I read a story once, it may have been fiction or based on a true story. The story was about a boy diagnosed as intellectually disabled, with severe behavioural issues. When this boy was eight or ten years old it was discovered that he was profoundly deaf. Far from being intellectually disabled he was gifted enough that he’d taught himself to speak and lip read well enough that nobody had suspected that he couldn’t hear.
And as for the boy? “I just thought that everyone else was better at lip reading than I was.”
I think about this story a lot.
In 2012 I moved to Sydney from Melbourne. My husband is a naval officer, I worked from home. So I put a fair bit of effort into socialising myself. I joined an acting class.
I love small talk. I love meeting people. Put me in a room full of people who don’t know each other and don’t know what they’re doing and I am absolutely in my element. I thrive. I make people feel welcome and comfortable. I make people laugh and relax. And the next week people remember me and smile when they see me.
And as each week goes by and everyone else becomes more comfortable and secure… I feel more unsure and awkward.
A month later the same people will all be friends with each other. But not with me. And I overhear them talking about a nightclub they’d been to together and I wonder why nobody invited me.
But when I joined that acting class I noticed something. I noticed that they remembered things about each other and they swapped phone numbers and texted and met up with each other outside of class and went to bars together.
And I knew that I was more than capable of doing all of those things. I couldif I wanted to. But also I really didn’t want to. I didn’t actually care about any of those people enough to want to think about them outside of class. I definitely didn’t want to go to a bar or a nightclub.
I can’t help but think that other people are a lot better at lip reading than I am.
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In December last year I got into a discussion on twitter about labels and specifically about whether labelling oneself as neurodivergent, (or as autistic, ADHD etc) was positive or negative.
In summary, and I apologise if I’ve misunderstood the point of view, labels made this person uncomfortable as to them they were pathologising the individual instead of the environment.
If a bunch of flowers in your garden bed withered and died, would you wonder what is wrong with the flowers? Or would you wonder if maybe they are not suitable for their growing conditions? Or maybe the soil itself is unhealthy?
I responded in a tweet thread that you can read here if you like but you don’t need to because I’m going to write it in long-form here.
I think that discovering that you’re neurodivergent can be like finding out that your garden is in a completely different climate than other people you know.
Everyone’s garden is different. Even within the same neighbourhood you might have different soil and drainage conditions. And you can’t just follow textbook watering advice and planting schedules because everything needs to be adapted to your personal conditions…
But the climate that you’re gardening in can make some advice and recommendations completely irrelevant. Some advice and recommendations you’ll need to ignore rather than adapt. Knowing your climate helps you to find relevant help when something goes wrong.
For people with trauma backgrounds we might never have had a flourishing garden. Our parents didn’t teach us how to weed or prune our brain-plants. So we can be very very reliant on teachers, friends and therapists to help us care for our minds and our brains.
So maybe people keep telling you “you need to plant your seeds inside two weeks before the last frost date and then harden your seedlings before transplanting into their final position!”
But nobody can explain what “frost” is. And when you ask people when the last frost date is likely to be some people say February or March. Or April. They encourage you to work that out for yourself because it varies from person to person! Because it depends on exactly who you are and exactly what you want to plant…
But if you live in, say, Brisbane… there is no frost. January and February are the hottest months of the year. You need a completely different set of instructions for what to plant and when.
In my real life gardening adventures I need to convert farenheit temperatures to celcius. I need to know that southern hemisphere seasons are reversed compared with the northern hemisphere and I need to know that it’s hot and humid here.
ADHD and Autism aren’t withered plants. They’re not failing gardens. They’re different climates and soil types. Following neurotypical planting dates and watering schedules is going to lead to a failing garden: because we need to follow different advice to help our gardens thrive.
And by classifying those differences we can articulate them and find relevant help when our gardens aren’t doing well. Because sometimes different problems sound similar. Sometimes different plants have the same name in different areas.
Knowing your climate is important because maybe when you mention your watering schedule other people are horrified. And you’re filled with self-doubt. Are you doing it completely wrong?
But being able to know or say “oh! well it almost never rains here at this time of year and it’s very hot so I actually do need to water my cucumber plants twice a day or they start to wilt” is a huge relief. Or to be able to say “well I mostly plant succulents and cactus so they don’t need frequent water!”.
Because it’s all very well for someone to tell you “just find what works for you and keep doing it!!” but when what you’re doing isn’t working you need to be able to find advice that might be helpful and not harmful. And if you say “the leaves of my plants are all droopy and floppy” people will ask “when did you last water them?” and you will say “um… like a week ago but…” and people will say “you need to water them more often!!”. But if it’s the wet season and it’s been raining every day for a week maybe your plants have root-rot and need drying out. “just water your plants!” is the wrong advice for you even though your problem looks similar to one that could be solved that way.
And when you have a label for your climate – when you have a way to say “it’s raining literally ALL THE TIME right now” you can take that into account when talking about how much to water your garden.
If you don’t know how much climates can differ you’re stuck doing trial and error against and onslaught of advice, recommendations and “common sense” that somehow just keeps making everything worse.
And you have some simple words to add to your search terms which gives you information that’s more easily adaptable to your unique garden which isn’t exactly like anyone else’s garden… but is different from typicalgardens – and similar to some other people’s gardens – in some very specific ways.