Embracing Neurodivergence & Becoming a Constant Self-Advocate
By J.R. Reed
Becoming Proudly Neurodivergent
I’m proudly autistic, which means I’m also proudly neurodivergent. Why am I proud? Because there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Yeah, we’re a little goofy, quirky, or different, but when you think about it, who isn’t?
When I think about being neurodivergent I’m often reminded of the Divergent book and movie trilogy. If you haven’t seen or read the three, I highly recommend them as it gives great insight into a society that casts out those that don’t fit in according to their standards.
In the second movie, Insurgent, it opens with the city’s leader, Jeanine, making a speech to her community that is broadcast throughout the city:
Long ago before the founders established this great city of ours, that word was all but meaningless. An ideal as elusive as a dream. Now, 200 years later, we are all of us living proof that peace is indeed attainable. The reason for this, of course, is our Faction System. Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Abnegation.
In dividing people according to personality and aptitude, we’ve created a society in which each faction plays a critical role in maintaining the social order. But this harmony we’ve achieved is now under attack from a small but extremely dangerous group of individuals.
We call them Divergents.
They are, in essence, the worst of what humanity used to be. Rebellious, defiant and uncontrollable.”
This is how a large part of society sees us, the worst of humanity. They see us this way because they don’t understand us, and in many cases, they don’t want to understand us. They want us to go away, but we’re not going anywhere.
Advocating for Acceptance
One of the reasons I self-advocate for the neurodivergent community is to educate those who don’t understand us, and to get them to accept us as we are and include us as a part of their community. That community can take many forms, school, business, social groups, family, friends, and neighbors.
I roll with a group of hardcore self-advocates both online and in person and we all have the same goal: to one day see a society united. Not neurotypical or neurodivergent, but simply, people.
The reality is that we are just as Jeanine said. Rebellious, defiant, and uncontrollable.
We rebel against a culture that says we’re no good and tries to push us to the side. We’re defiant and push back when society tries to sweep us under the rug. And we’re uncontrollable in the sense that we’re no longer willing to be seen simply as weird, odd, or strange.
Not Weird, Just Autistic
I grew up in a time before autism was being diagnosed. It was more than a decade after my high school graduation that kids started getting diagnosed, and it was years later before they started diagnosing adults. That’s why I was 46 when I was finally diagnosed as Asperger’s.
Because no one knew why I was the way I was, I spent most of my life being bullied. I was constantly (and still am) being told that I can’t live up to my potential. Teachers called me weird, stupid, and lazy in front of my class, and I had a boss who called me Forrest Gump every working day for over ten years.
When I was diagnosed nine years ago, it was an epiphany. I now had an answer for why I was the way I was. And it was awesome. You might find it odd to hear that someone was happy to find out they’re autistic, but I like me just the way I am, so yeah, I was happy.
In fact, as I walked towards my car after the diagnosis, I remember saying to myself, “I’m not weird, just autistic.” That phrase would stay with me and would mold the next chapter in my life.
Beginning My Advocacy
About a year after being diagnosed, I walked away from a successful 20-year freelance writing career and decided to begin advocating for others like me. I also focused all my writing on autism, developmental disabilities, and neurodiversity.
It started slowly at first, but the journey has taken me to where I am today. I started the website, Not Weird Just Autistic, have been a regular contributor to sites such as The Mighty, Good Men Project, Huffington Post, and, of course, Different Brains.
I’ve been given the opportunity to speak to groups large and small, was invited to speak to a crowd of 1,500 in the Rotunda at the Missouri State Capitol, and have been interviewed on podcasts, radio, and TV. I say none of this to brag because I don’t see it as me being in the spotlight. I see it as neurodiversity and neurodivergence being in the spotlight. I’m just along for the ride.
People have asked me why I self-advocate, and the answer is simple. Because I can.
Many of us can’t or won’t self-advocate, and there’s no judgement from me on this subject. The ones who do, do. The ones who don’t are lending support from the sidelines.
I suffer from social anxiety, which isn’t the greatest trait for a speaker to have, but I’ve found that if I focus on the message rather than the 1,500 in front of me or the 3,000 on Zoom, it takes away some of the anxiety. Not all, but enough to get me through it and then take some down time for my brain to reboot.
Three-and-a-half years ago I moved from Long Beach, CA, right on the border of LA and Orange County to a log cabin in a town of 4,000 in the Missouri Ozarks. I did it to escape the sensory overload I was bombarded with, and because I work for myself, I can do it from anyplace in the country. Fifty-one years of exposure to that kind of sensory overload probably helps with the anxiety from speaking to large crowds.
