happened. He canceled our trip early. We drove home, hoping she didn’t get violent and cause a traffic accident on the way. We got lucky.
Fortunately, my mom always reserved her worst for after the trip. That’s when she tore apart the house. She turned over furniture. She broke dishes. She sneaked into our rooms at night. She threatened to kill us in our sleep.
After a couple of years, I learned how to spot the warning signs of my mom’s episodes. I heard the disconnects in her thinking when she talked. I saw the shift in body language.
I tried to warn my dad.
He ignored me.
He never apologized, either. He never said, “You were right. I should’ve listened to you.”
Neurodivergent people might come with some of their social hardware missing, but they come with extra sensory hardware. They can sense danger. Maybe you already know.
Psychologists classify us as highly sensitive persons (HSP). We’re extremely clued into our surroundings. Sometimes we see and hear so much, we get overstimulated. We’re prone to anxiety and depression. We come off as unhinged. People call us overemotional. They call us fearmongers.
Psychologists have a different name for you.
You’re an orchid. You have sentinel intelligence. You have the closest thing to superpowers that exist.
Sentinel intelligence refers to a special cognitive ability that allows someone to detect threats before anyone else.
If you have sentinel intelligence, your brain can sift through extraordinary amounts of information in a short period of time. You can pull out important details.
Orchids pay more attention to the fine print. They see things on the margins and periphery. They read between the lines. They notice when things aren’t quite right or out of place. They see through smokescreens and B.S.
They have more intense reactions to art and music. They also feel more overwhelmed by their surroundings. They tend to be introverts. They’re more likely to feel self-conscious, and they’re more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
It all fits.
Western culture heaps judgment on orchids and sentinels. We’re called weak and emotional. We’re attacked for feeling. The data suggests it’s not a weakness at all.
It’s a strength.
We detect threats. We protect people.
We’re not a liability.
If you have sentinel intelligence, you probably struggle to explain your reasons for precaution. You probably get angry at all the wishful thinking and toxic optimism out there.
You probably feel more compassion toward strangers. You care more about the greater good. You’re more willing to shoulder inconveniences for the sake of others. You don’t mind looking strange or even paranoid. You would rather risk being wrong than risk hurting someone.
There’s another group out there.
They’re our arch-enemies.
Psychologists call them dandelions. They don’t pay much attention to their surroundings. They don’t read the fine print. They don’t care that much about what happens to strangers. They wait until threats become obvious. They still might dig their heels in. They care more about social prestige.
It’s not that great to be normal.
Being normal means you’re not as moved by art and music. You don’t feel things as deeply. You don’t pay quite as much attention to detail. You miss warning signs. You give in to peer pressure. You can be persuaded to do things against your own good. You’re more likely to do the wrong things to fit in.
You’re less likely to recognize your mistakes. You’re less likely to apologize for them. You’re less likely to learn from them. You get a bigger dopamine hit from downplaying and dismissing threats. You’re more likely to stand around during an emergency waiting for more information that’s not coming.
Make me an orchid any day.
If you’re an orchid, trust yourself.
Don’t coddle fragile egos. Don’t soften your words. If you see a threat, there’s nothing wrong with speaking up. Someone’s always going to feed their own self-esteem by dismissing you.
Call them out. Present the facts.
If you’re an orchid with sentinel intelligence, maybe it takes all you’ve got just to protect yourself and endure everyone’s ridicule. Some of us are tired, and we need a break from the role of Cassandra. That’s fine.
Just remember, you’re not a fearmonger.
You have a gift from the gods.
You can hear the future.
She answered her phone in front of the class. It sounded important. She nodded a couple of times. She hung up.
She started weeping. “My dad’s dead.”
I sat there.
My hugs wouldn’t help. My words wouldn’t help. They would only make everything worse. I watched as some other girls rushed up to comfort our Spanish teacher.
A teacher came in and led her out of the room. A few minutes later, another teacher took over class. I can’t remember what happened after that. I just remember sitting there feeling useless. I never knew how to be there for anyone.
Neurodivergents deal with grief and trauma differently from normal people. We find it difficult to say platitudes like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It feels lame.
It feels scripted.
For us, following a script means you don’t really care. You want to act like you care, so you follow a word recipe.
We tolerate it.
When my mom died, I didn’t want condolences. I didn’t want cards. I didn’t want phone calls. I didn’t want to stand around listening to everyone else talk about their moms.
I wanted to be left alone.
I’ve thought about what I would want someone to say to me the next time I lose someone. I’ve thought about what I would say to someone else to let them know I care:
“I acknowledge your pain.”
“What can I do?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. That sounds honest. That sounds authentic and compassionate.
Most of us don’t want sympathy. We don’t need people to feel sorry for us. We need them to see and hear. We need them to give us time and space. We need them to respect our emotions and our boundaries. That’s all.
I’ve realized something about myself:
I like pain.
I like the physical pain that comes after a workout. I like the pain that tells you when you’re sick. I like the emotional pain that tells you it’s time to slow down and cry.
Western culture often doesn’t allow anyone the time they need to feel their emotions. Maybe that’s why the platitudes annoy us. Everyone’s secretly waiting for us to stop feeling sad. They want to expedite the grief process. They want to rush us back to normal, so they can go on producing and consuming.
