Autism Book Shelf: Divergent Mind

This one had been recommended to me personally as well as popped up in autism groups: Jenara Nerenberg’s Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You. Especially when it was backordered when I tried to get it, I was really excited to read it–recommended by neurodivergents and hard to get? It must be good. Well, maybe it’s a case of expectations raised a little too high, but I expected a different book.

The author is a journalist on the spectrum, and she interviews people from many different areas of expertise, several of them autistic or otherwise neurodivergent themselves. Broken into three parts, she looks at the history of psychology, the glaring omission of women in studies, and the DSM as an ever-evolving document that maybe isn’t as helpful as it should be, as it often just assigns disorder labels to that which gets in the way of the present society. Next she takes a closer look at sensitivities, ADHD, and other conditions as well as treatments. And finally, she applies the latest discoveries to work, home, and other aspects of life to see how we can improve the way we make space for everyone.

One great takeaway from Divergent Mind is that a society that embraces neurodiversity would be swell. Taking sensitivity of all kinds into consideration and making space for those who need it would allow many more people to flourish. Encouraging people to disclose their support needs and request accommodations is wonderful–the more we’re told that our challenges are legitimate, the less isolated we’ll feel. Expanding services and curated environments to all will absolutely help more people figure out what works for them and help them further curate their own lives. Yes, these are all good things.

What I had a really hard time with, however, is that almost exclusively, the people interviewed or referred to were traditionally successful, hetero, cis binary people with very little support need. Lots of higher academic stories, like people who made it through grad school, people at the top of their field, some Ivy League name drops–which made me feel like this book wasn’t for me. These examples were of acceptable autistics or other neurodivergents, like a parade of nutty professors, worth supporting because they were still brilliant. Most of them mentioned were mothers, and the challenges of raising children were just barely hinted at. Now, maybe it’s just the groups I’m connected to, but I hear some painful, too-real stories of people struggling with parenthood, keeping even a part-time job (let alone a career they feel comfortable and confident in), and making it through an education system not designed for them. And I guarantee those struggles are even more common in the countless undiagnosed people not in these groups.

We also know that there’s huge crossover in the autism and LGBTQIA+ communities. It seems like a book released in just the past year or so would take the opportunity to use words like “people” instead of “men and women.” The gender binary is so strong in this book. Even though I identify as a woman (albeit with a lot of fire in my water, if you will), it’s this type of language that makes me uncomfortable. Yes, heterosexual cis women have historically been left out of the medical equation, but there’s a whole big varied group of people who are only being seen as valid humans allowed to exist as they are, and to largely ignore them when painting your picture of a neurodiverse utopia is not helpful. (Fun fact: My spellcheck just flagged “neurodiverse.” Come on.)

So is the book worthwhile? Yes. Nerenberg covers lots of research in simple language, gives us snapshots of therapies that might be accessible to more than a privileged few someday (I’m guessing that comes after diagnosis is widely accessible), and in explaining why we are so far from embracing neurodiversity she offers comfort to many of those who feel left behind. Research does have to start somewhere, and it has and will always start from the loudest, richest, and largest groups and work its way out to everyone else…eventually. With some added context, the book would be helpful to someone who hasn’t been researching the hell out of autism, ADHD, and related conditions. Even in my frustration with the book, I suppose I was further motivated to learn more and share more, and to demand more of myself and others to accept people who need to live their lives differently, who need supports to thrive or even survive, and who maybe weren’t on my radar at all or I can’t identify with at all–we are all worth the air we breathe, the space we take, and the help we need.

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