In Plain Sight: Invisible Neurodivergence

Normalized neurodivergence is invisible neurodivergence. That can look like acceptance, or it can look like denial. Often, it looks like both.

I didn’t discover I was neurodivergent until my mid-twenties. Looking back, there were a lot of signs we missed, but it’s also very obvious why we missed them.

Recently, I find myself thinking a lot about how I grew up in an undiagnosed neurodivergent family. A family that was proud to be weird but had no idea that it meant anything. I’ve thought a lot about how that protected me growing up, and about how it didn’t.

In my childhood it protected me from the outside world, from seeing myself in a negative light. But only for so long, and only in certain ways. I was impervious to bullying attempts throughout grade school, but I still grew to hate myself as a teenager for reasons I couldn’t describe.

I struggled with socializing and connecting with family. I struggled with procrastination and feeling overwhelmed by my school work, even as I maintained a GPA above 4.0 in high school. In college, I struggled with feeling completely lost and overwhelmed. Today I’m still struggling with feeling isolated.

The problem is that while I faced little judgement for my difficulties from my immediate community growing up, the struggles I did face remained invisible. I was accepted as “shy” when I had crippling social anxiety. I was forced into situations I was uncomfortable with. I was accepted as just another teenager while I was suffering from autistic burnout. My depression was ignored. I was considered smart and a great student while I was losing sleep over each and every assignment. My struggles were dismissed.

The problem is that when no one on the outside can see you struggling, you start to blame yourself, you start to wonder “what is wrong with me?” and it becomes impossible to ask for help.

As a teenager, I considered going to a therapist, but I didn’t go out of fear. On one hand, I was scared they would find something “wrong” with me and I would be discredited by society. On the other hand, I was scared they wouldn’t find anything wrong with me at all.

A solid decade of autistic burnout later, I finally did go. I was diagnosed as Autistic. And what a relief that was.

To this day, discovering that I’m autistic is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Not because it gave me something else to blame, because I consider my autism an intrinsic part of me. Instead, it’s given me the language with which to understand myself and my struggles, and it has allowed me to accept myself so completely that my mental health has improved dramatically in the last few years. I have never been happier with myself than I am today. I have never been kinder to myself than I am today.

And I circle back to thinking about my family, about all of the undiagnosed neurodivergence, about all of the trauma that they’ve suffered, about all that they’ve blamed themselves for, or all they’ve blamed each other for, when really they’ve just been surviving in a world that isn’t built for people like us.

And naturally, I think about the families that I serve and the research that shows just how strong the genetic ties to neurodivergence are. I think about how children who grow up with a diagnosis have their every behavior pathologized, even if their parents without a diagnosis do the same thing. I think about how adults who grew up without a diagnosis suffered the way I did and maybe continue to suffer.

I don’t know if I wish I had grown up with a diagnosis. I can imagine it helping. But I also know how much misleading information there has been historically. I can imagine it being worse too.

My only hope is that it’s better for the next person, for the next family. That they discover their neurodivergence in an environment full of love and acceptance. Or that they find that environment. Or that they build it themselves.

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