They need us to get back to work.
They need us to buy stuff.
Negative emotions are bad for the economy.
Grief doesn’t end because you want it to. Neither does depression or anxiety. Neither does sadness.
You learn to manage it. It doesn’t matter if the loss or the trauma happened last year or last decade. It still hurts. Sometimes you need to find a dark, quiet place. You need to sit there and feel the pain for a while. Some of us develop nightly rituals. We sit alone. We unpack ourselves. We let our souls breathe.
I do it almost every night.
Normal people call that brooding or pouting. These days, you’re supposed to go around smiling like an idiot all the time. The internet tells you to force yourself to smile. They tell you to chant aphorisms into a mirror or do superhero poses in your bedroom. Maybe that stuff works for neurotypicals.
It never worked for me.
It’s bad to try and bypass your emotions. They always leak out. The harder you try to tamp them down, the more you set yourself up for anxiety attacks and rage fits.
Maybe you’ve noticed.
Over the last few years, I’ve practied being there. I can’t be there for someone the way a neurotypical person would. There’s good news. I don’t have to do that.
Neither do you.
You don’t have to hug someone if they’re sad. You don’t have to cheer them up. You don’t have to spout fortune cookie wisdom. Plenty of other people will do that.
Being there is simple.
You be there.
You hang around. You check in. You make yourself available. You bring them their favorite food. You run some errands for them. You mow their grass. You lend them your stuff. You watch their kids. You organize fundraising drives.
Some people are emotional first responders.
You don’t have to do that.
A few years ago, a colleague’s house burned down. She was a wreck. I couldn’t be there for her with hugs and kind words. I didn’t need to. She had close friends and family.
She was a book lover. Most of her library went up in flames that weekend. Someone suggested I start a book drive. So I did. People donated. She said thank you.
Use your powers.
Most Americans pride themselves on how optimistic they are. They’re not optimistic. They’re delusional. It seems to be getting worse. They need you to bring them back down to earth. They need you to rain on their parade.
They might hate you for it.
People go around smiling. There’s a deep sadness behind those smiles. There’s a deep ache. There’s a deep anger. It’s always there for a lot of them. It’s waiting to burst out.
Look at the viral videos. Look at the road rage. Look at the shootings. People are walking time bombs of anger and violence. Nobody gives them a minute to sit down and process their emotions. They feel like failures because they don’t spark joy 24/7. They think their gratitude jars will save them.
Some of us can feel our raw emotions building up the more we have to stuff our emotions down and pretend to get along with everyone. Find a safe dark space to let it out.
Psychologists have been uncovering the benefits of sensory deprivation chambers. They do wonders for people who get overstimulated. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money to buy one. You can make one.
Back in my 20s, I turned a closet into my own retreat from the world. It was pitch dark. It was dead quiet. I had earplugs. I had a white noise machine. I had noise canceling earphones.
Now I have a spare room.
You can do that.
If you work at an office, you can pack noise canceling earbuds. You can bring a sleep mask. You can close your blinds. You can turn off the lights. Do whatever you have to do. Shut out all the distractions. Tell your boss it’s what you need to stay focused and calm. If they give you a problem, go to HR.
Tell your employer they need a quiet room. Tell them to get nap pods. You don’t have to use them just for naps.
Tell your spouse you need an hour or two to sit in a dark quiet place. Tell them it helps you. Tell them it’s not about them. It’s not something they did wrong.
It’s about you being happy and centered.
You don’t have a mental illness. You don’t have a disorder. There’s not something wrong with you. Frankly, more people should be doing this. It would be good for them.
Make a space you know you can get to at any time. Make a space you have total control over.
Call it your sensory deprivation chamber. Call it your fortress of solitude. Call it your secret hideout.
Call it your bat cave.
You can share it, but…
Toward the end of college, I finally started getting somewhere. I started winning awards. I started getting jobs.
I discovered teaching.
I started working with “remedial” students. I’ll never forget one woman. On the first day of class, she broke down crying. She couldn’t write a paragraph.
Five weeks later, she was turning in five-page essays. She said my class changed her life.
“Nobody ever believed in me before,” she said.
She stole my copy of Eli Wiesel’s Night.
I forgive her.
Teaching turned me into a winner. I stopped caring so much about my own success. I started caring about theirs.
I liked focusing on something bigger than myself. I wasn’t just some dumb girl trying to get ahead anymore. I had a calling. I was part of something bigger than myself.
It didn’t pay much.
I averaged about $12,000 a year. I lived in rundown apartments, sometimes in poor neighborhoods. I washed my clothes at a Laundromat. It didn’t matter.
Something changed in me.
People could tell.
Life snapped into place. I didn’t have a problem at job interviews anymore. My social awkwardness ebbed as I geeked out about teaching methods and stories about students. I still came across weird, but nobody cared. They could see I was invested, and extremely good at what I did.
They hired me.
There’s this thing called the law of attraction. Maybe you’ve run across it in those self-help books.
Don’t listen to it.
The law of attraction says you can get anything you want if you put positive thoughts out into the universe. That’s all you have to do. It’s like a secular version of prayer.
