Adaptation and Exhaustion

watercolor painting of a figure falling through space, as if in a rain cloud

By Yamila García

Having to mask who we are and adapting to a world that is not designed for us requires so much energy that we often end up exhausted. Many times I have thought that more than living this feels like surviving. It is very frustrating that many things that are required of us as normal or habitual tasks or behaviors, mean such an effort. Having to adapt all the time is not something easy, much less something that is done of one’s own free will. It is something that we simply “have to do”, otherwise we would be excluded from society. If we want to succeed in whatever we do, have a job, friends, etc., “we have to adapt.” But what happens when we’ve been doing it for so long? On the one hand, it is true that we automate some of the strategies that we have used to adapt. We do them without thinking about it, often we don’t even remember if they are really our own features or were acquired to camouflage ourselves.

On the other hand, sometimes we just lose motivation and energy. It’s not nice to spend your whole life “adapting” or “adjusting” who you are in order to just live. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it anymore, you feel tired, unmotivated, and even angry because such simple things are so difficult for you. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with it anymore. You just want to lock yourself in your safe place and only come out when everyone has gone to sleep. I really wish that one day people would know how difficult it is to live like this and how easily they could lighten the weight. I think if they really knew what it felt like, they would do a lot more to create friendlier environments for neurodivergents. I’ve been in environments that one might think were specially designed to harm neurodivergents. I don’t think that’s the intention at all. But, I do believe that there is a complete ignorance of neurodiversity. How do we let them know? How do we get them interested in including us? How can we show them our skills by communicating in a way that we feel comfortable with but they understand?

This was not a happy post, because there will always be frustrations along the way. And while we can handle a lot, we don’t have to be able to handle everything. Having overcome so much, many times we make the mistake of thinking that we have to be able to handle what is coming too. Give yourself a break, you have done much more than you would have thought possible.

Discovering Our Own Abilities

Asian American woman looks at her laptop while wearing headphones. She is seated in front of a window and a cityscape.

By Yamila García

Sounds can cause real chaos in my mind. Especially when it comes to more than 2 or 3 simultaneous sounds (even more if they are unknown). I can’t just focus on one and ignore the others. That’s why I don’t understand what people are saying when they talk to me in places with various noises. It’s not that I can’t hear. I can… but I hear everything together on the same volume level, so the sounds of the voice that speaks to me mix with those of someone else’s voice speaking a few meters away, plus the sound of birds and cars going, and more. It is not comfortable or easy to deal with this. Many times when I can’t hear, I just nod and pretend to listen. But like everything in this life, it also has its good part. Being so sensitive to sounds and vibrations allows me to use music to my advantage. For many years, I have used classical music as a tool to help me channel my emotions and reform the sensations that were affecting me every day. 

I put my headphones on and I can feel myself melting into the music, to the point that it guides my heart rate. I use it to reduce my anxiety, to feel motivated and empowered, and to make decisions. Being so sensitive to sounds, vibrations, and rhythm doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Although this sensitivity has a side that causes us difficulties, it also has many positive things. Not only can I control many of my emotions through sounds, but I tend to hear things before others. I can remember many voices and sounds, and I retrieve memories just by hearing the slightest sound. For many years I also thought that everyone heard like me. That’s why I never took my sensitivity as a problem and maybe that was what allowed me to learn to use it to my advantage. I think that many times, the pressure exerted by society to standardize the way we work makes us lose the opportunity to discover our own abilities. Let’s get rid of the message that if you don’t work like most, you’re wrong. Maybe no one is wrong… 

The Harm of Labeling

By Yamila García

I wonder why of all the labels that we neurodivergents get, none of them are positive. How come some of our difficulties have become so well known, but so much is unknown about our abilities? There is much talk about not putting labels or getting carried away by stereotypes, but little is taught to put an end to this. I would hope that a neurodivergent person could be seen as someone who has the ability to think, process information and solve problems in a different way than the majority. After all, this is the reality of who we are. Our brains just work differently. And it is not that we have difficulties adapting, it is rather that the world is designed for the neurotypical majority. 

