Neurodivergent and Magical Women artist, Gemma Abbott calls for an end to ableism towards Neurodivergent artists.
The Effect of Lockdown on Worldwide Communities
2020 has been an interesting year so far. And watching from a distance, from within the walls of our houses, has helped to clarify some things. It has made the unacceptable unavoidable. Being given the space to really think on both a global and local scale and the lockdown has been perforated deafeningly with stories of injustice. When placed so firmly on the doormat of our own houses we have had to face up to these issues.
People en masse have finally started conversations about how to be visibly anti-racist. And let’s be real about this, it is not about time…It really is far too late. But perhaps it is better late than never. Thousands of us took the knee in protest and listened to the raised voices of black communities both locally and globally. And there is still so much work for us all to do…but also there are valuable lessons we should learn.
Change is Happening
In Belarus, streets are filled with people who will risk arrest and torture because they are so hungry for political change. The new rules for living set out by the pandemic mean that governments are having to take swift and practical measures. Especially when COVID comes up against long term social problems like homelessness and the migrant crisis in Europe. So many more of us are engaging with activism on a daily basis. How can we apply this necessary zeitgeist to other injustices as we all fight for a fairer world?
Can we take these lessons and extrapolate them out to consider how we might tackle the systematic ableism inherent in our society? Especially when it comes to Neurodivergent folk who might not look or behave disabled in a way that offers an ‘obvious’ path to accommodating their needs and removing their barriers.
How do we become actively anti-ableist?
1. Adapt Your Terminology
Very often it starts with language. It seems pretty obvious but adapting our terminology can be an enormous first step in any egalitarian battle. Back in the depths of lockdown, the streamer, comedian and autistic human Ian Lane made a video essay in reply to the behaviour of another streamer, Xanderhal. It explained how labelling odd, annoying or irrational behaviours, people or things as ‘autistic’, usually accompanied in this case with a sly snicker, was indeed an ableist slur.
It seems to be more common in America but the rise in popularity of streaming during the pandemic shows why it is important to challenge these verbal tics before they become normalised.
Because words are not harmless. Executing the belittlement and derision of people by associating them with a Neurodivergent diagnosis and therefore portraying that disability purely with negativity is not harmless. So if you see this behaviour, actively challenge it.
If you behave like this, stop. And most importantly, if you don’t understand why it’s a problem…please ask. Don’t be frightened to have the necessary conversations required to make change happen.
2. Assumption, Aesthetic and Expectation
We then need to consider assumption, aesthetic and expectation. What does neurodivergence look like? Honestly, it is hard to tell just by looking. We do not all conform to your Rainman, Beautiful Mind or Manic-pixie-dream-girl stereotype. We cannot be easily classified or funnelled into categories; each person’s neurodivergence is their very own.
And it shouldn’t be, but that is a big problem. Because if you have learned to be good with people, if you are productive and creative, if you are charming or sexy or witty, your disability can often be patronised:
Wow, you don’t seem autistic?… You don’t seem to let it get in the way… But you’re not as bad as…
And none of this is useful.
It doesn’t ask any questions that actually solve any barriers, it builds no bridges of understanding and it works on the premise that we would rather be ‘normal’ because that would obviously be best. In fact, it congratulates us for ‘passing’ as ‘normal’, fitting in, conforming. It works on the understanding that Disabled people can have none of the above ‘positive’ traits:
And it pits us non-consensually against other Disabled people, fitting us into some kind of hierarchy of acceptance defined by neurotypical standards of comfort and societal organisation.
3. You were fine until you became a problem
Or worse. It can go ignored. Because you fit in well enough, then you are expected to operate within a neurotypical framework that doesn’t account for your needs. Until something happens and suddenly you become an inconvenience or a disruption. No empathy or understanding is extended to help deal with the barrier you have met, you seemed fine until then…but now you are a problem. And you will be dealt with as such, with no consideration for the fact that you are Disabled. And unfortunately this situation is generally amplified by the genders we present.
Which leads me onto the hardest part of this argument, because it brings me to my own experiences and makes me acknowledge the moments when I could have done more myself to be actively anti-ableist.
The Exclusion of Neurodivergent women artists
Neurodivergent women are painted in a negative light for their traits: We are lazy, bitchy, emotional, confusing and are often described as ‘too intense’. And because neurotypical society expects us to be ashamed of this we very often apologise and cower and blurt out our particular traits and challenges in incredible detail. I can name a hundred times I have been belittled or passed over for opportunities. I apologised for myself while it was happening because of my ADHD and also because I present as female with every ounce of the impostor syndrome many of us seem to carry.
