How Do I Say “My Brain Is Not Like Yours”?

I’m not neurotypical.

Requesting accommodation for this is hard, both because of the nature of my neuroatypicality, and because of the structure of the society in which I live. Under this structure, if I can pass for neurotypical, I will, because it’s easier and more convenient. As soon as I disclose my situation to request accommodation, I open the floodgates. My standing in a group of people instantly shifts, and I find myself on unstable ground. A frustrating situation for anyone, but especially for me, because I need things to be rigid. I need clear rules and boundaries and I need to understand where I am. I need order.

How do I say “my brain is not like yours”?

How do I explain to someone that my behavior may sometimes seem peculiar, erratic, or irrational, but it’s not? It’s just that this is the way in which my brain works.

How do I explain to someone that I really do need things ordered and presented in a particular way, or I get upset? How do I explain that my upset, my emotion, is valid because I am experiencing it? How do I say that it’s not funny to deliberately disrupt the order of things to trip me up, to change things around on me without telling me, to assume that I will be ok with something without checking first? How do I explain that my need for control stems from my need for order, for a perfect understanding?

How do I explain to someone that sometimes I do not understand what is being said or written, even though I appear verbally fluent (and am often accused of being verbose)? How do I explain that sometimes I do not comprehend, read, or parse something correctly, and that therefore, my response may seem out of line, but it’s really because I didn’t understand? How can I explain that not understanding does not mean that I not intelligent, does not mean that I don’t understand when people are talking about me, does not mean that I am not capable of intellectual rigor, does not mean that I do not experience hurt and other emotions when people marginalize me?

How do I explain that when I get angry or flustered, I start to cry, and that it infuriates me, and that having attention drawn to it is not helpful? How do I explain that I often become verbose when I am nervous or upset, that I am not talking to dominate a conversation, but because I feel threatened or nervous or unsure and so I try to occupy the space around me with words to protect myself?

How do I explain that when I ask someone to repeat or rephrase something, I am not being pedantic, I am asking because I do not understand. Because my brain, it is not like yours. And that means that sometimes I don’t understand the things that your brain says. It doesn’t mean that your brain is lacking in intelligence or the ability to communicate, it just means that my brain doesn’t understand the modes of communication your brain uses.

How do I explain that I am not socially awkward or lacking in social grace, but incapable of reading people emotionally? How do I explain that I don’t mean to make awkward or offensive statements, that I don’t mean to appear to be talking out of context, that I don’t understand the subtle nuances of situations? How do I explain that I need rigid rules of social order because I am familiar and safe within them, and they allow me to feel more confident?

How do I explain that sometimes I do not know what to say, so I stay silent, but I am thinking about what is being said?

How do I explain that I often think about multiple things at once, and that sometimes I get behind on the thread of conversation, so I say something about something that happened 10 minutes ago? How do I explain that this is just the way my brain works?

How do I explain that I really do need people to be clear with me, to set out boundaries, to enforce them? Because I don’t understand boundaries. I don’t even understand my own boundaries, which  means that I cannot navigate the boundaries of others. I will step over boundaries not because I am rude, or thoughtless, or heartless, but because I don’t realize that they are there.

How do I explain that I am neuroatypical, and that I deserve the right to accommodation?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

24 thoughts on “How Do I Say “My Brain Is Not Like Yours”?

  1. Talk about a catch-22! On the one hand, you have people who would mock, reject or infantalize you for saying that, on the other, you have people like me, who just want to know what accompdations you need, so we can stop treating you unfairly. I can’t imagine trying to make the distinction if you have trouble reading basic emotions. I never realized it, but I enjoy a great deal of privilege being neurotypical.

    Thank you for being so open on this subject
    .-= Personal failure´s last blog ..Happy, Believe It or Not =-.

  2. Great post. I have no idea what the answer is. My biggest issue on this one is that I’ve got ADD, and a professor that I work with a lot is constantly late for meetings. I haven’t yet figured out how to explain to him that if he says he’s going to meet me at 1, and then emails me at 1:15 to say that he’ll actually meet me at 2:45, I’ve got two problems: first is that I NEED structure in my day, and now I’ve basically got an hour and a half of blank time with nothing scheduled to do, and it’ll take me a while to figure out something to do with that time; and second is that I took my medication on a schedule that would let me concentrate while I was supposed to be meeting with him, and now my options are either to take more medication and be jittery for the rest of the day or to not take any more and have trouble concentrating while I’m meeting with him.

    (I’ve pretty much given up on convincing him that I need things written down. I don’t have an actual diagnosis on that one, but I know that I can’t absorb information at all if I hear it but don’t see it. I once went to a museum that had no text at all, just an audio tour, and ten minutes after I left, I could not remember a single thing I’d learned there.)

  3. I don’t know how to do this either. The medical model so dominant in the U.S. gets in the way of course because I haven’t been diagnosed with what I think might be a unifying… variation. Condition. The mental illnesses I have been diagnosed with tend to be seen as character flaws and employers especially are unfond of accommodating what they view as excuses for malingering.