I’m not saying that we should be labeled by certain abilities instead of difficulties, either. I just wonder why the negative labels are all we hear about, when we not only have difficulties but also abilities. Could it be that the struggle of those who are different is seen as a great weakness while the struggles of neurotypical people are seen as something normal? Some neurodivergents have the ability to hyperfocus, so why are those who cannot focus like this labeled “people with hyperfocus deficit?” Other neurodivergents have the ability to spot patterns easily, but we don’t label those who can’t as “pattern blind.” We may be a minority, but shouldn’t our abilities be recognized for the value of having a different perspective? I don’t think anyone should be identified and labeled for their difficulties. Being labeled by our struggles does nothing more than put up a barrier that prevents the rest of society from knowing us and getting rich from the exchange. 

When there is a problem that many cannot solve, people always look for someone who thinks differently. If this is so, why as a society do we continue to seek standardization on a day-to-day basis? I remember working with people who valued my ability to think differently and solve problems in ways that none of them thought of. They didn’t know I was neurodivergent because back then I didn’t know either. But what if they did? Would I have even had the chance to work there? Would they have taken me as seriously as they did when they didn’t know? There is harmful packaging covering our abilities and today, it is all that many can see of us.

Thoughts on ChatGPT and Neurodiversity

A robotic hand reaches upwards into a network of interconnected lines and points.

By Yamila García

During the last few months, there has been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence. New technologies of chatbots based on artificial intelligence have been launched and since then have been under analysis by the scientific and technological community, and basically for all those who feel curious about it. Even in one of my classes we have studied the benefits and difficulties that this technology can bring, and how to handle the challenges that may arise when incorporating these tools in different areas of our lives. Personally, I have tried it for some searches and found it quite efficient. However, I know there have been some concerns regarding bias and the generation of hateful and dangerous content. 

Considering the misinformation out there online and the amount of so-called "authoritative voices" on neurodivergence who write from a flawed perspective on the various conditions, I wanted to test this technology on the matter. I decided to do a search on what neurodiversity meant for this ChatGPT. And it turned out to surprise me for good.

I asked: “What is neurodiversity?” and it replied:

“Neurodiversity is the concept that there is natural variation in human brain function and that these differences should be respected and valued just as any other type of diversity. It recognizes that people have different ways of processing information, learning, communicating, and relating to others, and that these differences are part of the natural variation in the human population.

Neurodiversity includes a range of conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette's syndrome, and other neurological differences. While these conditions may pose challenges for individuals in certain contexts, they also offer unique strengths and perspectives that can be beneficial to society as a whole.”

I am pleased that it emphasizes differences in processing information, communicating, and learning, and that it not only focuses on the challenges we face but also highlights our unique strengths. I invite you to look for information about any specific condition. This technology is fed through the feedback it receives from users and the answers we give it, can be analyzed by it to improve future searches.

A Few of My Favorite Things

By Yamila García

It is never an easy task to incorporate something new into my life. That’s why every time I have to do it, I try to smooth the process with the help of “known things.” These things are not just anything, but specific things that make me feel comfortable and safe. It can be my favorite sweater, the most comfortable, old sneakers I own, the softest fabric T-shirt (and without tags of course) that I have, a piece of fabric, a textured keychain that I can scratch, or my favorite candies. I always have some of these things with me, but when I know I have to go through a change or incorporate something new into my life, I try to have them all! Having them gives me a feeling of security, of a “controlled environment” and makes the process I have to go through much easier. I know that everyone has their “favorite things,” but for me, more than wanting them, I need them. Only then can I feel the ground under me and be present in a moment of great pressure and stress.

I know and accept that this helps me a lot, but it wasn’t always like that. For a long time, I tried to ignore this need for comfort in things that I thought were “dumb.” I was embarrassed that I had to so illogically “depend” on a keychain or a particular cloth to get through common situations in my life. That dependency frustrated me a lot because I considered it a weakness. I was wrong, of course! What weakness can there be in knowing yourself? Knowing what works for you, and being able to help yourself is something to be proud of. Taking care of yourself, knowing how to regulate your emotions, and reducing discomfort in stressful situations, do nothing more than ensure your well-being. So, if like me, you also pack your backpack with your “life savers” every time you face a challenge, be proud! It is the most responsible thing you can do for yourself.

