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I do not think like you think. Thoughts on being non-neurotypical.

March 28, 2013

Apparently, over the last few days there’s been a bit of discussion around the word ‘neurotypical’, with some people defending it, and some considering it unnecessary. I’m not much interested in whether or not you like the word, but it’s pushed me off the fence on writing about my brain.

I have always known that I am not normal. I learnt to read before going to school, yet didn’t learn to write until I was 11. I always had problems with school, right the way through, and my classmates and I never seemed to find enough common ground for me to truly make friends.

At the age of 13, I was diagnosed with ADD (inattentive) at a time when there were only 2 centres in the UK with doctors qualified to make the diagnosis. The first time I took Ritalin was the first time I had ever really truly been able to screen out background noise and actually hear, let alone listen to, what people around me were saying without colossal effort soon followed by exhaustion. To this day, I need more sleep than most.

I took Ritalin, then Dexedrine, through my school and college career, and managed to get reasonable grades, although probably way lower than I would have got had I been able to concentrate without having to concentrate on concentrating. Which is quite an effort if you find concentration a challenge.

I have been unmedicated from about 17, and have done fantastic things with the last 12 years. I’ve moved city. Managed to get and then stay financially independent from my parents (which, as the weird kid from the back of the class who always disappointed all of her teachers, makes me so proud of myself you have no idea. There was a time when I thought I was irrevocably broken, and would never be able to move out). I’ve made wonderful friends. I had a one night stand go so far wrong that 9 1/2 years later we’re married. I have two other partners (more failed one-off hook-ups – I’m not good at the short term, apparently) and we have bought a house together, the four of us. I have explored my interests. I have become a competent knitter. A competent writer. Investigated politics and political action. Found causes to support and projects to start. I am now a superb administrator and PA.

And I’ve explored my mind and my thinking with those around me, and discovered that, although successful, I am very weird.

It started with the little things – doesn’t it always?

T (one of my 3 partners) and I were in the kitchen the other night, and the toaster popped, as it has a thousand times before. And as he has a thousand times before, T got the toast out and plonked it straight on the sideboard. And as I have a thousand times before, I said, ‘can you stick that on a plate please?’ And as he has a thousand times before, T said, in an exasperated voice, ‘I’m getting a plate now!’ And I lost my temper, because I have said so many times that it bothers me to have food straight on the side and not on a plate. And I have asked him so many times to get a plate. Why couldn’t he change? The conversation quickly branched into other areas.

So. Fight. And then the useful stuff after the fight. As the dust settled, it turned out that what I thought people meant by the term ‘doing something on autopilot’, and what they actually meant were two very different things. Because I don’t have what is commonly called autopilot.

Every time I do something, I construct the method for doing it afresh in my mind. I always remember that I locked the door, because I had to consciously remember to put it on my mental to do list. I never forget to turn the oven off for the same reason. My cups of tea always have as many sugars in as you asked for, because I’m not following a standard routine for making tea the way I make it, I’ve made a special routine for making this tea this time.

So, when someone tells me that they don’t like something, I will almost always remember their preferences and am able to modify my behaviour accordingly. I know that my partner J prefers his squash about twice as strong as my partner C and I do, so every time I make squash for J, it’s the right strength for him. I don’t need friends who don’t like to be hugged to remind me of this, I remember. This has downsides too. Early in our professional relationship, the woman I PA for expressed a preference for having a conversation over google chat rather than over the phone, which she probably forgot and my freaky brain remembered. This led to me spending an inadvisable amount of time on Monday trying to arrange a text based conversation when actually, a phone call was fine.

And it means I need to do everything longhand. Every cup of tea. Every word. Every piece of toast. Every polite email requesting further details. Every morning routine is not a routine. Every time I check my belongings before leaving the house. Every sentence. Every word and action. Worked out. From the circumstances. Longhand. For this one occasion. No short cuts.

I thought this was normal. So every time I’ve asked T (yet again) to get out a plate after he’s put a slice of toast (yet again) straight onto the side, I’m thinking that the reason he didn’t get out a plate before getting the toast is because he either can’t be bothered to remember what I’ve told him, or thinks it doesn’t matter. Of course, every neurotypical person reading this will have instantly recognised that T was on autopilot. He had engaged the routine ‘make toast’, and, even though he knows that I prefer food to not go straight onto the side, the routine is so ingrained that it’s all but impossible to change. And in his routine, getting a plate out comes after getting the toast out of the toaster, not before.

