Communication Differences Are Not Deficits

Jillian Enright

Thinking about neurodiverse people as a cultural group, rather than as being disabled by our neurotype

“We aren’t in the same class. Just don’t forget that some of us watch the sunset too.” — S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

If you look up the word culture on thesaurus.com, one of the synonyms listed is perception. This is very telling. In perceptual psychology, perception is defined asa way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something.”

Conversely, when we perceive things differently, we understand and interpret them differently. Our experience of the world differs.

Neurotype-dependent differences in perception affect the creation of shared understandings of experiences. In other words, people of the same neurotype understand each other better because they experience the world in similar ways.

A little anecdote

I live in a military town so, of course, there are a lot of military families here. One family we have gotten to know and really like are Francophone Quebecois, meaning they’re from Quebec, and their first language is French.

When they first moved here about two years ago, they did not speak a word of English, as they’d lived their entire lives in French-speaking communities. This was a very difficult transition for them.

Initially the move was more difficult for their children, who have to attend school with English-speaking peers. Although it’s a French-immersion school, almost everybody there learned French as an additional language, and most of the students were just beginning to learn.

The children picked up English very quickly, however, and eventually adjusted to this big change. The adults learned to speak English quite well, but it certainly becomes more challenging to learn languages as we get older.

We often get together with this family, whose children are neurodivergent. There is an understanding between the two families because many of us are neurodivergent ourselves, or live with neurodivergent loved ones.

The language barrier, however, has been more difficult to overcome. I speak French, but it’s my third language, and I am not an expert. The parents speak English very well, but it is not their first language, and so each of us is slightly awkward in the other’s preferred language.

Whose “fault” is that? Who is responsible for the language barrier, or for any miscommunications that occur?

No one, of course! We simply communicate differently, so we work together to create mutual understanding. We ask each other how to say words or phrases we don’t know, or we look them up using an online translator.

I really enjoy learning, practicing, and improving my French skills. We help and teach each other. Neither of us is superior to the other, neither of our ways of communicating is better than the other, just different.

(Side note: I fully acknowledge that English is often seen as the “superior” language because it is the most widely-spoken language in the world — but also, because racism).

Where am I going with this?

When we accept that we have different communication modes, and then each does our best to meet the other person halfway, we learn about each other and how to best facilitate effective communication.

As Alyssa Hillary noted when describing their experiences living abroad, studying in a program that was directly teaching cross-cultural communication:

“With understanding from all parties that a cultural difference was present, communication went much more smoothly.” — Alyssa Hillary

If I had demanded that my friends speak English and refused to speak French, that would be very selfish and rude behaviour, and they probably would not have become my friends at all. I know I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone like that.

Yet this is what we do to Autistic and neurodivergent people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups all the time. The majority demands we adapt to the dominant culture while they do very little, if anything, to accommodate the rest of us.

This is rooted in ableism, the presumption that because it’s the statistical majority, it must also be superior.

Yet divergent thinkers have been difference-makers throughout history. As a society, we need people who think outside the box to come up with unique theories, ideas, and solutions. If we all think the same way, we’ll have significantly less creativity and innovation.

“To support cross-neurotype communication, we could explicitly learn about difference and how to understand and communicate with people unlike ourselves — in both directions, rather than only teaching marginalised people to fit in.” — Alyssa Hillary

People who grow up being catered to, simply because they outnumber others, do not learn to accept and celebrate differences.

Those who live with privilege often become entitled, believing they feel more at ease in the world because they are inherently better, rather than understanding that things are easier for them because society was built for people just like them.

“No neurocognitive style is more “correct” or “normal” than any other, and the work of mutual accommodation is both an essential part of a proper education and an essential preparation for being a participating citizen in a civilized society.” — Dr. Nick Walker

Deaf culture and Autistic culture

As a member of both the Deaf and Autistic communities, I have come to notice a number of similarities between these two cultures.

In referencing cultures, I am using a neurodiversity paradigm influenced definition based on Dr. Susan Peter’s conceptualization of disability culture. Dr. Peter’s definition brings together a culture’s various world views, including “historical, linguistic, social, political, personal, and aesthetic aspects”.

It’s very important to note that cultural norms do not define every individual within that cultural group, norms are merely commonalities among people. There are always individual variations, and it’s important not to over-generalize similarities, at which point they becomes stereotypes.

