The sky was bright blue and the trees almost seem to pop off the skyline, as we walked through the neighborhood streets. There were side walks lining the houses, that had once been placed with accurate alignment, only to be broken and weathered overtime, creating a walking foot maze for those of us out on our social distancing walk. But I was just happy to be out - happy for a Mother’s day weekend, with some sun, and two tween daughters walking with me, with out resentment. They were both chatty and focused, on moving the conversation forward, as much as their legs. Topics of Anime and Hamilton volleyed back and forth between them, as I tried to grab an understanding and a well played comment, as I was often clueless to the details of their foreign interests. It was me, my two girls and our two pups, walking the neighborhood.
As we meandered up and down the neighborhood streets and hills the pattern and flow of our walking became awkward. If it wasn’t an excited dog pulling us in the direction of an interesting smell or squirrel, it was my oldest daughter, cluelessly and slowly veering her feet into my path. At first it was a surprising, “no big thing.” After all, she/we were happy, and she was passionately talking to me about anime and being willing to share the focus of the conversation with her younger sister. But, I noticed, the more we walked and talked the more frequently her “unintended cut offs” occurred. From my perspective she was cheerfully, excited to talk about her youtube series characters and plot twists. However, the more often she cut me off the side walk into the grass, the more frustrated I became. I was having an increasingly more difficult time holding onto my joy and interest as I held on to expectations that her adult size frame should be able to share and navigate the side walk.
Yet, it was Mother’s day weekend, and I did not want my moments to be soaked in frustration and resentment, so I took a couple of deeper breaths, and I mentally and physically created some space between me and my thoughts, as well as her on the sidewalk. I noticed her seemingly heedless body floated into my personal space, causing me to have to adjust because she was completely oblivious. To most, and even to me, those kinds of walking blunders first come across as rude. We think that being able to share space with another human being is a given ability. Yet, as I exhaled, I knew differently. Though my frustrated and slightly resentful self had a hard time grasping it, my mind gently reminded me that my daughter had been identified to have sensory processing disorder as a part of her experience of life on the autism spectrum. This gentle mental reminder enabled me to offer her grace, that she was not “trying” to interfere or hog my space and path.
Out loud, I reminded her, as plainly as I could, that we were sharing the sidewalk and her body was veering into my path. She immediately was apologetic, quick to throw reminders to me that “she was not trying to bump me.” And I knew it. It was true. She wasn’t “trying” to do it. She wasn’t trying to seemingly ignore or interfere with my needs. Yet, on that sidewalk, because of her differences - specifically her sensory processing differences, she was. I repeatedly had to adjust my position or pace or placement as I maneuvered over the old sidewalks. My daughter’s different, incomplete sensory processing was interfering with her ability to offer me the chance to comfortably share space, on a walk together.
As one who lives within a neuro-diverse family, opening myself up to the possibility of new awarenesses and experiences and abilities other than my own, has been a life line. Much of my journey as a parent has been a continuously woven path, between confusion, conflict, research, understanding, releasing, and receiving. As a person identified with sensory processing disorder, specifically with deficits in vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoception senses, my daughter’s difficulty to share the sidewalk path was clear. And yet, I was still having to overcome my 30 years of previously shaped lack of knowledge, to wrestle with the fact that she frustratingly kept hogging my side walk space and almost bumping into me.
For the first 30 years of my life, I was like most, having been told that humans had 5 senses - taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. These are the most commonly talked about senses. Yet, as occupational therapy, neuro-science, and psychology are advancing, they have come to offer the knowledge that humans actually have 8. Jean Ayres, a trained occupational therapist and an educational psychologist pioneered the work of sensory processing information and disorders, that continues to be built upon today www.aotf.org/About-AOTF/Awards-and-Honors/Academy-of-Research-in-OT/Academy-of-Research-Profile/a-jean-ayres-phd-otr-faota
My talkative, excited girl was not “trying to be rude.” She was navigating a body and brain that does not consistently or accurately work together or with the environment around her. The three missing senses from my former knowledge of the body’s senses were the VERY KEY senses that were the jumble of her sensory problems. This reminder of her differences was an invitation, to emotionally jump back into the moment, letting go of my frustration and ill shaped expectation she would not be awkward or clumsy, and jump to meet her in the space and in the moment in the best ways that she could.