When I thought about this for a while, there a loads of areas in which this realisation suddenly makes sense of a whole load of disparate things. My typing speed has always topped out at 45wpm, no matter how much I practice – possibly because that’s just as fast as my brain can go, given that it doesn’t have access to the same short cuts that most other people do. The same for musical instruments. I’m all kinds of musical, but while I loved learning to dance, and always learnt the routines really fast, I hit the same brick wall again and again with instruments – I just couldn’t make my fingers move fast enough, and however much I practised  it was never enough. I managed to get a grade 8 in singing, but with that, it’s far more about the musicality and the conditioning of the voice than how fast you can do the notes. There is, after all, a limit to how fast vocal cords work, and you hit that limit at a far lower level with singing than with any other instrument.

There are other areas in which this affects me. I experience everything all the time. What you may not know if you have autopilot is that it screens out a lot of the world for you. If your brain can learn routines, then it can learn what to ignore. I can’t. I’ve always had issues with parties and gigs. There’s so much going on, I find it really hard to engage with anyone. I’ve always had a better time at smaller gatherings where I can talk to people one on one. It’s so bad that, about 5 years ago, T convinced me to go and get my hearing tested as he was sure there was something wrong. There isn’t. At least, not with my ears.

So I’ve known for some time that I can’t screen out auditory information as well as other people can, but what about visual information? Well, I’m a nightmare to watch TV with. If there’s something on the screen, I can’t concentrate on anything else. We have a long front room with the TV and sofas at one end, and a study area with desks at the other. Quite often, someone at the desk area will want to get the attention of the people watching TV. If you stand up and are obviously waiting for an appropriate time, a scene change for example, to speak, then I will, in all likelihood, have to rewind and watch that scene again after you have said whatever it is. Because the visual pressure of the person waiting to speak overwhelms whatever it was that had previously filled my attention. I can knit easy things, but I figure that’s because the parts of the brain that deal with audio and visual information and the parts that deal with fine motor control are so far apart that they don’t interfere with one another.

I can also hyperfocus. I don’t know if I could do this before I took Ritalin, but I can do it now. This is when you concentrate so hard on a particular thing that almost nothing can break your concentration and get you to change to doing something else. I got sent to bed with bread and water more than once as a child because, when called to dinner, or to some other household task, I didn’t respond and kept reading my book. Of course, I have to take my parent’s word for it that I was called – I didn’t hear them because I was in hyperfocus. T tells me that he has before now, when I’ve been reading, shouted my name in a quiet room from 3ft away with absolutely no visible reaction from me at all.

I think I’m writing this partly to get it out of my head and make sense of the realisations I’ve been having over the past week, but that’s not all of it.

Because, although I’ve been staying out of the debate over the term ‘neurotypical’ on twitter, I do have a stake in it. I’ve seen people say that it’s not that big a deal, and caught someone saying ‘where will it end?’ Well, I hope that this post has been at least a little instructive on the ways in which, if you are not neurotypical, the world can be such a very different place to live in than if you are.

  1. Wow. Thank you very much for this interesting and intriguing piece. Thank you for spelling out things about routines that I just hadn’t thought of before. I guess I’m pretty neurotypical; however, when I was young (and even now), I sometimes get into ‘hyperfocus’ mode when reading. Though I don’t think I could not notice someone saying my name a metre away. Cheers.

  2. Interesting on routines. I think I do this too…

  3. It can feel bad to be called neurotypical because it can feel like you are being told you are not an individual, you’re the same as all the other people, you all have the same brain. Obviously that is not the case, everybody has their quirks and people who are ‘neurotypical’ are no more a homogeneous group than people who are ‘non-neurotypical’. However, we don’t live in a perfect world where everyone treats everyone else like an individual and takes time to understand each other and adjust what we do to suit the individuals we are dealing with, so they can be useful labels up to a point. It’s not some kind of insult to individuality to be called neurotypical, it’s just shorthand for people who are lucky enough to have most things work straight out of the box, no assembly required, stigma not included.

    On a side note, oddly enough knitting is one of the few things my brain seems completely incapable of automating and I find the constant level of concentration required makes it so stressful that it makes me feel physically sick. I am neurotypical.

  4. This is a good read. I can relate though I never thought so. I was never diagnosed with anything other than ocd. Only on depressing meds. But I do completely understand what you’re talking about.

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