See Yourself as a Friend

By Yamila García

Many of us get used to not fitting in. To be told that we are odd, different, or that we are going the wrong way. Bearing this in mind, it is often difficult to see value in ourselves. We go through life thinking that everything that makes us be seen that way is something negative and in reality it is not. We are valuable! And in many more ways than perhaps we can see today. We are valuable even if others cannot see it. And we should not need the approval of others to feel that we are useful or talented. But I understand, we live in a society and much of what we do or feel depends on the feedback received in interactions with others. It feels good when external approval is received and it is very easy to give it to others. But what about the approval we give ourselves? What about celebrating ourselves and our abilities? Or congratulating ourselves on the challenges we overcome every day? Because the effort that a neurodivergent person has to make to do what everyone does in a world where everyone seems to have an instruction manual that they didn’t give us, is clearly not the same. When I have a hard time seeing the good in me, I try to do a meditation where I get out of my body and see myself as a friend. What would I say? How does thinking of myself as someone else change the way I see myself? Why is it so difficult to see in oneself something that we see so much more easily in others?

Seeing the good in ourselves is an essential part of developing our abilities and building confidence in our potential. No one is totally good or bad, so if you’re not seeing something good in yourself, you should try again. And yes, sometimes it also helps that they tell us how good they see in us. That is why it is a good exercise to say it to others. I guess everyone, in some way, at some moment, has a hard time recognizing their own self-worth.

The Dilemma of Disclosure

By Yamila García

Since the moment I learned that I am neurodivergent I found myself in a dilemma. Should I say it or not? Should I fully expose who I am so I can advocate for myself or should I hide it in order to avoid further prejudice and rejection? I believe that most neurodivergents can relate to having been rejected for being different. People are often afraid of what is different and have an automatic rejection reaction. Knowing this but considering our own needs, it becomes difficult to discern when the benefits of standing up for ourselves outweigh the harm and discomfort of rejection or lack of understanding. 

Some time ago, in a situation that was too stressful and overwhelming for me, I decided to request accommodations. I needed to get out of that situation as soon as possible. Naively, I thought that since it was a large public service company, people would be prepared to do it. I was asking to avoid a long line so I could get out of the noise and overstimulation I was in. I don’t usually ask for help and just hide everything, but I had been there for many hours. I approached the person who was at the door to ask for help, but every time I tried to explain my situation, they interrupted me, not allowing me to speak. Finally, after many attempts, this person managed to hear me and shouted, “Ohhhhh mental! It’s a mental condition!” This was in front of dozens of people and in the highest tone you can imagine. It was painful for my ears, but even more painful for my heart, as I was trying to learn to ask for help after so many years of “enduring” in silence. It broke my heart just thinking about people who can’t “bear” in silence like me and who have to receive this treatment just out of ignorance. It makes me think how useless any attempt to ask for help is if those who have the power to do so don’t know who we are and what we need. I really hope that this experience I had is not the usual treatment that everyone receives when they ask for help. I hope that even if it is the usual response, we don’t stop trying, because it is our right to ask. The world has been shaped for neurotypicals, but we also live in it.

Fighting Self-Doubt

By Yamila García

The worst mistakes are made when we don’t trust ourselves. I am fully aware that self-confidence is not an easy thing to build. But I also know that there are some tricks that we can use to build it little by little. At every beginning of the semester (or anything else) I find myself in a situation of overwhelm and despair, convinced that I will not be able to overcome the challenges that come my way. And every end of a semester, surprised once again, I tell myself: I don’t know how it happened, but you did it! Anyone would think that after the same thing happens repeatedly, one would have learned… but no, it doesn’t work that way. You remember, but somehow you manage to think that those previous times you overcame everything you did, was by accident, luck, or whatever but your hard work or intelligence. Considering that this always happens and it is statistically complicated that luck is what every semester makes us overcome all the challenges, I think it extremely necessary to force ourselves to remember and to try to be objective. 

