Waiting for the bus and the spectrums of ish

We walked to the supermarket the other day, and Mikey had misunderstood something I’d said and was agitated. So it was one of those shopping trips where we attracted a lot of attention. He was loud and bouncy and on edge and keen to get it over and done with. The obviousness of our difference plain to see. My attention was on him, but on the periphery of my gaze I caught glimpses of people stopping and heads turning.

After we’d paid for the shopping, we walked out into the spring sunshine and crossed the road to the bus stop where we waited, sitting on a wall. I’d worked out what it was that was bugging him and he‘d calmed down by then, and he hummed away to himself, occasionally commenting about one thing or another. And I daydreamed about people and difference and the spectrums of ish.

I’d read Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes a while ago and liked it; well I’d liked most of it. It’s insightful compassionate and it has achieved what it set out to do and popularised the transformation of the way in which we think about people who think differently. It got me thinking about the idea of neurodiversity and the lines that divide being neurologically typical or divergent.

The term neurodiversity was originally used by Judy Singer in her thesis in 1998 and apparently Harvey Blume used the idea in an article in the New York Times. I haven’t read that but Judy used it to describe the emerging idea that disabled people with autism, ADHD or some other diagnosis or condition are not “broken” they are simply neurologically different. Since then the term has been used by high functioning people with autism and Asperger’s to build a social movement; a campaign for the rights of people who are neurologically diverse and in my opinion that’s a good thing.

But the use of the term and the growth of the neurodiversity movement has also gone hand in hand with the popularisation of the terms neuro-typical and neuro-tribe, and in doing so it has led to the emergence of oppositional tribe like identities. These I am less comfortable with. People are either neurodiverse or neuro-typical and whilst that binary makes it easier to establish a movement and resistance to the discrimination that autistic people face, for me like all tribal identities it oversimplifies the complexity of all people and exaggerates the importance of difference. Steve’s book asks us to be smarter about people who think differently but doesn’t everybody think differently?

Anyway after a fairly long wait the bus had arrived and whilst most bus drivers around here are pretty friendly, this particular driver wasn’t. But, Mikey didn’t notice and he likes buses, and he did his usual thing; so every time that somebody pressed the stop button he called out “stopping”, in a voice loud enough to be heard the length of the bus and he interspersed these with comment’s about how dirty my ears are. Which they are not but he knows it embarrasses me so he does it to amuse himself.

The responses to Mikey’s commentary are varied. Some turn around to look briefly; others look and smile sharing the humour of the moment. Some will laugh at him. Often people who are sitting close by will stare straight ahead or immerse themselves even deeper into whatever virtual reality they are engaged in on their phones.

I sometimes wonder what it is that they fear, what is it that they imagine that he will do. I wonder how many see in him the qualities he may share with them: humour, love, understanding, courage, skills, strengths and failings. Or do they simply see the divergence and the difference, a member of another tribe – his otherness juxtaposed with their sense of their own normal and typical. And I guess that’s why I have a problem with the whole concept of neuro-tribes, it delineates arbitrary categories of difference. It draws hard lines where there should be shades of neurological variety and richness. It encourages people to retreat into those tribal identities rather than embrace the diversity of what we all are.

As the father of two young men on a particular spectrum and the uncle of another. I understand too well the impact of hard lines and the tendency of those who aspire to belong to one tribe or another, to use language and difference as a weapon or way of dealing with uncertainty. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have felt the need to diagnose or who have dealt with a challenge to their sense of normal by staring straight ahead and hoping the challenge and difference will go away. The psychological equivalent of staring at their phone as they struggle to stay within the security of their imagined tribe.

But are there really neurological tribes or are there simply spectrums of difference? Rainbows of neurological colour and diversity, where neuro-type is not a tribe or identity but simply our own particular place on the spectrums of ish.