📚 Finished reading: Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg.
This book encourages us to consider a type of diversity less commonly considered in mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion efforts: the differences in how people think and feel, with a focus on how they process sensory input.
“Temperament rights” captures the idea that we should respect individual’s temperament and neurology in the same way that we should respect other aspects of people such as their gender, sexuality, or ethnic identity.
Much of the focus is on people with high sensitivity. This is commonly an aspect of diagnoses like autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, synesthesia or those termed “highly sensitive people”, as well as present in plenty of people who have no medical diagnosis at all.
Living in a world not attuned for ones' sensory processing can be overwhelming, exhausting and frustrating. Things that seem perfectly normal to other people - loud music, crowds - can be very stressful. “Everyday” tasks we’re all supposed to be able to do such as housework or adhering to deadlines might be difficult. At the same time they might truly excel in other areas of life.
The difficulties are compounded by the pressure those with these conditions feel to fit in, to appear “normal” throughout life. They do this by masking their experience. They may feel compelled to do this in every aspect of life, including in social and workplace environments, silently facing an extra challenge many of us do not. Women are apparently particularly prone to this, with their behaviour in general being more policed within our patriarchal society, having been socialised to mask more often and more effectively.
Of course this comes at a cost. Sufferers may appear to lash out or exhibit other behaviours determined by many to be “bad”. They commonly present with comorbidities such as depression anxiety, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and distorted self-image. Masking by definition precludes you from living a life in accordance with your true self.
It’s very possible that the person concerned themselves doesn’t realise what’s causing their challenge. They might seek treatment just for the more visible symptoms of their condition rather than what underlies it, or another condition entirely, which is generally ineffective.
One criticism I’ve seen of the book is that it heavily focuses on a particular demographic of folk with neurodivergences - most obviously women, and in particular middle class women. There’s not a ton of discussion about the effects of poverty, race, sexuality or other intersections of identity. I can see aspects in this in terms of the suggestions of how to live a life more compatible with one’s sensitivities that are provided at times. Moving to a quieter neighborhood, redecorating your house, reading the latest research on neurodivergence or getting a new job more suited to your cognitive style are not exactly opportunities easily open to all.
Of course if you fit into this sort of demographic or know people who do, this might be a benefit rather than drawback when it comes to getting insight into yourself or others, And to be fair, many of the suggestions are more widely applicable.
The critical message of the importance of learning to accept yourself as you are and then working to accept others as they are is clearly a message that can benefit us all. If this book helps people that struggle through life for one reason or another understand they’re not alone and certainly not broken or deficient then it’ll obviously be a force for good.
On the gender front, a man with such a condition might be a little surprised at its female focus given the title doesn’t make that so clear. But I guess it acts as a counterbalance against the dominance of maleness in past psychological and medical research, a topic the book goes into some detail about when it reviews the history of psychology as a discipline. Given some of these conditions may present differently in women than men one might need to read another book on top of this one for a full understanding.
There’s also a inevitable tension here between the idea of celebrating neurodiversity versus the pathologisation of it. Under the former mindset, no-one’s thinking or sensory style is right or wrong. There’s tremendous amount of variation such that the concept of “normal” is itself largely flawed. Whether a mental tendency makes your life harder or easier is often really a product of societal and environmental choices rather than something inherent to the condition - consider the “social model” of disability. Even what we regard as a disorder certainly has changed and will again change dramatically over time.
The DSM is more like a catalogue of current social ailments than scientific hardwired “diseases.
On the other hand people do often end up as being labelled as having a disorder. Some who suffer may seek this out. This risks marking them as “aberrant”, “weird” or “sick”. Expectations may be lowered, judgements may be received. But such a label unfortunately is often necessary to gain access to healthcare or support systems.
Although there can be upsides in carefully-used labels. Many people feel far better once they’ve found a label that seems to describe how they exist in the world, that what they experience is both “real” and acknowledged. It helps them understand why some parts of life feel particularly challenging whilst they may be highly proficient in others. It also makes it easier to find a support community of people like oneself. The book contains many stories of women who couldn’t understand why life seemed to be so much harder for them than others for years until finally, later in life they received a diagnosis. They often felt validated, and gained access to a language that allowed them to discuss their needs with others.
And it’s certainly hard to argue with some of the overall takeaways. Sentiments like the quote below are universally useful to bear in mind, even if it’s not something I’d say is especially particular to the issue of neurodivergence.
There’s really nothing right or wrong about people; we’re all just people doing our best…It’s important that we see differences, that we don’t deny them; but let it stop there and respond to everyone with kindness and help.
But it might well be that the often invisible, misunderstood and hard-to-classify neurodivergences are an aspect of humanity that we’re particularly bad at considering in this context. We should certainly do our best to fix that. Educating ourselves and others such that such variations in experience exist is surely an important first step in building a world that more people feel comfortable existing within.
My more detailed notes are here.