  4. Neurotypical people get these kinds of accommodations all time without realizing it and feeling fully entitled to them. I have learned that if I want one of my colleagues full attention I have to approach him after lunch, not before. If I want another colleague to respect my boundaries around privacy there are certain topics I can not talk about around him. If I want my boss to respond positively to my work, I cannot approach him whenever he appears overloaded. How I’ve determined how “overloaded” appears has been through a series of trials and errors. I could go on with example after example. All of these people either have or would (I believe) self-identify as neurotypical. All of them are also loaded with privilege – white, highly educated, male for the most part (I’m one of 3 women out of ~40 science-types in this lab). Most of these folks are perfectly nice people, but they barge around with their “quirks” and “idiosyncrasies” and expect everyone around them to just deal. No acknowlegement, no apologies.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this exactly, or how to address your question, but it just struck me how if you’re in a position of power or your needs are privileged over everyone else’s in part because you’re “normal”, you can demand all the accommodation you want without a second thought or concern that you’re going to brand yourself in some way.

  5. Oh, wow, are you actually me? Pretty much all of this sounds like stuff I go through regularly.

    One question I struggle with in this regard is the extent to which telling people medical labels actually helps. For the most part these days, I usually stick to telling people about specific difficulties. Sometimes this actually helps, such as when a considerate waiter seats me and my partner in one of the quieter areas of the restaurant upon my request. But a lot of other times I simply get the message, “just try harder.” So I’m stuck between trying to phrase my requests for understanding and accommodations in non-medicalized language which may or may not be understood, or using medicalized vocabulary which is often misunderstood. (“You can’t be autistic/have a mental disability. You have a college degree.”)

    It’s a difficult bind.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..The Power of Self-Identification =-.

  6. Just before reading this I (I am autistic and have learning disabilities) was just griping to another autistic person about how to explain to service providers that I need them to treat me as if I have no communication system at all. Why? Because while I may be eloquent in certain forms of writing, my actual survival-communication is close to non existent. It took several medical emergencies and a total collapse of my health before they learned that I could not usually communicate what is happening to my body as it is happening. I also can’t tell them what foods I like, what staff people have neglected to do for me, what recreational activities I might enjoy, what needs to get done around the house, and I can’t even give them a full list of what I am unable to tell them let alone a full accounting of my strengths and weaknesses. And my ability to tell them anything gets worse the more I need to, not better. For every one thing I manage to communicate there are a thousand I don’t, all of them at least as important. And if I hear one more person say “why don’t you just type it?” I am going to scream. This is a communication problem, not a matter of which body part I use to communicate it. And in order to find out the 99.9% of things I can’t say, you have to use the same investigation strategies you use on someone who cannot use language at all. And stop being dazzled by the eloquence I can use in the 0.1% of things I can shine a tiny linguistic spotlight on. (And if I manage to explain all this right now it doesn’t mean I cam say a word about it next time I need to. That spotlight ain’t permanent either.) It’s been 10 years in the system before anyone bothered to find out enough foods I like so I wasn’t being fed one food every meal for months until it made me gag and then found another one. So I am not sure how much people will work on this stuff or how long it will take. A friend who has known me longer than any other friend said she was pretty sure my brain had these huge amounts of things stored in great detail and complexity but only a tiny amount of it easily accessed, and I think she had a point.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Stuff I’ve been reading. =-.

  7. Excellent point. I avoid telephone calls at all costs because I have a hard time expressing myself verbally – I can’t think and speak at the same time – it’s like a time delay. I don’t know what it is or what it’s called but it is a disability.

    I’m still peeved that my English teachers would demand book reports, speeches and memorization of poetry – all things which were near impossible for me to perform. I was an excellent student in every other way – and it felt like such a punishment to be humiliated in front of the class. To answer questions verbally in class I would always write down notes or draw pictures to help me keep on track – one can’t do that to memorize a poem.

    I’m an artist and massage therapist – without somatic or visual cues I’m completely lost. I enjoy language and reading – but really it is a visual thing for me.

  8. Wow,
    I was *just* thinking about this as I start another new job tomorrow. I have Asperger’s Syndrome (which sounds very similar to yours in at least along the same spectrum/lines) and it’s like ‘no, I am not stupid or distracted. I just think differently and I need different things to accommodate me and how I think/deal with the world” and NO this should not be something that is considered too much/too difficult.

  9. I’m afraid that I don’t have an answer, but this has been an absolute bugbear for me for most of my life.

    In our society, we are taught to regard intelligence as a quantity, a number, a score. Any deviation from the norm is therefore either a plus or a minus. This becomes exaggerated to the point where there’s a typical approach to it as being binary: gifted or disabled… smart or stupid. If you’re one, you obviously can’t be the other, right? You can’t be exceptional in a “good” way and also in a “bad” way.

    Being exposed to this attitude throughout my school years has made me so reluctant as an adult to even broach the subject of not being neurotypical, to mention that I require accommodation or that standard expectations might not apply well to me, and that has cost me a lot socially, if in no other way.

