Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health

[Before all else, I will add this clarification: This is an opinion, albeit one informed by years of clinical observations of my own clients: those who self-identify as neurodiverse, those who self-identify as neurotypical, those who aren’t entirely certain where they fall, and perhaps mostly those who VIOLENTLY reject the notion they themselves might be on the spectrum somewhere.]

The human brain likes to organize and categorize things. Human culture likes to organize entire groups of people into “Us” and “Them”, then create entire arbitrary systems of values and rules and justifications tied to the perceived differences between those who are Us, and those who are Them. We see exactly the same kind of almost tribalistic distinctions between Those Who Are “Mentally Well” and Those Who Are “Mentally Ill”, and even when science moves to recategorize what used to be seen as mental illness into different forms or levels of executive functionality, humanity still very much adheres to those differentiating Us and Them labels.

With the re-examination of what we now term “neurodiversity” in the past decade, trying to better understand executive functionality in its much-broader-than-anyone-ever-realized scope, I often see through conversations with my clients the not-always-subtle pushback in our culture to the idea that a wide-ranging selection of behaviours tied to executive functionality might be way more prevalent than we thought. There has been a strident demarcation between the Us that can function without those disruptive behaviours, and the Them that seem persistently plagued by them; the affected neurodiverse (ND) who struggle to mesh with the world around them, and the “normies” who adhere to the notion of being “neurotypical” (NT). “I’m not like THAT,” “I’m not broken,” I’m not CRAZY”–therapists hear these kinds of statements all the time, just as we hear from the other side, “Am I broken?” “Am I crazy?” Why is this so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?”

Almost a decade since the first ND folks walked into my office, and now five years of working more closely with ND folks of many stripes, through my clinical observations and interactions I have come to a singularly compelling conclusion:

The concept of “neurotypical” is complete and utter bollocks,
a damaging, tribalistic myth of epic proportions.

There. I said it.

I deal with a lot of adults who are officially diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who are self-diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who periodically or infrequently present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with maladaptive behaviours consistent with exposure to/immersion in high ongoing or repetitive stress or overstimulation (including burnout).

Guess what? One group, the first listed here, has an official diagnosis of some form of neurodivergence. The second is willing to see themselves as such. The other four? Statistically most likely to self-identify as neurotypical. You know what they all have in common? They all share the same types of dysregulated emotional reactions and behaviours when pushed past their respective breaking points. The breaking points’ locations differ for each group, but they can be mapped on a very uncomplicated two-axis graph with GROUP on one axis and STRESS on the other.

What this means, then, is that under the right set of circumstances, WE ALL exhibit the same dysregulated responses to stress and/or overstimulation.

TL;DR: pushed past certain points, WE ARE ALL NEURODIVERSE.

Take THAT, stupid tribalism!

So what’s happening for us then that puts us all on the same spectrum of executive function but at vastly different points of regulation? Turns out, the variable factor is the Window of Tolerance, or what I’ve been calling “tolerance capacity”.

The primary difference between the folks who claim to be “neurotypical” and those who don’t is their capacity to process stimulation. Stimulation past a certain point starts to exact heavier and heavier tolls, becoming stress. Stress surpassing tolerance levels starts to wear us down into a variety of hypoarousal and fatigue states (this is often where we see our burnout clients showing up). Stress and overstimulation that continue for many people into breakdown zones will eventually result in dysregulated responses; the tolerance window for NT folks is simply higher or wider, on average, than most ND folks whose overstimulation can start as soon as they wake in the mornings.

The reason why I would most like to strike the myth of “neurotypical” from the records is the damage done by any system that presents a mythical standard of high moral value, then subjugates a vast swath of the population into the OTHER group: “NEUROTYPICAL is GOOD, anything that DIVERGES from GOOD must therefore be BAD; therefore NEURODIVERSE is BAD.” Trust me when I say, it’s been a LONG struggle just to get language shifting from “Neurodivergent” to “Neurodiverse”. “Divergence” still carries the stigma of “diverging from the NORM”, which is hugely problematic when we can increasingly prove that “normal” is a mythological crock of shite. A lot of ND folks have brought in their frustrations and terrors around encountering time after time the messages that they are perceived as somehow less than, broken, crazy. They’ve been gaslit for generations into believing they are mentally ill, or at least deficient somehow; the ongoing stigma attached to neurodivergence is part of why the Tribe of Neurotypicals clings so desperately to the Great Myth of Normalcy.

Most of us have a window of tolerance, even the advanced autistics; it may not be as big as yours or mine and it almost certainly looks very different from anyone else’s window. We generally each have SOME capacity to tolerate stimulation or stress, but our ability to tolerate can shift dramatically, even from one moment to the next; it can shift up or down the Stress axis, it can grow or shrink. It is definitely impacted by the number of stress/stimulation sources in our lives. Some folks thrive in high-stress environments indefinitely because they have high-capacity tolerance windows; others are grumpy as soon as they wake to the weight or feel of their own bedsheets against their skin, and tolerance windows only shrink or move downward from there.

So instead of firmly and proudly declaring yourself in the camp of Neurotypical, I would ask you to remember a time when you maybe lost control emotionally or physically; how did you react? Did you feel overwhelmed, or distraught? Were you thinking clearly, acting your best Executive Self? How many times in your life has that happened? It’s important to reflect on these moments; these are the experiences that put us all on the same spectrum. There are a lot of great resources to help you understand how your own window of tolerance operates, starting from the seminal works of Dr Daniel J Siegal (described in the video link below), and how to be better at regulating yourself in the moments where those neurodiverse behaviours signal moving out of your optimal range. Even if we don’t bring the angle of Neurodiversity into the office, therapists are often well aware of a client’s executive functional state and capacity; we’re constantly working in various ways to help grow a client’s tolerance for a variety of stressors (whether this winds up looking like “tolerating in place” or “tolerating change” around those stressors).

Rethink your understanding of the myth of Us and Them. There are no camps here, just a spectrum of tolerance capacity and some beautiful, mobile windows into each of us on it.