To me the most rewarding part of being a self-advocate isn’t the attention I get, but rather when someone leaves a comment on something I’ve written, or when I get an email or Facebook Message that says they got something out of what I wrote or said, and that it helped them in some way.
Being a self-advocate is about helping other people.
About six months ago I was grocery shopping when a woman stopped me in the aisle and asked if I was the person who stood up for her son a couple of weeks prior. Having a purple goatee as well as a service dog in a small town in the Ozarks makes me rather conspicuous, so it was probably easy for her to figure out who I was.
I told her that I was indeed that person. She thanked me for standing up for him and said that the past two weeks have been among the best he’s had in years. She also told me those kids had been bullying him since middle school. I was happy to hear that, but to me, standing up for someone just comes naturally. I don’t like seeing people bullied for being different.
The Internet in my neighborhood was down, so I was at our local coffee joint working on my laptop at one end of a long table. On the other side and at the other end was a college age kid who looked like he was quietly studying.
I had my headphones on and was updating my website when I saw three guys approach the kid at the other end. I also saw a look of panic on his face. Without thinking, I turned off my music, which as it happens, was playing Panic! At the Disco and took off my headphones.
As soon as I heard one of the bullies call the kid a freak, I pulled all 6 ft 250 lbs. of me out of my chair and approached them.
“Hey guys,” I politely said. “Is this one giving you a hard time?” The trio looked befuddled, so I continued.
“Obviously, he’s not, but you are and I’m curious. What exactly makes him a freak? Is it because he’s different than you?”
The leader of the trio told me to mind my own business and take my freaky purple chin back to my seat. I chose not to comply. Instead, I continued to speak.
“My guess is that you’re actually afraid of him because you don’t understand him and that’s the reason you bully and harass him. I would also guess that when you’re all 35 he’ll be designing the next hot tech gadget and you’ll be asking, ‘would you like fries with that?”
They stared at me like deer in headlights.
“My suggestion is this,” I concluded. “Get your coffee to go, head home and try to figure out how to be nice to people who are different than you and how you can learn to accept them.”
With that I headed back to my seat, and they left the shop, coffee-less and with many nasty stares from my fellow patrons. About a half-hour later I packed up my stuff, and as I headed toward the door, I knelt and asked the kid if he was ok. He said he was and thanked me for what I did.
“No problem,” I replied. “It’s what I do.” I then told him that I was autistic, and he said that he was too. I told him to never let anyone make him feel ashamed of who he was, because he had gifts that no one, including him, could see at this time.
As I think back, I’ve always been that way. As a child it was watching my second-grade brother being bullied by my fifth-grade classmate simply for being the brother or the weird kid. As an adult it was standing up for my ice hockey teammates. I’m proud that in over 20 years of playing, I never once threw a punch. But anytime I saw a teammate getting harassed, I would skate in between them and ask, “is there a problem?”
After all that I’ve written, the bottom line is that what it takes to be a self-advocate is a desire to fuel change, to spread the message, and to help others. All without fame or notoriety. Those two things are reserved for a select few, and I am NOT on that list.
Taking the Self-Advocacy Plunge
If you’re ready to take the plunge and self-advocate for neurodiversity, I applaud you. If you don’t know how to begin, talk to someone you may follow online who is a self-advocate. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, reach out to me. There’s a Contact page on my website, and it’s there to be used.
As I close this out, let me leave you with a quote from Tris, the divergent heroine from the Divergent trilogy. This comes at the end of Insurgent.
“You were wrong about us. We were never the problem. We’re the solution.”
J.R. Reed is a late diagnosed adult who was diagnosed with Asperger’s nine years ago. Since then he has taken a twenty + year freelance writing career and changed focus to developmental disabilities and mental health.
In 2012 he created the website/blog Not Weird Just Autistic, as he spent the first 45 years of his life thinking he was weird, but now knows he’s just autistic, with still a smidge of weird in there.
He currently writes for The Mighty, Different Brains, and Not Weird Just Autistic. J.R. also teaches online classes, speaks to groups as small as 15-20 or as large as 1,500 in the Missouri State Capitol.
J.R. sits on the board of three autism charities and in the next couple of months will begin advising on developmental disability policy on the state and national levels.
The author of An Asperger’s Guide To Dating Neurotypicals, J.R. works with those high school age through adult to help them live better lives as well as educates NT’s on who we really are. He’s currently working on the books, Autism Isn’t Contagious, and Asperger’s is My Superpower.