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Embrace Your Different-ness

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Written by Megan Meuli, M.A., Target the Stars

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Take it from me, being different isn't easy.

Right around the time I kept hearing the lyrics to those old Sesame Street segments (before they were old) singing, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things, doesn't belong" is about when I started to realize I didn't belong. I wasn't like the others.

First grade, Sister Marcine's class, I would catch myself at the sweet young age of seven with a voice telling me, "Don't be like that." You should just be quiet and keep to yourself. Others will like you more if you're not so much like you.  I can still see the 1950s drapes with their funky Jetson style plaid, grey, black, and white. I'm facing the metal grey book cases pretending to look for a book to read under the big long window facing Main Street. A big semi truck goes by. I turn back to the class.

I don't know what preceded or proceeded that thought. I've had that thought nearly every day of my life since and it wasn't until just the last few years that I've started to realize how toxic that thought has been to my life and my spirit. The years of anxiety and depression that started with that thought have been daily companions that have only recently begun to lift.

Neurodiversity wasn't a term back in 1979 and Sr. Marcine, my 14 fellow classmates and parents certainly knew nothing about it. I know I didn't.  All I knew is that I rarely perceive the world as those around me.  A few family members, friends, and co-workers throughout my life (and perhaps a therapist or three) have found my perception interesting, intriguing, sometimes inspirational. A few find it down right hilarious. One therapist suggested I take my mental health issues on the road and make some money as a stand-up comedian.

A friend told me in confidence that she described me to another friend as someone who not only doesn't think in the box but often asks the question, "What box?" It's true. I struggle with boxes, compartmentalizing, boundaries, attention, focus. Where was I? 

I always have struggled. But, I have come to realize it is those of us who are not neurotypical folks who change and inspire the world and hopefully make it a better place to be and live. We are the innovators. We never grew into a functional fixedness which in essence means, I still think about the world much as a five or six year old does, with beauty and possibility. Emily Wapnick addresses the concept of functional fixedness beautifully in her TED Talk titled, Why some of us don't have one true calling.  

You might call it attention deficit, heck, you might call it mania. But whatever you call it, I've started to come to see it as creativity that I can either hide and repress because it confuses others, or share and express. The trick I have found to happiness in my life is to work and share relationships with individuals who appreciate (and I must say, sometimes...simply tolerate) my quirky eccentricity.

We all have similarities, and we all have differences. I'm learning not to judge my differentness but to instead embrace it and to look for environments where I can be myself AND contribute.

Not fitting into the mainstream is nothing new. Thomas Edison tells the story of being told by his teacher that he was "addled" meaning "mentally deficient or easily confused." His mother never gave up on him and educated him at home. Edison went on to make many, many contributions.  This story and many others has me questioning the effectiveness of our school systems and wondering if I could have been in a much healthier, happier, and contributory place in my life a lot sooner if I had not been placed in so many boxes myself as a young child.

Elastic thinking is a term I stumbled upon a few months ago and it helps me understand myself and others with divergent cognition.  This past May I stumbled upon an article on the BBC's website title, "How to Become an Elastic Thinker and Problem Solver." It references Leonard Mlodinow's 2018 book, "Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World," and talks about the importance of, "stretching your mind and using ‘bottom up’ processing in the brain rather than the top down executive functions that drive analytical thinking."

The article highlights the need for "neophilia (an enthusiasm for novelty), schizotypy, imagination, idea generation and divergent thinking" in our current workplace and how difficult it is to find.  If only I had been encouraged to keep thinking the way I naturally think instead of discouraged to be different, I wonder where I'd be and what contributions I may have already made to help the world.....but of course I think like that...that's the way I think.

Last February my younger daughter came home from school quite pleased with herself.  She said, "Mom, I'm one of the smart kids."  I said, "Yes, of course, you are!" Because that's what we say...but I also asked, "What makes you say that, dear?" She proceeds to tell me she's been placed with the "Gifted and Talented math class."  A term that annoys me to no end....I feel another blog post coming up about that topic.

But anyway, I digress. I know my kid. She's not bad at math, but she's not stellar. So I ask her teacher about it at the conference the following week wondering if she's had some sort of early onset intelligencia. I'll never forget her reply. The 30-something year-old teacher looked at me and said, "She's pretty average with her math skills, but she just thinks so differently about everything, I thought it would be good for her classmates to have her in the class." Her response blew me away and gave me great hope for the future.  My child believes she is smarter than the rest so she's working harder to keep up, learn more, and becoming smarter as she goes along, she gets to be herself, think the way she does, AND she is appreciated for her differences in perception versus being told she needs to think like the others.  What a beautiful thing!

My story has many points, the main one I hope you take from it is that just because some of us think differently doesn't mean we should stop thinking differently or that we don't belong. In fact, I think we belong more than we know and have so much to contribute. I encourage you to appreciate your neurodiversity and the neurodiversity of those you work with and love.

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