And here is the kicker. Fundamentally people don’t believe or believe in us. Because people do not trust us, they either do not listen to this honesty or do not think that we know ourselves. So when we overcommit, talk over other people, when the words just won’t stay in our mouths, when we speak plainly, when we are insistent, hyper focussed or release an outburst in a moment of overwhelm then we are punished.
Villianising Neurodivergent Women artists
I have had the most incredible neurodivergent woman I know on the phone to me in tears, regularly. Maybe, once every two months. In tears and howling with pain.
Because despite being clear and open about her autistic traits to people who pretend to understand neurodivergence. She is ignored and then villianised for the very behaviours she clearly outlined she displays. People paid to reduce her access barriers and help her to thrive, will often abuse her disability. And then place the blame at her feet. I have listened to their terrible damage and tried to help as much as I can when she has been hollowed out by their hatred.
Greater allowances are made for Neurodivergent (often white) men
Behaviours that determine the exclusion of Neurodivergent women from opportunities in the arts, are described as renegade, mercurial, eccentric or virtuosic in (often white) men. Not always of course, but greater allowances are usually made and respect is paid if you happen to have been born and continue to identify as a man. Coupled with the general rule that boys are diagnosed much earlier on in life than girls/women means that we are set at a disadvantage medically. Developing problematic co-morbidities, anxiety and depression present so much more profoundly than if we had been granted our answers, and the help that comes with them, much earlier on.
And what if you are Neurodivergent and black, or trans, or non-binary?
Well then you are deemed so counter to the prevalent culture that it can illicit an almost murderous rage. And this awful truth is unacceptable in modern society.
Well then, they deem you so counter to the prevalent culture that it can sometimes illicit an almost murderous rage. And this awful truth is unacceptable in modern society. We have to do better than to allow this as human beings. I have to take a stand. That is why I must write this appeal for you all to be actively anti-ableist.
It is frightening when people do not seek to understand us
It is frightening when people do not seek to understand us
And what happens when we have made headway with everything I have written about above? Once we have dealt with these ableist behaviours we then have to wrestle with the intimidation phenomenon. Literally, the way our brains work differently is frightening when people don’t seek to understand us. Nobody seems to talk about this, perhaps because we don’t often make it that far in individual cases and it seems a long way off as a general rule. But the intimidation phenomenon is real: it can often lead to us being pushed aside from positions of leadership. Or extract us from situations where we may be able to conceive and implement practical change.
Because suddenly the way we think sideways, or upside down or around things becomes a positive.
As my great friend (and divine Neurodivergent artist) and founder of Magical Women, Elinor Rowlands puts it, “We think in a different language” socially and imaginatively.
As my great friend (and divine Neurodivergent artist) and founder of Magical Women, Elinor Rowlands puts it “We think in a different language” socially and imaginatively. This can be frustrating because we try so desperately to be heard and understood. It can be intimidating for others that don’t seek to understand it.
Do not feel frightened to take pride in knowing that language.
We should wear it on our sleeves like a beautiful corsage.
The imaginative power of thinking and speaking unknown to the neurotypical sphere
The very fact that we think and speak in a different language gives us an imaginative power unknown in the neurotypical sphere. We can make links and connections between things that would never occur to a neurotypical mind. We can complete tasks others may take days to manage. Different things are obvious to us and this alternative perspective is valuable even if it sometimes requires an interpreter. And if only we could be trusted with this, my goodness! The things we could achieve would be wonderful!
But so often we are not… We are seen as a threat, or as a risk.
To them, we present a threat or a risk.
Navigating Broken Ladders
So often Neurodivergent individuals move through life like it’s snakes and ladders…with no working ladders. This is not an uncommon experience for many disadvantaged groups. Our ‘difference’ can often be quite invisible, or even romanticised. We need to push ourselves forward more assertively in the quest for an equal footing in society or risk remaining lost.
So, I am incredibly thankful for the loud keening of the black community, for the folk spilling in great numbers onto the streets of Belarus, for the people sending masks over to the displaced migrants in Greece. They have provided me with the courage and the terminology to stand in solidarity with them and I aim to lift them up. I will also try to take a more active role when I seek to address the unfairness levelled at Neurodivergent people in our society.
Intersectional Conversations Create Protection for the Neurodivergent Community
By having concurrent and intersectional conversations, perhaps this will ensure protection for the Neurodivergent community. They will also support them to truly take part in the problem solving economy of ideas that we need to build in order to survive in our harsh new post pandemic, post Brexit, climate emergency future. So, in the same way that I hope you will continue to be actively anti-racist. I also hope that you will go on to challenge ableism when you see it out in the world. Support your Neurodivergent family, friends and colleagues practically and whole-heartedly.
Don’t feel frightened to ask them what they need.
Or even better,