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  • Writer's pictureHeather Austin

Neurotypical Privilege

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2017 2:53 PM

(For reference, ND=neurodivergent, which includes Autism Spectrum, learning disabilities, some pervasive mental health diagnoses; NT=neurotypical, meaning those people without any of those differences in wiring) Four years into a relationship, we came to the conclusion that my partner is Neurodivergent. We struggled a whole lot getting to a point where we could speak similar languages and meet in a mutually meaningful way. Much tension, conflict, and we nearly broke up a few times. The breakthrough point was when I learned to set aside my accustomed framework and truly feel and respond with empathy and understanding.  It was like we were on separate islands with no way of reaching each others' shores. I had to open my mind to his reality, and accept the fact that it fundamentally is different from mine in many ways. I'm still unpacking the reasons why it was so anxiety producing to let that happen, but it certainly did rev my anxiety up. I felt insecure, vulnerable, raw, overwhelmed and helpless. Out of my element and unsure of what would be safe ground to travel on.The thing is, that very feeling was the beginning of empathy. That was how he was feeling on an ongoing basis. I was blown away by that realization. Understanding began to dawn between us, and intimacy skyrocketed. In the months that followed, conflict has decreased considerably, and toes are hardly ever trampled on anymore. I've come to the place where I'm feeling a growing passion to be a support for other partners of ND people, and developing a professional specialty in neurodiversity.

Today, I spent an hour on the phone with another NT partner, and in exploring with her what has helped me understand and adjust. I found myself telling her how very important it is to prioritize listening to the voices of adult autistics, and really being open to what they say about their experience. To use the language of other activist circles, "Center the experience of the marginalized rather than the privileged." Us NT's have been in the spotlight for a really long time. We are used to the world being made in our image and for our convenience. We spent decades, at least, pathologizing, judging, abusing, taking away the freedoms of and invalidating the voices of people whose brains and nervous systems work differently than ours. An important beginning to turning the tide of that is in giving up some of our power and privilege, stepping away from center stage and letting others tell their story and share their experiences. Our job is to Listen. Deeply Listen. To be open to the truth of their reality being different than ours. And to amplify their voices. That stings, and stretches us sometimes when we're used to being the privileged ones. And it feels a little (or a lot) scary to hold less power than we used to. But that's ok. It's part of the process.

I like to think of it as houses in a neighborhood. I know that Neurodiversity will never be my own house. But I'd like to think I could make a good neighbor. I can enter when I am invited (don't just drop in unexpectedly), act respectfully (don't get nosy or touch things without asking), follow their expectations (like sometimes you go to someone's house where they like you to take your shoes off and leave them by the door), and don't overstay your welcome (different energy levels or "spoons" required for neighbor visits). Once safety and respect are established facts between you, maybe you get to the point where you're not considered "company" anymore. The residents of the house can feel comfortable being themselves with you, and don't need to pull out the good towels or put on their party manners anymore. You can relax in each others' company, safe in the knowledge that warm feelings and acceptance abound between you. Part of that safety is in knowing that if you cross a line, they can and will tell you what happened, and that you will take responsibility for it appropriately.

I write because I also recognize that it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the privileged. I welcome the chance to be an ally, educator, sounding board, and challenger for neurotypical people who are struggling with the concept of diversity rather than pathology. There are struggles that do come up for us NT's, and those are valid as well. But it is not something for us to add to the plate of the ND's in our lives. Yes, communication is vital in every relationship, and every ND is different. That's kind of the point. What works in my relationship may very well not work at all in yours. You need to talk to your partner about their preferences and perspectives. But also seek the support of others in your own house, so that you don't inadvertently drag mud into the neighbors' house or break their things in the process of your own struggle. It's an amazingly beautiful house, full of wonderful things that surprise and delight and you may not even realize exist yet!

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