It’s hard to imagine something more selfish and narcissistic. Think about it. Out of 8 billion people on the planet, someone honestly believes the universe cares if they make a million dollars selling beanie babies.
Eight billion people can’t have anything they want. We live on a finite planet with finite resources.
We have to share.
I practice the law of unattraction.
You can do it, too.
Examine all of your hopes and desires. Write down all the things you think you want. Ask yourself:
Do you really want a beach house? Is it going to make a huge difference in your life? If it suddenly appeared, how long would you cherish it? How many times would you go?
Here’s something I’ve noticed: Most people like the idea of having something. They like the idea of achieving something. They don’t actually want to have it. They don’t actually want to do it. They just think they do. They think it’ll make them happy. When it doesn’t, they start wanting something else.
I used to want a giant home library filled with books. Then I spent some time asking why I really wanted it. I figured it out. My favorite authors all had nice libraries in their homes. I found myself guilty of consuming library porn.
I wanted a home library because that’s how I envisioned my success. I straightened myself out.
I told myself my success and happiness had nothing to do with owning a big library. I didn’t beg the universe for it. I trained myself out of wanting it. Now I don’t need it.
Corporations have spent the last hundred years pumping out consumer propaganda. They want us to equate happiness with buying things we don’t need. A thousand life coaches and personal finance experts lecture us on our spending habits. They’re in it. They’re the ying to the corporate yang.
You don’t have to play those games.
You can simplify.
The law of attraction is the biggest scam in history. It goes all the way back to this clockmaker named Phinius Quimby. He used to go around curing people’s diseases by telling them it was all inside their heads. He charged ten bucks a cure.
One of his patients founded the Christian Science movement. They believe the entire physical world is an illusion. They also believe viruses and bacteria don’t exist. According to them, negative thoughts make you sick and poor.
This nonsense has woven deep into the western psyche. Almost everyone believes some watered-down version of it. No wonder we have so many problems.
People think they can smile them away.
We know the law of attraction doesn’t work.
We all know someone who does everything right. They’re smart. They’re sexy. They’re confident. They wake up at 6 am. They work out every day. They eat kale salads. They set big goals for themselves. They don’t accomplish them.
I have friends like that. Some of them trained for the Olympics. Some wanted to run Fortune 500 companies. Some wanted to teach at Ivy League universities.
Their dreams didn’t manifest.
They didn’t spend the rest of their lives begging the universe for something that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, they figured out something else. They scaled down their ambitions a little bit. They downsized their dreams.
It worked out.
They’re not super-rich. They’re not super famous, but they’re doing all right. They have families. They have jobs they care about. They didn’t follow a secret recipe. They just kept learning and scavenging for opportunities.
There’s a reason why we do things. It has almost nothing to do with material success. That comes after the fact. We do things because we find them rewarding.
These things were never going to make us rich.
We do them anyway.
It doesn’t matter if you fail. It doesn't matter if you want to give up. There’s a voice inside your head that compels you to keep trying. Who knows, maybe it's a curse. It won’t shut up until you do it. That’s why we keep going, even if we fail over and over again. That inner pest won’t let us give up.
Sometimes, it’s okay to give up. It’s okay to lose interest or enthusiasm. It’s okay to fail for the last time. It’s okay to get interested in something else.
You can refocus your attention.
You can pivot.
There’s a big difference between pivoting and giving up. It’s hard to give up for good. You have to give up every day for the rest of your life. You have to decide not to try.
One time I read about an old woman who wanted to become an artist. A teacher told her she didn’t have the talent. She quit. She quit for fifty years. Then she told herself it was too late.
There’s a lot of sad, angry people out there. They’re angry because they spend all day killing their creative ambitions. They try to buy their way out of the pain.
Don’t be like them.
It doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars off your passion, or whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t matter if you win awards. You can cross your fingers. You can give it a shot. The only thing that really matters is doing something that fills you up.
Purpose matters more than anything.
Maybe you already know this. You were already doing it. You just needed to hear someone say it.
Well, you’re right.
Halfway through college, I started crying for no reason. That’s not true. There was always a reason.
I just couldn’t figure it out.
I also started laughing out of nowhere. A joke or a funny image popped into my head, and I couldn’t control my emotions. Sometimes it happened in public, in front of strangers.
I got weird looks.
I had a lot of unprocessed childhood trauma. So I processed it. I did what we talked about earlier. I spent a lot of time in cool, dark places unpacking my memories. I read. I figured out what I really wanted for myself, and what I needed. I learned how to thrive in a loud, extroverted world.
Something else was still missing.
Everyone talked about this thing called happiness. They were always asking each other, “Are you happy?” They described it as a thing you could win. You could keep it.
You could show it off.
I thought once you were happy, you were supposed to stay that way. It didn’t matter what happened after that. No matter how bad things got, you had a pillow of soft emotions to land on. There were so many times I thought I’d won happiness.
I was wrong.
Good things happened. I celebrated. The happiness came. It never stayed for long. It went away. Neurotypical people describe happiness as this flood of joy. I never felt it.
I achieved 90 percent of everything I wanted.
The flood never came.