As I did this, we began to ease back into a more shared space. She adjusted her position on the sidewalk to me and focused on the awareness that I wanted to receive the moment and my daughters openly and with love - even if that meant more frequent adjust my footing and positioning on the unfolding sidewalks. My focus moved away from my frustration and the spacing of our bodies and on to the gratitude of the moment. I was thankful for them - ALL of them, and so grateful that we have gotten to share so many steps together through this journey of life. Our walk continued, a little less awkward - but still us.
Neuro-diversity is an emerging concept dotting the scientific, educational, and technological landscapes. For as much as it is a 21st century-current buzzword, the meaning and potential societal transformation it points towards are enormous. I won’t spend the time defining it for you, providing no more than what a simple Google search of the word neuro-diversity could offer. But, I do want to spend a little time framing what neuro-diversity means to me and for my purpose.
Most people think of neuro-diversity in terms of either a scientific/medical definition or what is observable through behavior. In these terms, neuro-diversity is usually considered to be synonymous with terms like autism spectrum, attention-deficit disorder, mental illness, etc. Most people understand neuro-diversity when it is applied to a deficits-based or problem-based perspective. However, in the most general sense, neuro-diversity is the acknowledgement that each human being is created with a neurological framework and capability that shapes and illuminates his/her experience and reality. Therefore, neuro-diversity IS about highlighting that neuro-individuality as the norm, and NOT the exception.
While many families enter the neuro-diverse experience from symptoms and problems. We entered the neuro-diverse journey from an MRI film strip. This ticket to truth was delivered in-living-color clear to me in 2007 when my oldest daughter was born with a structural brain anomaly. Before she could grow into herself and place in this world, we held the diagnosis that her brain was unique. Specifically, her corpus callosum (the brain structure made of numerous communication fiber pathways, designed to function as the brain’s information integration center) did not completely develop. Literally, when you looked at an MRI picture of her brain, it was created differently. Even though from the outside looking in, we had a healthy, almost typically developing baby, her doctor gave us the news that her brain was missing what most take for granted.
There is no doubt that if each of us had an MRI picture of our brains, that each of us would have a unique brain. Truly no two brains are the same. And yet, our societies and our institutions are set up to expect that each of our individual brains experience and perform in one “norm” determined way. The standardized definitions and expectations of previous human "revolutions" have no more fuel or fury in the face of the reality of neurodiversity. Each of us live in individually constructed experiences of the world. The gifts of 21st century science and its applied understanding offer the opportunity to recognize and maximize the entire scope and interaction of human neuro-diversity.
Particularly now, as we move through the early steps of the 21st century, when lines blur between human and machine, and power pushes down a standardized access to resource and definition of humanity, the recognition of neuro-diversity is even more significant and crucial. In a time when science and knowledge enable us to look wide and look deep, we can forgo the basic tethers of surface level understanding and lean into the space that offers individualized knowledge and its consequential wisdom. This means that individual reality and experience can be esteemed for what it is and the interactions and intersections of our individualities can be revealed and understood, instead of missing the mark in comparison to some non-existent standard or norm. Possibilities of neurodiversity being applied to relationships, spirituality, learning, medicine, occupation, are limitless. The irony is that the more individualized the understanding of one is, the more it offers opportunity for applied connection and collective wholeness.
Neurodiversity is the conceptual permission slip to kick “normal” to the curb. Historically, “normal” has been a tool designed more for mass production, collective control. It has been a concept of intent. Yet, for those of us who have seen into or lived on society’s margins, we realize “normal” is an empty promise. Individuality, whether it is lived on the surface or “under the hood,” is where life and innovation exist. As we are better able to acknowledge and honor individualities, then we are free to advance who we are as individuals and who we are as a society.
Kicking “normal” to the curb has been an evolving process for me and it is still. There is so much to “unpack” in letting go of “normal.” Letting go of “normal” isn’t so much just about ignoring societal pressure, it is about knowing yourself, who you are, what you need and being open to knowing that others are different. Letting go of “normal” is choosing to respectfully and meaningfully co-exist, connect, and create with the whole diversity of our world’s neuro-individuality and inter-connectivity. When we are pointed towards and empowered to live our neuro-individuality, then we are poised to experience and share a sacred grace.
Melinda is a recovering "normal" seeker, who is often distracted by unexpected moments of nature's beauty or questioning children