Imagine a little scenario with me. Say, you bought a car but you don’t know how to drive yet. For some unnamed reason (let’s say a horrible pandemic), traditional lessons won’t work, but you have a friend willing to try and teach you through a video call.
So, you get into your car, put your phone in a holder, and fire up a video call.
“So, ready to do this?” your friend asks.
“Yes, let’s do it!”
“OK, so start the car by turning they key.”
You do as your friend instructs, and the engine comes to life. So far, so good.
“OK, now second step. You have two pedals there, the right one is the throttle and the left one is the brake.”
“Hmm, I seem to have three? If I press the right one the car goes vroooom, so I guess that’s the throttle?”
“Hmmm, weird. Well, just ignore that one on the left then. So, now pop it in D and press the throttle slowly. That should get you rolling.”
Now you get confused. There’s no “D” anywhere. You ask your friend, and he tells you to check the handle in the middle, and push that up.
You indeed have a handle there, but it won’t move by itself and yours has numbers instead of letters. After some trial and error you figure out that the left pedal actually unlocks the handle, so you push it up and it goes.
When you try to hit the throttle like your friend is telling you though, the car stalls out with a big shudder.
“Hmmm, it’s not working. The engine stopped.”
“Oh yeah, that happens. Just try again.”
You do, with the same result. You tell your friend, and you can hear him getting frustrated.
“You must not be doing it right. Just do exactly as I tell you, and it should work. Here, see?”
You watch him, and yes… his car moves effortlessly.
By now you, being a smart and observant reader, have probably figured out what’s going on here. You bought a stick-shift car, your friend is driving an automatic, and neither of you is aware of the difference. In fact, both of you might consider your car to be “a normal car”.
This is roughly what it feels like to grow up as a neurodivergent person. You get handed instructions that simply won’t work for you, but often you have no idea why. Worse: most people around you will assume you’re just wilfully ignorant, unwilling to do the work or just plain dumb.
If nobody ever told you that the default way of doing things won’t work for you, you’re very likely to start believing that you’re lazy, stupid or crazy.
For a long time, I actually believed that I was dysfunctional or just plain broken. The reality is though, I’m very functional, just differently tuned. I have different strengths and weaknesses than a neurotypical person, and I have different needs.
Identifying those needs and admitting to myself and others that I have them helped me immensely. I’ve gotten more comfortable with saying: “Hey, I notice I’m getting overstimulated, so I need 30 minutes of quiet time. Can we continue this conversation later?”
Stick-shift cars are great, they’re a ton of fun to drive. Just realise that trying to follow the manual of an automatic means you’re apt to crash and burn.