Neurodivergents don’t do happiness the same way everyone else does. Emotions don’t have to flood you.
It’s a good thing.
There’s a lot of other things you can feel: You can feel content. You can feel satisfied. You can feel calm. You can feel comfortable. You can feel peace of mind. You can feel creative. You can feel grounded. You can feel centered. You can feel focused.
You don’t have to chase these feelings.
You can create them.
I love spending all weekend on projects. I love organizing drawers and cabinets. Sometimes I go to campus and organize the main office, just for fun. I love strategy games. Doing things that make me “happy” help me regulate my emotions.
You don’t have to get excited over the same things normal people do. You probably won’t feel the same rush of endorphins by going to a concert or meeting someone famous.
My friends were all doing the same thing. They were chasing these things called happiness scripts.
It was making them miserable.
I watched friends destroy their lives trying to eat, pray, love their way out of depression and anxiety.
They dated people they couldn’t stand because they were scared of winding up alone. They sold their belongings and moved to Buddhist monasteries. They thought traveling the world would bring them some kind of spiritual enlightenment.
It just bankrupted them.
They moved back home and maxed out their credit cards on furniture. They bought bets and gave them up. They quit their jobs and got new ones.
A sociologist named Sara Ahmed talks about happiness scripts. A happiness script is like a recipe you follow. It tells you how to live. You didn’t write the recipe. It comes from somewhere else. It promises happiness. It doesn’t deliver.
Ad executives come up with a lot of our happiness scripts. They sell them to us through social media, through movies, through shows, through opinion pieces. They weave into every layer of our lives. Then one day your parents are asking when you’re going to get married or have a kid. Your coworkers are asking why you’re so shy. They’re reading your script to you.
They’re saying you’re off script.
They want you back on.
Happiness scripts never deliver on their promises. They only tell you to work harder. They tell you to act different. They tell you to buy more stuff. They tell you to download an app. They tell you to follow the latest consumer trend.
It’s not some big conspiracy.
CEOs have been writing happiness scripts since the 1920s. That’s when they came up with endless growth economics. They wanted to create perpetual demand for their products. People weren’t buying enough stuff. This tiny minority of superficial, materialistic psychopaths started pumping out a stream of propaganda that welded happiness to consumption.
They wanted to make us all like them.
It worked well.
Commercials aren’t just selling a product. They’re selling the happiness scripts. They make everyone feel dissatisfied with their own lives and bodies. They get everyone to start pressuring each other to consume more. If you reject the happiness scripts, then everyone rejects you.
For the last hundred years, one happiness script has dominated. You dress a certain way. You act a certain way. You wear makeup. You play sports. You go to college. You go out dancing. You get a job. You fall in love. You get married. You buy a house. You have a kid. You work hard and raise a family. You take vacations.
You send your kids to college.
They grow up like you.
They replace you.
These happiness scripts exclude us. If we don’t want them, if we can’t do them, then we’re told we can’t be happy. The happiness scripts don’t want us doing anything that’s not economically productive in their view. They especially don’t want us doing anything that would disrupt economic activity.
If you default on the happiness scripts, everyone goes out of their way to make you feel as deficient and miserable as possible. They do their best to erase you.
Nobody tells us we can be happy.
There’s different happiness scripts out there now.
There’s the influencer happiness script. There’s the digital nomad happiness script. There’s the affluent minimalist happiness script. There’s the best-selling author happiness script. There’s the girl boss happiness script.
And so on…
You don’t have to follow any of these scripts.
You can write your own.
You can figure out what makes you happy. It doesn’t have to come from somewhere else. It doesn’t have to make a cool video. It doesn’t need a logo. It doesn’t have to go viral.
Write it down.
People confuse happiness with dopamine. That’s why it’s so easy to sell them happiness scripts.
Real happiness doesn’t feel good all the time. Real happiness means dealing with sadness and anger. It means making hard choices. It means giving up things you want. It means investing in something bigger than yourself.
It’s about finding a purpose.
I spent a long time trying to find that constant river of dopamine that people call happiness. It never happened.
You don’t have to fall in love. You don’t have to date. You don’t have to move to a big city. You don’t have to make a big salary. You don’t have to fly around on a private jet.
You don’t have to go on big vacations.
Here’s a script:
You can stay home. You can take naps. You can play games. You can read books. You can read graphic novels. You can go to a movie by yourself. You can go to a restaurant alone. You can go for long walks in the woods, or even take a trip alone. You don’t have to post a selfie to prove you had a good time.
You can organize a social movement. You can join one. You can organize strikes and protests. These things can make you happy, if you find purpose in them.
You can have friends, but you don’t need a best friend. You can spend all day organizing drawers.
You can be boring.
I got told to shut up a lot.
So I did.
Then my friends started saying stuff like, “You’re so shy. You don’t talk a whole lot, do you?”
In college, I started studying how normal people talk. I wanted to figure it out. I made myself a wallflower at parties. I eavesdropped on people at coffee shops and bars.
The more I listened to everyone around me, the more I noticed something. There’s a reason why neurodivergent people like us find it so difficult to have conversations. To us, “normal” conversation sounds like a word salad.
It’s often tedious.
