How much do you know about neurodiversity? How about race, gender, sexuality, class, or ableness?
I wasn’t “officially” diagnosed with ADHD until college, in the late 90’s.
At that time, much less was known about ADHD, and far less was shared openly. The methods of treatment on offer could be boiled down to a handful of medications, all of which seemed to have the same goal of “correcting” my brain to be more “normal.”
It wasn’t until many years later, after several unsuccessful rounds of medication that I found what worked for me: embracing the gifts of ADHD, acknowledging and communicating my weaknesses, using systems to stay on track, and putting myself into environments that worked along with my strengths and weaknesses.
The real story, however, is about the 20+ years between my first realization and the present day.
Discrimination, Gaslighting, and Erasure
Throughout my life, people have told me — to my face — that “ADHD is not real,” suggesting instead that I was merely lazy or undisciplined. Some have acknowledged that ADHD is real but usually speak about it as little more than a punchline about short attention spans.
“Oh man, I’m so ADD right now. LOL”
Throughout my formal education, teachers would note my inability to sit still. So many of my teachers would say the same things. These phrases haunt me to this day.
“Jeffrey is very smart if he would only just apply himself. I’m afraid if he doesn’t learn to sit still or follow directions, he’ll never reach his full potential.”
At work, I would receive praise for my creativity and strategic insights, my willingness to stay late, and my ability to perform at a very high level with little preparation. Yet, I would also receive warnings with threatening undertones that if I didn’t start showing up on time, checking my email more frequently, or managing my tasks with greater consistency, that disciplinary measures would be taken.
Time and time again throughout my life, people have wanted the benefits of my mind without any of the drawbacks. When I’ve chosen to share the things I struggled with, I’ve often been met with dismissive comments, being told I’m making up excuses, difficult to work with, or asking for special treatment. All of this made me question whether or not I really was just lazy, undisciplined or stupid. I chose instead to hide who I am, under the mask of normalcy.
This is my story, but this is a story that is far more common than you may realize.
The Five States of Awareness
While this post has so far explicitly focused on my neurodiversity, the following framework applies when thinking about and discussing other intersectional identities including race, gender, sexuality, class, ableness, and more. One of the first steps in creating a kinder, safer, and more equitable world, is to understand the impact of various states of awareness. You simply are not in the conversation for positive change until you locate yourself on an awareness spectrum.
Here’s how I think of it…
For the sake of this framework, I’m going to use Unawareness as the most neutral point possible on the continuum. This is a person who is 100% completely oblivious and unaware about a particular issue.
In my case, this would be someone who has never heard the term ADHD in their life. While this person may cause harm, it would be completely unintentional.
The moment this person is made aware at all, they have a choice of which direction of go but can no longer be considered unaware.
This is a person who is passively aware of something, has heard about it but doesn’t really understand it, or seek to understand it because it doesn’t affect them personally. Because of this, they may not understand the challenges or problems associated with this issue and as a result may unintentionally erase the problem when discussing it with others.
Most of my teachers and many of my past colleagues and bosses were passively aware of ADHD. They knew it was something that existed but did not know what to do about it or how to accommodate it.
A person with an active awareness of something may have a basic understanding of the challenges and issues associated with the issue and may even be curious to learn more. They often know enough to attempt to avoid causing additional harm but may not be interested or motivated to take a more active stance in the issue or cause.
Many of my friends have asked me questions about ADHD and have tried to understand it better. This not only helps me to feel more included and validated but also spreads to help them as they encounter others on the neurodiversity spectrum.
Passive and Active Awareness states can persist indefinitely. People typically do not take a more active stance on an issue until it becomes personal or perceived important. That is when someone may get more involved and move in one of the two directions on the spectrum.
A person who engages in active harm has enough awareness to consciously work against deeper understanding or learning any ideas that challenge their existing beliefs. They may refuse to acknowledge or validate the existence of problems or challenges. If they do acknowledge an issue, they may display hostility toward, actively diminish, or even oppress and discriminate those who make the issue known or advocate for equity.
This is the person who upon learning of my ADHD, may choose to state their belief that ADHD is a made-up condition, call me lazy, refuse to make accommodations for our mutual benefit, or hold me to a standard that would be almost impossible for me to consistently achieve.
A person who is aware of an issue, and uses their time, energy and resources to support and advance a cause can be considered an advocate. This person dedicates time to learning more, deepening their understanding, and empathizing with those closest to the issue.
Examples of this include my wife Erica, and my business partner Sarah, both of whom continually ask questions to learn more about ADHD and deepen their understanding. Both of them embrace and accept my strengths and weaknesses so that I have what I need to thrive. They help others to understand what I need to thrive and actively correct those who diminish me or my needs.
States Of Change
Whatever state of awareness you find yourself in with regard to a particular issue, fear not, this is just a model, and you needn’t be stuck there.
If you’re unaware, just make sure that once you are made aware, that you engage your curiosity.
If you’re passively aware, make sure you don’t cause additional harm but maybe go further. Seek to understand so you can help be an advocate that helps create a more equitable world.
If you are actively aware and trying to learn more, that’s great! Keep going!
If you are aware but either don’t care or actively dismiss the experience of others, ask yourself why? How can you be so comfortable in a state of creating harm? What does it mean to you to erase someone else’s experience? What do you have to gain by being “right” in this circumstance? Why do you feel the need to react as you do when someone shares a difficult experience?
If you aspire to be a real life superhero, and are in the process of becoming superhuman, there is only one acceptable state of awareness: Advocacy. You simply must be part of the movement to advocate on behalf of those being left out. Everything else is an abdication of responsibility. Because in case you hadn’t heard:
“…with great power there must also come — great responsibility”
If you want to change states, the easiest place to start is with curiosity. To be genuinely curious requires you to be empathetic.
I hope that this post helps at least one person to be a little more curious, and to move toward advocacy, because we need your voice.
And if you happen to be very interested in the topic of neurodiversity at work, my business partner Sarah and I are in the pre-launch phase of our new Keynote and Workshop series Brains @ Work: The Invisible Power of Neurodiversity.
We’re planning to do three talks at a reduced rate before promoting the talk and workshops more broadly. If you’re interested send an email to: [email protected]