Neurodivergent in a Neurotypical World
Sitting in the passenger seat of her friend’s car, driving down U.S. 101 through Sonoma County, Tatiana Mercier began to wonder if she, like many of her friends, was autistic.
Mercier had been formally diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety shortly after graduating high school in 2015 but had never strongly considered that she may have also been on ‘the spectrum’ — a term commonly used to refer to people with autism.
“It was always, ‘I think, I might,’” she said.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 5,437,988, or 2.21%, of adults in the United States have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
People who are diagnosed, or self-diagnosed, with autism, ADHD or another neurodevelopmental disorder may consider themselves to be ‘neurodivergent,’ a term coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s.
Singer wrote in her 2016 book, “NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea”, that the concept of the neurodivergent identity was to unite neurodiverse individuals under the same social justice umbrella, not unlike third-wave feminism or the gay rights movement.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 when Mercier realized, for the first time in her life, that the social discomfort she’d experienced for so long may have been attributed to more than what family, friends and peers described as her ‘odd’ personality.
“I attended a queer youth support group where we talked about autism. I went to be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna learn about my friends who are autistic, I want to learn how to better support them,’” she said.
Instead, Mercier came away from the evening questioning whether or not she was neurodivergent as well.
“They were saying things that I really resonated with and I thought, ‘Oh God, I might be autistic,’” she said.
What were likely the early signs of autism spectrum disorder were treated by others as personality quirks and awkward social skills, Mercier said; she remembers being labeled the ‘odd kid’ as early as elementary school.
“I had been told by a lot of different people that I’m very weird,” she said. “That was a word that was used to describe me a lot.”
Trajan Miller, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was eight, described feeling left out of the “social flow of things” and not being able to socialize “the way other people were able to.”
Miller said that even at a young age, he had already “accepted it as a fact of (his) life.”
“I can’t remember not knowing about it,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly happy with how things were going, but I couldn’t imagine it being anything else. It was like, ‘I do things this way and not a lot of other people do things that way, and that’s just kind of how it’s gonna be.’”
Now a senior at San Francisco State University, Miller said that he feels more confident and able to approach social situations than in previous years.
“A lot of my struggle with autism has been recognizing what traits I have and figuring how to use them in a way that allows me to be social,” said Miller.
San Francisco State senior Em Cardenas, who is diagnosed with ADHD, clinical depression and anxiety, said that they “never fit in” with their classmates.
“It made sense that I didn’t work the same way that other people did,” they said. “I would blurt things out randomly and then I would try to compensate for it.”
While there are similarities among people diagnosed with ASD — difficulty in social situations, need for constant motion (‘stimming’) and sensory processing issues — the diagnosis is rarely one-size-fits-all. According to Mayo Clinic, the severity of the symptoms depends on the individual.
After her car ride epiphany, Mercier began seeking out a formal diagnosis for her autism. However, what she discovered instead was a number of bureaucratic roadblocks, seemingly destined to keep her from learning about her own brain.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a classification of mental disorders used by healthcare professionals to diagnose patients, states that people who are assigned male at birth are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than people who are assigned female at birth.
Mercier spoke of her frustration with the healthcare system; she described leaving one appointment in tears.
“I said, ‘I think I might have autism, is there any screening or anything we can do to help me figure out what’s going on?’” said Mercier. “The psychiatrist basically was like, ‘I’m not an expert, but you’re not autistic,’ because I could sit there and make eye contact.”
After administering a brief test, on which Mercier scored high enough to qualify for testing, her psychiatrist did not pursue any follow-up appointments, either with himself or a specialist.
While the topic of self-diagnosis is controversial in the medical community and among autistic people themselves, Mercier described the journey to their self-diagnosis as “empowering, validating and overwhelming.”
For Mercier and Miller, two people with very different autism journeys, their diagnoses have given them the ability to better understand their minds, habits and behaviors.
Miller said that one of the ways he “manages” his symptoms is by practicing social skills and putting himself into social situations, as a sort of exposure therapy.
“I think that my skills got rusty over the pandemic, and I didn’t really like that,” he said. “I do feel like I got too much alone time and it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to talk to people again.’”
Mercier said that while some people may think of an autism diagnosis as a burden, she sees it as something “beautiful.” Her only wish is that she had realized her diagnosis sooner.
“Once I accepted that I was acting that way for a reason, it wasn’t just me being a strange outlier in the world,” said Mercier.
“Every part of me, everything about me is neurodivergent,” she said. “The best thing that has ever happened for (my health) was accepting that I am neurodivergent.”