People take so long to make their point. They assume everything that happens to them is fascinating. They go off on tangents. They add details that don’t matter. Their grammar stinks. Their jokes sound like veiled insults. They put up with each other’s poor conversation because that’s not really the point.
More than 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. What you’re saying doesn’t matter that much.
It’s barely 7 percent.
Neurodivergent people like me think normal communication is about exchanging words and information.
Everything comes down to body language and intonation. Your tone of voice and intonation account for 38 percent. Your body language and facial expressions account for 55 percent. It’s about display. Neurodivergents struggle here.
When society describes someone as “charming,” they’re really saying that person has mastered nonverbal communication. They know how to use their voice, their face, and their body when they talk. They know how to move their shoulders.
It comes natural to some people.
For us, it’s hard.
This explains why we struggle. It explains why our friends interrupt us and cut us off. It explains why coworkers talk over us or roll their eyes when we try to speak. It explains why we feel like nobody ever hears what we’re saying.
For an autistic person, nothing about nonverbal communication ever makes any sense. The further along the spectrum, the more bewildered we get. We need more than a little practice. For us, it takes serious training.
Even then, it never feels natural.
What do we do?
This guy named Paul Grice studied how people talk. He figured out four key principles of conversation.
They became known as Grice’s maxims:
Quantity: When you’re talking, give people enough information. Don’t give them too much. Don’t give them too little.
Quality: If you say something, try to be genuine and sincere. Be ready to back it up with some reasoning or evidence. Don’t lie. Don’t manipulate. Don’t deceive.
Relevance: Stay on topic. Don’t bring up random things that have nothing to do with what everyone else is talking about. Sometimes you have to explain why it matters. You have to wait until a conversation has ended before you change the topic.
Clarity: Try to be clear. Be straightforward. If you’re going to be sarcastic, lay it on thick enough that everyone gets it. Don’t get mired in details and long explanations.
People flout these rules all the time. The more charming someone comes off, the more latitude they enjoy. They can get away with abrupt topic shifts. They can tell long, boring stories. They can be rude. Everyone lets them off the hook. Neurodivergents don’t come across as charming very often.
We get in trouble.
When I’m around strangers or colleagues, I follow these rules. That includes meetings and parties. I can go an entire meeting without saying more than a few sentences. I spend time gathering my thoughts before opening my mouth.
I actually like Grice’s maxims. I wish more people would follow them. Meetings would be a lot shorter.
I’ve stopped trying to sound like a normal person.
That’s not my goal.
Communication experts have found other common principles that make for good conversations.
For example, linguists have discovered the importance of taking turns in conversations. It’s pretty simple:
- You wait until someone’s done speaking.
- You signal you want a turn.
- You begin your turn.
- You say what you want to say.
- You hold the floor.
- You signal you’re (almost) done.
- You hand off to someone else.
Even someone like me can understand this once it’s explained. It helps to demonstrate it. You’d be surprised how often people screw this up. They take super long turns. They interrupt other people’s turns. It’s a real mess.
Neurodivergents can struggle when it comes to giving and reading signals. We’re not trying to be rude. Sometimes we just geek out on a topic, and we want to share everything we’ve learned. We get lost in our turns, going on and on.
We can get better with practice.
We forget about turns.
We don’t have an intuitive sense of how long a turn should last. Lucky for us, there’s some research on that. Mark Goulston found that most people listen for about 20 seconds at a time.
After that, they want a turn to talk.
Your turn should last about 20 seconds. If you aren’t throwing off a ton of charm, nobody’s going to cut you any slack. They’re going to want you to wrap it up.
Practice talking with a stop watch. You can get a lot out in 20 seconds. You’ll see. Personally, I try to keep my turns under 15 seconds with people I don’t know.
Even 10 seconds.
Since people don’t cut us much slack, we have to rehearse our thoughts in our heads. Other people get to string their ideas together as they go. It’s not fair, but that’s life.
We have to be the ones who sit back and construct fully formed thoughts before we open our mouths. We have to be concise. We have to be succinct. It’s okay.
People value conciseness.
You’ll come off as thoughtful, even profound.
It’ll make you stand out.
You don’t have to talk like everyone else.
You can get better at body language and tone, but you don’t have to master them. You can get better at signaling and taking turns, but you don’t have to ace it.
I follow up my visual cues with verbal ones
If I can’t read someone’s body language or facial expressions, I’ll ask for clarification.
For a neurodivergent person, everything works backward. Communication is 90 percent verbal. We care a lot about words. They mean everything. You don’t have to feel bad about that. You don’t have to change that. You probably can’t.
So use it.
I’ve been teaching for 15 years. When you get up in front of young adults three times a week year after year, it forces you to come up with your own speaking style.
I’m not charming when it comes to body language or my tone of voice. I’ve developed a vanilla style that lets me focus on my strengths: My words.
I choose my words carefully.
I let them sink in.
Neurodivergent people still have some hangups. We fixate on grammar. We try to parse our ideas out into perfectly structured sentences. It can slow us down.
I’ve learned to stop policing my grammar so much. When you’re speaking, it’s fine to change the construction of a sentence halfway through. Unless you’re giving a TED talk, nobody cares if your parts of speech match. Nobody cares if you maintain parallel structure. Nobody cares if you use cliches.
