Lost in Translation: The Social Language Theory of Neurodivergence

How did we get here?

The pathology paradigm is a system of diagnostic labels designed by neurotypicals which categorizes our genetic differences and traumatic stress responses as illnesses, disorders, deficits, and deficiencies. Some of these labels are ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, epilepsy, autism, bipolar, borderline, schizophrenia, and complex PTSD.

Processing differences cause us to speak different social languages.

Neurotypical and neurodivergent people experience many misunderstandings or blocks to communication. It is common for both groups to assume that these misunderstandings happen because of a deficit or deficiency in neurodivergent people. However, neither group is at fault. We are simply speaking different languages.

1. Emotions

We process emotions differently. We think of emotions in extremes because we feel and sense in extremes. Happy is elated. Sad is distraught. Grief is the end of the world. Light, sound, touch, taste, and smell have an emotional effect on us. We sometimes have to turn off our emotions in order to protect ourselves from overload. This is not because we cannot feel; it is because we feel SO much all of the time.

2. Empathy

There are two kinds of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is feeling the feelings that another person is experiencing. Cognitive empathy is knowing the thoughts that are in the other person’s head, how they think about their feelings, and what they might do in response to them.

3. Nonverbal Communication and Body Cues

“Energy is our first language. Words are our second.” That’s how autistic activist Kristy Forbes describes herself and her children. She is an autism and neurodiversity support specialist who teaches parents & educators how to understand neurodivergent children.

4. Words Mean Things

Words are a big deal to us. They’re emotional, mental, and physical work. Many of us learn to conserve our energy by reducing the amount of time we spend speaking. This is one of the ways we adapt to our intense world. Many of us have situational mutism. Some of us never speak out loud, but instead communicate with sign language or assisted communication devices. Not speaking does not mean we can’t understand what is said to us.

5. Social Rules

Whenever we gather groups of neurodivergent people together, the idea that we can’t socialize well begins to seem rather silly. We certainly don’t socialize like neurotypicals do, but we have our own set of social rules as well as consequences for breaking them.

6. A Different Value System

We value achievement, success, and hard work, but we tend to define these things differently from neurotypicals — more by internal metrics and less by external rewards. Fame, competition, and material wealth don’t impress us. We prefer to measure success in terms of autonomy, justice, connection, and truth.

7. Skills and Abilities

We have variable skills and abilities. Our strengths and disabilities fluctuate based on our environment and stress level. We may be able to work and visit the grocery and make dinner one day, and be unable to leave the bed on other days. We can happily socialize in some settings but not others. Many of us have chronic illnesses or trauma that interact with our sensitive neurology to cause unusual levels of pain and fatigue which change our abilities from day to day or even hour to hour.

8. Reactions to Stress, Pain, and Overwhelm

Our stress reactions are not pathological, but they can be disabling. We are hypersensitive to pain, including social rejection.

Conclusion

The majority of the impact of all of these misunderstandings falls on us neurodivergents. Neurotypicals are the in-group, while the rest of us are made to feel like we don’t belong. Interactions with people who don’t speak our language can make us feel unnecessarily ashamed of ourselves.

“I feel like a foreigner who memorizes all of the customs of another culture. I try SO hard to communicate in the right way, but important things get lost in translation.” — an autistic adult

The set of traits that Western society has decided is normal is terribly unrealistic for our neurotype. We are not broken neurotypicals. We are not lesser beings for speaking a different language. We are whole, unique, and valuable just as we are.

End of Part 1

Janae Elisabeth, aka Trauma Geek, is an autistic researcher and neurodiversity advocate who believes free neuroscience education will change the world.

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Trauma Geek

Trauma Geek

Janae Elisabeth is a researcher-storyteller and neurodiversity advocate from western North Carolina. #actuallyautistic #traumaismyspecialinterest