Now, every time I think I’m not going to be able to face the next challenge, I ask myself: This feeling is the same thing I experienced last semester, right? That felt impossible, right? What evidence do I have to think that I cannot achieve it? How is this different from everything I have already lived and overcome? And even, what would be the problem if I couldn’t get over it? I can always try again. It doesn’t have to be perfect! In this new beginning of the semester, as ugly as every beginning sounds, I hope that you can be your own best friends and remind yourself that you have already achieved many things that at first seemed impossible, and that you will do it again this semester. Put sticky notes everywhere, set alarms on your cell phones, and write on your notebooks and blackboards whatever reminds you how brave you were in the past. Here’s to another semester that ends up surprising us because we did it again!

Why swim when you can fly?

By Yamila García

I am a morning person. I love the fresh air and enjoy how quiet and clean is everything early in the morning. The morning feels like a blank page, like an opportunity to do things right and go home with that wonderful feeling of having completed our responsibilities for the day. When I have the possibility to organize my days to my liking, I always decide to put all my tasks in as early as possible to finish the day earlier and not “cut” the day. It’s as if my mind needs to check all the items on my to-do list to get to relax. So, when for example I have an activity at 3 PM and nothing before that, it is almost impossible for me to focus on doing something else until that box has been checked. It feels like I’m “on hiatus” until I complete those tasks and it is a great loss of time and energy for me.

Some people may think: that I am overthinking things or that I am exaggerating. But it is my reality and that of many neurodivergents. We think and function differently than neurotypicals, and this should not be ignored. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be ignored because I don’t want it to be, but because we could all benefit from a world where our differences are respected and taken advantage of. We are asked to swim when in fact we have wings and can fly. No matter how much effort we make, no matter how much will we put into learning to swim, it will never be the way in which we can get the most out of our abilities. We swim every day in a world that was not designed for us.

Be kind to your neurodivergent friend, what is natural for you is more than challenging for them. This is the reason why many of us are tired all the time. It is exhausting. Every day we have to adapt the way we communicate to the way neurotypicals do. The same with how we learn, we have to accept and adapt to how things are taught in the classroom because it is implicitly assumed that we all learn in the same way. We adapt how we actually feel about something, to how we are expected to feel, so as not to be once again branded as weird. And the worst part is that we are evaluated as if we are on an equal footing with others. What I am saying has nothing to do with abilities, but with the conditions and environment in which we are required to function.

Learning to Stop

By Yamila García

After an intense and exhausting semester, comes the difficult task of stopping. When we move at a significant speed, whether in a vehicle or running, we do not come to a complete stop in a second… Inertia makes us keep going beyond the goal, for a few meters until we come to a complete stop. Keeping up with the intensity of the classes is not easy, but neither is stopping. When we cross the finish line after running a race, our body is still active, alert and so it feels weird to be still. The same thing happens when we finish all our tests and assignments. It takes a little time to get the body and mind comfortable in the calm. Some, like me, perhaps fill up with activities to keep their minds busy, or we could even say silent. And so, stopping becomes a threat. So what should be the best or easiest part, turns out to be the opposite.

However, stopping does not have to be synonymous with disorganization or improvisation. We can also have an agenda for our leisure time. Many times during the year I find myself wishing I had time to do this or that. “I wish I have time to paint”, “I wish I have time to watch a tv series”, “I wish I have time to get a few coding projects done” and so many other “I wish”, but when I finally have the time, I can’t find a way to enjoy it. Sometimes because I don’t have a plan and the days just go by, and other times because I try to fulfill other things that I couldn’t do during the semester such as appointments, paperwork, etc. Therefore, this year I have decided to plan what I want to do during the winter break. Not in such a structured way, but more like a wish list. I deeply believe in the importance of nourishing our minds with things that make us laugh, enjoy and relax. I believe that we should all take care of our mental health with the same responsibility we put on our jobs and other commitments. I’m learning how to do it, I’m seeing the benefits while doing it and I want everyone to be able to work for their own joy.

Work for your enjoyment, commit yourself to taking care of yourself, value and be grateful for each day of your life, because although sometimes it is hard, we have overcome more than we ever imagined we could do and we will marvel at what awaits us.