They like those things.
They save time.
I’m bad at overexplaining things. I’m not just neurodivergent. I’m an academic. I’ve practiced. When someone asks a question, I edit the answer down in my head.
I err on the side of brevity.
If I have a complex thought, I pause and think through how to condense it down. I edit in my head. Sometimes I picture a word document with a cursor, or I play my thoughts back like I’m listening to a tape recorder.
I cut the superfluous junk.
I dig out the point.
I say that.
Neurodivergent people like me also hate having to repeat ourselves. We have to get used to that. There’s not much of a workaround. Experts call it redundancy. Sometimes you have to say something three times for it to sink in.
Think of it this way:
- Tell them what you’re going to say.
- Say it.
- Tell them what you said.
Sometimes teachers call this strategy scaffolding. It’s an information sandwich. Sometimes that’s still not enough. Sometimes you just have to paraphrase yourself.
You don’t have to sound like a normal person to command respect. You don’t have to master every gesture and facial expression. Practice helps, but you can forge your own communication style. You can teach people how to listen to you.
Your friends and colleagues will learn how to read your signals if they care about you, even if you’re a little different. They shouldn’t expect you to conform to every rule.
They should meet you halfway.
They should make an effort.
You don’t have to be charming. Other people fall back on charm when their words and ideas fail.
When I was 8, I had a crush on a boy. I thought about him all the time. One night, he called my house.
He said, “Do you want to get married?”
I should’ve said yes.
Instead, I put him on hold. I thought he was seriously suggesting we hold a ceremony in a church, then try to find a house. I thought he was demonstrating poor judgment. I asked my parents what they thought.
They thought it was cute.
They didn’t help me.
So I said no.
I had no idea what you were supposed to do with someone you had romantic feelings for. My confusion continued for ten more years. Guys flirted. They asked me out.
I thought they were joking.
I believed nobody would ever want to date me for real.
I was undatable.
In college, a guy finally had the guts to walk right up and tell me exactly what he wanted. He said I was beautiful. He said he wanted to date me. He said he wanted sex.
So we did it.
We dated for a month. We had sex. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It didn’t feel bad. It just didn’t feel as good as I’d been promised. I assumed I was doing it wrong.
I didn’t like blow jobs. I didn’t like it when someone went down on me. It felt gross. The guys I dated complained. They solicited my friends to “talk some sense” into me.
My friends told me to grow up.
They said, “Don’t ruin this.”
Despite it all, I muddled through. I even got engaged. It was tumultuous. He never introduced me to his parents. He cheated on me twice. He dumped me three times. He criticized our sex life. “It should be passionate,” he said. “We should be tearing each other’s clothes off. You should be screaming.”
He told my friends I was lousy in bed.
I felt like a failure.
I remember our final break up. He tried to do it over email. I didn’t let him get away with it.
I asked him, “Why?”
Here we go, the black hole conversation I mentioned earlier: He finally squeezed out a reason. “There’s this black hole inside you,” he said. “There’s this part of you that I can never get to. Being around you makes me sad.”
At least he was finally honest.
For a couple of months, I tried to date. I tried to distract myself by going out. I went to bars. I went to parties. I tried to be social.
It didn’t work.
I remember the last time I went to a bar with some friends, trying to find a mate. A guy started flirting with me across the room. So I walked over and said hi.
He said nothing.
I stood next to him, trying to make my face look right, trying to scrounge up some icebreaker. His face changed. He didn’t seem interested anymore. Maybe he thought I was ugly up close. Then it hit me. I wasn’t having a good time.
I didn’t want to be there.
He probably sensed that.
So I left.
After my engagement fell apart, things started to make more sense. I started delving into what the neurotypical world calls “personality disorders,” personalities that don’t fit.
I couldn’t afford a therapist.
I couldn’t afford five hundred bucks for a diagnostic test. So I started reading. I tried to diagnose myself.
At first, I thought I was a sociopath. Maybe a psychopath.
“That sounds like you,” my friends said.
That didn’t completely fit. I still had emotions. I still felt compassion. I just didn’t know what to do with them
Eventually, I stumbled upon autism.
It made sense.
Now I understood why my relationships failed. Guys thought I wasn’t interested in them. They thought I didn’t love them. They assumed I was incapable of falling in love.
They were all wrong.
I wasn’t undatable.
I was just doing it wrong. I was trying to date like a neurotypical person. I was trying to love like a neurotypical person. I was focusing on all the ways I couldn’t express my emotions or show someone I had feelings for them.
I was trying to fake it.
I’d been masking my entire life. I just didn’t have a name for it. I faked emotions I don’t feel. I did things that didn’t come natural. It didn’t matter how hard I tried.
The mask always slipped off.
So I stopped wearing it.
It feels good to take off your mask.
Instead of learning how to fake it better, I went back to unravel the basics of relationships. I needed to develop my own love language. I needed to teach it to the people I cared about, so they didn’t misread my actions. I didn’t do it alone.
It wasn’t easy.
Right after I turned 30, I met someone. He was a lot like me. He didn’t really understand how to flirt. He didn’t really like going to bars and dance clubs, but he tried.
