Rants For Thought

The Insidious Culture of Othering: Neurodiversity and Stigma

Facebook can be an interesting place, not just for the amount of information and stories shared, but also for the drama. A friend of mine posted today about getting a puppy for her family – she was going to go and look at a dog to see if it would fit in with her family. While most were supportive, one commenter decided to take my friend to task, accusing her of “not thinking this decision through” and insinuating that her first-graders, one of whom has pretty severe anxiety, would somehow fight over the puppy and hurt it, or even kill it.

The commenter’s reasoning was that the puppy was so small, and my friend’s home life so wild and emotionally unstable, that somehow, the situation would end with a dead dog, due to her children’s squabbles and emotions somehow manifesting in murderous tendencies. Besides the absolute absurdity of someone making wild assumptions about someone’s home life from a few Facebook posts, this example points to something else: neurodiverse people are automatically assumed to be dangerous or unable to control themselves, especially when it comes to responsibility.

Image credit: http://www.washtenawvoice.com

This isn’t the first story I’ve heard about stigma when it comes to people who have mental illness, autism, or other intellectual disabilities or differences, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. People laugh and joke about people, namely women, “snapping” and going “crazy”. People fear the homeless folks on the street, worried that they’ll be hurt or killed if they walk past an old man begging for change. Police officers shoot young men with schizophrenia, fearing that they will become dangerous and somehow hurt armed officers. It’s everywhere, and it’s not stopping anytime soon.

While the “mentally ill people are dangerous and crazy” trope is alive and well, there’s another way that people tend to “other” neurodiverse people: they infantilize and use them as some kind of mascot or pet. Take, for example, Kelle Hampton and her daughter, Nella. Nella has Down Syndrome and launched her mother into Internet fame with her birth almost five years ago. Nella’s birth story, I would wager, is Kelle’s most popular post, and she has launched a book and a brand out of the attention she received for it. Now, Nella is trotted out for the Internet to admire on social media, and is even brought out as a birthday gift for excited fangirls. Despite Nella’s obvious fear and discomfort at being handed over to strange people to hug and kiss, she is nonetheless placed into situations that completely ignore her own personal autonomy or wishes, likely because she can’t advocate for herself.

This isn’t okay. None of this is okay. And I’m getting tired of seeing this happen. To have people automatically assume that someone with mental illness is incompetent or dangerous. To see people with intellectual disabilities infantilized and used as a prop for someone else’s personal gain. To see people excusing exhausted mothers snapping and throwing children with autism off bridges because they’re considered “too hard” to take care of. I’m tired of it, because neurodiverse people matter, too.

My generalized anxiety disorder makes me very careful in settings where people don’t know that I am mentally ill. At work, I am careful not to do anything that might make people think that I am not competent, or can’t do my job. I am careful to talk about anxiety or mental illness with trusted people only. I do this not because I want to further the stigma, but because I fear having more stigma thrown on me for being mentally ill. I don’t want neurodiverse people to have to hide, but learning how to “pass”, whether that takes the form of what I do, or a person with autism trying to seem not autistic, or someone with an intellectual disability or difference trying to keep up with everyone else, is exhausting, and unfair.

Discrimination against those who are not neurotypical is common, even down to casual remarks like, “I’d never date a crazy person” or “I don’t think I could handle someone who’s mentally ill or autistic”. People are discriminated against when it comes to employment, mostly when it comes to working with the public or with children, no matter if the person can prove their competence or not. Neurodiverse people are discriminated against when it comes to any form of responsibility. Because what if they “snap”? What if they have a bad day? What if, what if? People invent all sorts of things that almost never happen, down to an anxious six-year-old murdering a puppy, or a man opening fire in a McDonalds. And yet, despite the fact that someone’s medical issues are none of your business, many people say that they wish mental illness, autism, and intellectual disability should be disclosed in job interviews or to other parents in school. Only then can they decide if you are “worthy enough” to be given any respect or consideration as a human being.

The fact is, neurodiverse people are much more likely to be hurt or killed than to hurt others. They are much more likely to be taken advantage of, due to the fact that some can’t advocate for themselves easily. And they are often lonely, or ostracized, due to being different. They are often made to feel like an inconvenience or a burden, due to the cost that services and therapy may carry. And while people who have severe mental illness or intellectual disability may need round-the-clock care, they are not lesser because of it. In the end, you are dealing with a human being, not a dangerous timebomb, or a forever infant. They deserve respect, love, and dignity.

I would like to see othering stop when it comes to mental illness, autism, and intellectual differences. The examples listed above should never happen. If you are worried, offer the neurodiverse person support and help, if they desire it. If the person is not able to decide for themselves, offer their caregiver or personal support person help. Stop treating them like second-class citizens, because neurodiversity can and does happen to anyone, through car accidents, strokes, brain injuries, or traumatic events. No one is exempt, and no one is worth less than anyone else.

In the end, we’re all people living in the world. Shouldn’t we make it easier on each other to simply exist?

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3 thoughts on “The Insidious Culture of Othering: Neurodiversity and Stigma

  1. It’s for this reason that I’m often quite open about my mental health problems; people get to know me, they see that I’m a perfectly normal and competent person with no puppy-killing tendencies, and oh by the way also I suffer from depression and anxiety. I guess I feel that I want people to think of me when they hear “mentally ill” rather than some bogeyman figure that doesn’t really exist. Obviously that doesn’t mean that everyone who is neurodivergent in some way should tell the world in order to correct this dangerous misconception, but I’m fortunate in being fairly highly functioning and not in any danger from people abusing their knowledge of my diagnoses. Not everyone is so lucky. The main thing is to protect yourself. And it’s depressing that even has to be the case.

  2. This is totally something I would write. I’ve only started blogging 2 weeks ago and I see similarities in our thought processes. If you have time, check out my posts. I feel defensive and offended that in volunteer opportunities and employment there are “trick” questions to get one to disclose anything resembling mental illness. I imagine a June Cleaver look-alike holding a placard that reads “You’re swell and all but you folks just can’t be trusted. Run along now.” I also want to write about the Montreal murders, but from a different angle. Take good care, La Panzona

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