The similarities I’ve noticed between Deaf and Autistic cultures are:

  • Direct communication: Many Deaf and Autistic people prefer a clear — even blunt — communication style, rather than more subtle, indirect ways of interacting.
  • Identity-first, non-pathologizing language: A significant majority of the Deaf and Autistic communities prefer identity-first language. For example, I say I am Deaf and Autistic, not “I have autism and a hearing impairment.”
  • Social model of disability: Many of us prefer identity-first language because we do not consider ourselves disabled by our differences. Rather, we are primarily disabled by society’s lack of understanding, knowledge, and accommodation.

Social differences, not deficits

Autistics are characterized as having “social deficits” because we often struggle with cross-cultural communication.

When there is a misunderstanding between neurotypical and neurodivergent people, it’s obviously the fault of neurodivergent people because we have a communication disorder. The responsibility is on us to change and adapt our way of interacting, so that those belonging to the dominant culture are made comfortable and do not have to compromise.

Recent research has demonstrated just how neuronormative* and NT-centred this belief is. The 2020 study showed that neurotypicals communicated effectively with other neurotypicals. Neurotypicals and Autistics struggled to communicate effectively with each other.

*“Neuronormativity is the performance of the local dominant culture’s current prevailing images of how a so-called “normal” person with a so-called “normal” mind thinks and looks and behaves. — Dr. Nick Walker

An important finding is that Autistics communicated just as effectively with other Autistics— those of the same neurotype — as neurotypicals did with other neurotypicals.

Neurotype-dependent differences in perception affect the creation of shared understandings of experiences. In other words, we understand each other better because we experience the world in similar ways — at least more similar than those of a different neurotype.

Why does it matter?

Perspective is so important because many children, disabled people, Autistics, and other neurodivergent individuals have been subjected to mistreatment, even abuse, under the guise of giving them the “skills” they need to get by in life.

If we view our differences as just that — differences, not deficits, then there is no need to “train” neurodivergent children to behave as neurotypical as possible. There’s no need to force Deaf children into speech therapy and deny them access to signed languages.

I’m not naïve, I know there’s plenty of bigotry to go around. Even if we consider something a different culture, if it’s in the minority, people belonging to that culture are still much more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination.

At present many disabled, Autistic, and other neurodivergent individuals experience a double or even triple-whammy. We’re already considered “less than” because of our divergent neurotype and due to our different styles of communication.

Anyone who also has marginalized identities such as people of colour, people with physical disabilities, people with intellectual disabilities, women, non-binary and transgender individuals, etc. has yet another factor putting them at a disadvantage. I’d like to at least begin to even the playing field.

Okay, new rule: If you’re going to discriminate against people, you only get to pick one reason. You have to pick which identity you’re discriminating against, and you have to leave the rest alone. If you’re going to be a bigot, at least be specific.

Cheers.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

Related Stories

The Social Model of Disability

I Prefer Blunt People

I’m Autistic, Not “On The Spectrum”

Defining Neurotypical Privilege

References

Acevedo, S. M. (2018). Enabling geographies: Neurodivergence, self-authorship, and the politics of social space. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). California Institute of Integral Studies. https://www.proquest.com/openview/d206781532e48e44903ce7733959db7d

Asasumasu, K. (2011). “What Would Meeting You Halfway Be?” Radical Neurodivergence Speaking. (Blog). 11 April. https://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2011/04/what-would-meeting-you-halfway-be.html

Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism, 24(7), 1704–1712. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320919286

Hillary, A. (2020). Neurodiversity and cross-cultural communication. In Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, H., Chown, N., & Stenning, A. (Eds). Neurodiversity Studies: A new critical paradigm. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Neurodiversity-Studies-A-New-Critical-Paradigm/Rosqvist-Chown-Stenning/p/book/9780367338312

Peters, S. (2010). Is There a Disability Culture? A Syncretisation of Three Possible World Views. Disability & Society, 15, 583–601. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687590050058198

Semiotic Spectrumite. (2018, January 26). The belief in a theory of mind is a disability. https://semioticspectrumite.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/the-belief-in-theory-of-mind-is-a-disability

Walker, N. (2021). Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the neurodiversity paradigm, Autistic empowerment, and postnormal possibilities. Autonomous Press.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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