He was a virgin.
Actually, I didn’t meet him.
Some friends set us up. They did a lot of heavy lifting early on. They told me he wasn’t just dating for fun. He was looking for a life partner. They told him the same thing.
It was true.
My friends guided us through the first week or so. After that, we finally did something radical.
We were honest.
We said what we were thinking. We had weird conversations. We started finishing each other’s sentences.
A year later, we got married.
Normal dating advice doesn’t work out well for neurodivergents. Like we saw earlier, we’re verbal. We don’t do a lot of body language or facial expressions. That puts us at a disadvantage in the dating pool, but it doesn’t have to.
You can turn that into an advantage.
Almost everyone has gotten sick of the dating game. Look around. Normal mating rituals are exhausting. People don’t have the time or energy for them anymore.
They value honesty.
You excel at that.
These mating rituals developed for a reason. Being indirect was a way to preserve everyone’s egos. You didn’t just reject someone. That was rude. It hurt their feelings. So you came up with excuses. You spent hours sending visual cues to each other.
That used to matter.
Now I think more people want the kind of honesty you find in neurodivergents. They don’t care as much if you hurt their feelings. They don’t want you to waste their time.
You can use that.
You can find a hundred articles on all the little hints someone throws off when they’re interested in you. I spent years reading them. I still couldn’t figure it out in the real world.
That stuff doesn’t work for us. If normal people were honest, they don’t care much for it either.
So just ask.
Don’t make the mistakes I did. If someone asks, assume they’re being serious. Don’t laugh it off. Take the chance.
It’s worth it.
Neurodivergent people need a little space.
The most romantic thing my friend’s husband ever did was take a vacation by himself. He left her alone in the house for an entire week, so she could finish her dissertation.
My friend used her week wisely.
She taught her classes, then went straight home to write. She took little breaks to grab coffee and go for walks. Her husband didn’t hound her with texts or phone calls.
He let her work.
What she so desperately needed was the thing her husband gave her: time alone, to focus. “He gets me,” she said.
Now that’s love.
My spouse did something similar for me. The year after we got married, he had to spend a summer doing fieldwork for his master’s degree. He was gone for weeks at a time.
He didn’t make me come with him.
I was grateful.
My neurotypical friends criticized me. They said I should be spending more time with him. They said I should give up my personal interests. I should stop playing games.
“You’re married!” they said.
According to them, we should be doing everything together. If he was going camping in the middle of nowhere to study wildlife, I should be going out there every chance I got.
That was terrible advice.
I didn’t listen.
Neurodivergent people do love differently. We need time to ourselves. We need a break from facial expressions and body language. We need to let our faces go flat. We need quiet. Anyone with an artistic or intellectual side gets that.
Gary Chapman published The 5 Love Languages back in the 1990s. Since then, everyone has an opinion about a sixth love language, or a seventh, or an eighth.
For us, it’s distance.
There’s a lot of ways to do love.
A while ago, I watched a bunch of Hallmark movies. I wanted to figure out what evangelicals consider love.
One movie stood out.
I can’t remember the title, but it opens with a woman meeting her fiance for coffee. He introduces her to his second girlfriend. She freaks out and dumps him. She spends the rest of the holidays going to parties. She falls in love with a firefighter.
You never see the fiance again.
In reality, it’s okay to have a polyamorous relationship. You can get upset with someone for hiding their second girlfriend, but you don’t have to judge them for having one.
It’s okay to have an asexual relationship. It’s okay if you just want long conversations and cuddling.
That’s a thing.
Some guys like guys. Some girls like girls. Some people like bondage. Some people have fetishes. In some nonwestern cultures, everyone has sex with each other.
It’s not a big deal.
Some people choose to live on their own. They don’t want a husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or anything else.
Some people have sex dolls. Some people have relationships with AIs now. That’s all fine. There’s a hundred ways to do relationships. There’s a hundred ways to love. There’s a hundred ways to have sex. As long as it’s consensual, between adults, then there’s no reason to get worked up or judge anyone.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
The chitchat never stopped.
Colleagues thought they could walk into my office whenever they wanted, for any reason. Sometimes they came by to tell me what they had for lunch. If they weren’t coming into my office, they were standing outside talking to each other.
They were so loud.
My office had two windows. It was on the ground floor, in the middle of campus. The foot traffic drove me nuts. They laughed. They whistled. I heard it all. I even noticed the shadows dancing across my desk when I tried to work.
My university loved throwing parties and hiring DJs. Sometimes they set up bouncy houses and loudspeakers right outside my door. I couldn’t get anything done. I did my real work at night, instead of spending time with my spouse.
The resentment grew.
I was a program director. Everyone expected me to keep my door wide open. They expected me to be on campus all the time. If I ever left my office, my inbox started to fill up with little messages: “Hey, I stopped by to ask you a question but you weren’t there.” They texted me. They left notes.
They flagged me down in the hallway.
One time, a dean reprimanded me for not being in my office when he walked by. He didn’t need anything from me. He was just disappointed I wasn’t there.
Colleagues talked about being allies. They talked about the importance of boundaries and burnout.
They never applied to me.
What did I do?