  10. Yes yes THIS. This post is extremely timely as I’m going to have to talk to my supervisors at work about accommodation for my disability. How do I explain that I handle stress differently, etc., without coming off as whiny or lazy? How do I explain that I can actually give good customer service, it’s just that I can’t do it all day or I will start breaking down?

    krismcn has a good point: neurotypical people get accommodations too, but it’s not pathologized.

  11. Arguably the main difference between disabled and nondisabled people is that the huge number of accommodations nondisabled people get are nonpathologized and viewed as background and not accommodations at all. While the relatively few accommodations disabled people need differently than nondisabled people, are pathologized and seen as special and extra and standing out and not guaranteed and burdensome and etc.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Stuff I’ve been reading. =-.

  12. thank you thank you for writing this. i hate asking for accommodations because i always feel like i’m making an excuse. so i miss deadlines and meetings and classes and most of my professors probably think that i don’t care. getting emotional while speaking to people about accommodation doesn’t help my cause.

  13. This, totally.

    That said, I was really lucky with my current volunteering thing, in that I’m not the only person in my department with a hearing impairment. But I’d have never have brought up the subject of my own needs without one person having said “if you need to get my attention, do this because I probably won’t notice you otherwise”. In fact, the other departments in our office still don’t know anything about my hearing problem, because I have no idea how to bring it up.

  14. This. So much this! I’m having problems in one of my classes at the moment because it is going too fast for me to keep up. I have gone to the teacher (he is a very nice teacher) and asked for some help, and he said that he would say what line we were translating from whenever somebody new spoke. That will go some way to help me, I think, but it is really only the tip of the iceberg. How do I explain to him that trying (and failing miserably, more to the point) to keep up with lots and lots of sensory information is very upsetting to me? How do I know whether he will listen to me?

    Gah. Do you mind if I print this off and give it to people? Our needs are not exactly the same, but you articulate it better than I can at the moment.

  15. Sarah: But a lot of other times I simply get the message, “just try harder.”

    That sounds like my entire childhood. I was never diagnosed with ADD – nobody in my family even knew what it looked like until my younger brother was diagnosed when I was an adult (there’s a 9-year gap between us). I got a book from the library, and quickly realized “that’s me too!” Unfortunately, this is where ability and economic class intersect, because I am uninsured and unable to afford a doctor. I can’t explain to people “I’ve been diagnosed. See, I have papers to prove it.” Given how many people don’t “believe” in ADD (ask my boyfriend, he’ll tell you otherwise!), most likely I’ll just be seen as a pathetic liar.

  16. It’s amazing how internalized the “just try harder” message can be, isn’t it? I get that from ablebodied people all the time; I am the one responsible for trying, I am the one who should be working to make myself fit in society, I am the one who is hiding behind my disability. It’s very tiring.

    And it’s so frustrating to be told to “not get emotional” or that “being emotional doesn’t help your cause” because it invalidates your emotions, and you by extension. Apparently you are not allowed to be upset and frustrated when people do not respect your or your needs. And land sakes, you’d better not get ANGRY about it. Oh, no…
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..I Hate Prescriptive Feminism =-.

  17. In our society, we are taught to regard intelligence as a quantity, a number, a score. Any deviation from the norm is therefore either a plus or a minus. This becomes exaggerated to the point where there’s a typical approach to it as being binary: gifted or disabled… smart or stupid. If you’re one, you obviously can’t be the other, right? You can’t be exceptional in a “good” way and also in a “bad” way.

    Actually, a big field in gifted education lately has been studying kids who are identified as gifted and also diagnosed as having a learning disability. If you google “twice exceptional” (I hate that phrase, but it’s the one that seems to have gained traction), there’s a bunch of information out there.

    I HATE the “just try harder” thing. I got that all the time in school, and I could never seem to explain that I was already trying as hard as I could — if someone could help me find some other way to approach it, I might be able to try differently, but it wasn’t possible for me to try harder at what I was already doing.

  18. Oh god, meloukhia.

    I am forever being told just try harder. Your comment sounds like my entire life.

    Why is it always able bodied people (usually, and this hurts more, close family or friends as well) who tell you to try harder? Yeah, concentrating harder is going to make me more tired, not less.

    It makes me want to smash things.

  19. I wish I had something constructive to say but all I can offer is how hard I identify with this.

    I have had more than enough “try harder”s to last a lifetime. Perhaps I should respond in kind. “Try harder” to pay attention to what I’m telling you, understand and respect it. “Try harder” not to assume that things that are simple for you must be simple for everyone else. “Try harder” to remember that every damn day I’m interacting with other people I probably already AM “trying harder.”

  20. Wow you just described me……but have always attributed it to dyslexia and ADD

    “does not mean that I do not experience hurt and other emotions when people marginalize me”

    “don’t understand the subtle nuances of situations”

    “sometimes I do not know what to say, so I stay silent”

    “I often think about multiple things at once, and that sometimes I get behind on the thread of conversation, so I say something about something that happened 10 minutes ago”

    “when I ask someone to repeat or rephrase something, I am not being pedantic, I am asking because I do not understand”


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