How instructors accommodate disability in post-secondary classrooms is an impassioned interest of mine. At a recent conference, I attended a talk discussing incidence and coping strategies of neurodivergence in college students. This category included autism, mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety.
Yes, I said anxiety. I’ll get to that in a moment.
However, the study sample was limited to students with anxiety and ADHD. No autism or mental disorders were represented. That means that the entire “neurodivergent” sample did not have a single participant with autism.
My anger all but eclipsed my composure, a composure that is already under duress even in the best of circumstances due to my autism. I wanted to interrupt the talk and tell the presenter in no uncertain terms how entirely inappropriate the study sample was, and that even clinical levels of anxiety are nothing compared to those of autism, which exerts significant and unrelenting pressure on a level few non-autistics can conceive of every moment we are in public.
Instead, I spent the rest of the talk trying to manage my anger and figure out how to communicate to the researcher that the study sample was flawed (“might need expansion”) without sounding like a complete asshole. I’m not sure if I succeeded, or if I was sufficiently ambiguous, but getting to the end of a public experience with my dignity more or less intact is a win if you have autism, and no-one ran away from me afterwards.
I understand that anxiety can be crippling. However, to suggest this in any way approaches the isolating experience of having autism is insulting to every single functional autistic struggling to hide their neurodivergence from their neurotypical–anxious or otherwise–peers.
I’m willing to allow that mental illness could be considered neurodivergence. But anxiety? Really? Does that mean depression, too? Because you do realize that would comprise nearly half of the U.S. population.
Anxiety (and mental illness, ADHD, and depression) can be managed, with medications, and/or with cognitive/applied behavioral therapy. These strategies are of significantly diminished utility for those with autism. No matter how adept we become at hiding our autism from others and compensating for our thoroughly atypical neurological experiences, we will always be autistic.
We will always have to work extremely hard to force our brains into a facsimile of central coherence and executive functioning. We will always be surrounded by people who communicate with one another in a manner that seems almost telepathic and that we can only ever to pretend to understand, at a high cognitive cost with varying degrees of success and for limited amounts of time. We will always have to fight to manage our responses to the sensory assault of the natural environment every time we leave our homes.
You can, even if only for brief periods, make anxiety go away. Autism, however, is a permanent state of being, and if we don’t look autistic, it’s because we are accomplished actors with a considerable volume of experience over a considerable amount of time (usually counted in decades) accompanied by advanced social communication workarounds. If someone says they are autistic, rather than minimizing it by comparing it to your narrow neurotypical experience and saying they don’t “look” autistic, some appreciation as to the enormous amount of effort being expended not to creep you out or piss you off would be a bit more appropriate.
Those with anxiety are nonetheless able to relate to other [sic] neurotypicals socially, mentally, and emotionally. However different the environment may feel to them, the fundamentals of their brain physiology are the same as those of other non-autistics. As such, while anxiety may be a disability for which special accommodations are required, and I do not intend this post to suggest otherwise, lumping it in with autism represents a complete lack of perception as to what having autism entails. It also erroneously implies that the anxiety brought on by being autistic in a neurotypical world is akin to that felt by anxious neurotypicals, another gross underestimation of the lived realities of autistics.
I refuse to cede neurodivergent ground to those with emotional and biochemical alterations. Neurodivergent means that one’s neurophysiology is completely, bottom-up different from that of normal individuals. Anxiety, depression, and even ADHD, do not clear that bar.
Until you have experienced living an existence that feels thoroughly removed from that of everyone around you at the most basic level, you do not know what anxiety is. Until you frequently stare at cartoons, slogans, and headlines, unable to parse them out, you do not know what anxiety is. Until your brain has been hijacked by a flickering light or a rattling fan, you do not know what anxiety is. Until someone tells you that you insulted someone and disbelieves you when you say honestly that you didn’t know, and until this experience is repeated at regular intervals throughout your life, you do not know what anxiety is. Until you have had a meltdown in public, more than once, you do not know what anxiety is.
Anxiety is a real psychological disorder. But it is not neurodivergence. It is nothing like neurodivergence. It is an inappropriately managed (biochemically or otherwise), but natural, neurotypical state.
We’ll be keeping the bar right where it is, thanks.