Finally, I worked up the nerve to talk to my boss. I had a conversation with him about my productivity. I told him there were going to be times I had to shut my door. There were going to be times I had to leave campus. I had books to write. I had lessons to plan. I had papers to grade. I needed to focus.
He understood, sort of.
I took the risk of explaining to my colleagues and students what I needed to do my job. I told them there were going to be some mornings or afternoons when I wasn’t physically there. They could send me an email. They could wait.
Most of them understood, sort of.
In the end, I had to step down. There was just too much noise. There were too many expectations and too many distractions. People like to say they're tolerant and understanding, but it doesn't usually play out like that. They go on and on about how they accommodate difference. They never see how difference accommodates them, all the time.
The last program director before me was an extrovert. She trained everyone on a different set of expectations. Later, she told me she wished she hadn’t done that. It exhausted her.
It’s why she quit.
Funny, isn't it?
Even neurotypicals and extroverts get tired of the expectations they place on each other. They know teams don’t always accomplish more. They know open office floor plans can fail.
We understand the value of solo work.
Let a rat loose in a maze. They can figure it out pretty fast. Release a dozen rats in a maze. They’ll spend hours following each other down the same dead ends. Ants do the same thing. They can get stuck following each other in a circle until they die. A neurodivergent person can accomplish more in one day than a team of allistics can accomplish in a week. They don't get trapped in death spirals. Some companies are finally started to figure this out.
Neurodivergents can be a secret weapon of creativity and productivity if you give them the right support.
Most of the productivity advice out there is written by allistics, for allistics. It doesn’t work for us.
We need something else.
Many of us don’t wrestle with normal productivity struggles. Our phones don’t tug at our attention. We’re already good at focusing on a task, often for extremely long periods.
We get overstimulated.
We need a different kind of break. We need silence. We need darkness. We have to give our eyes and ears a rest. We have to quiet our minds. It’s like meditation.
We do our best work when it’s quiet. We’re sensitive to noise. We can’t deal with things like leaf blowers and conversations outside our office doors. We’re not trying to be grumpy.
We’re trying to get things done.
Don’t feel bad for demanding the kind of workspace you need. Don’t feel bad for splurging on noise-canceling earphones or earbuds if you can. Make your boss pay for them.
Don’t feel bad for demanding time for yourself to get your most important work done.
You’re worth it.
I know what real happiness feels like now.
It looks nothing like it should. It's utterly different from the happiness I was raised to want, in every possible way. The things that get me excited are the same things that make me unlikable.
Nobody has the right to judge you for doing what you want, as long as you're not hurting anyone. Nobody has the right to compare your story to someone else’s. Nobody knows what you’ve been through.
My mom used to tell me I embarrassed her. I made her look bad. She wanted me to stop hanging out with special ed kids. It made her so angry. She screamed at me about it.
The whole time, she was different.
Now I understand.
My mom hated herself. She spent her entire life trying to adjust to other people's expectations. She tried to understand their rules, but she couldn't. She came up with her own warped vision of humanity and tried to teach it to me. She couldn’t accept me. She couldn’t love me.
She never learned to love herself.
She died that way.
Some people have a mom. I have a cautionary tale. I have an example of what to avoid. I have to do better than that. I have to practice acceptance, toward myself and others.
I don’t have to like them. I don't have to understand them.
I just have to let them be.
Here’s something I’ve learned:
It doesn’t matter if someone likes you or not. It doesn’t matter if you command confidence the minute you walk into a room. It doesn’t matter if you can tell jokes and funny stories.
Let other people do that.
It matters to them.
Some of my best friends could do all of that, and it got them nowhere. Some of the biggest extroverts I’ve known wound up broke, alone, and miserable. They didn’t have what you have. They couldn’t back up their big promises with results.
You don’t have to be charming.
Just be authentic.
Be honest, whenever possible. Show everyone consideration and respect, at least at first. Try to help people when they ask for it. If you can’t help them, just say it.
Reliability runs deeper than popularity contests.
The people you care about will see that.
They’ll remember it.
You don’t have to go out of your way to give someone a compliment. Just show them they’re appreciated.
If someone’s sad or angry, you can’t always put them in a better mood. You can be the one who recognizes them. You can be the one who hears them.
They might never accept you, but you can accept them.
It’s not like I go around thinking this all the time. Sometimes, I forget. I get angry. I lose myself. When that happens, I remember my own advice. I find a cool dark place. I play white noise or ambient music. I sit with my uncomfortable thoughts.
Sometimes I listen to black holes.
When I was compared to a black hole for the first time, I thought it was an insult. I don’t think that anymore.
It’s a strength.
Scientists used to think black holes were silent. Nothing could escape them, not even sound. A few years ago, they learned something new. Black holes do emit sound.
We can’t hear it with our naked ears. We can use machines to process the frequency. It’s unlike anything you’d ever hear on this planet. It’s the sound of something beyond. Since then, artists and musicians have put out music based on the sound of black holes.
Here’s the thing about black holes:
They’re not just beautiful.
They’re powerful. They’re inevitable. They’re mysterious. They’re timeless. They inspire awe and dread. They don’t care if you like them.
You can’t stop a black hole.
They go on forever.
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