In a 2014 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Jerry Seinfeld confessed that he suspected he might be on the Autism Spectrum. This casual quip stirred an angry backlash from the ASD community. Some felt this offhand self-diagnosis trivialized the struggles of people who actually are on the spectrum—60% of whom are blocked from employment, while those who do manage to get jobs are constantly judged and targeted by neurotypical bosses and coworkers.
Furthermore, I will admit that when I disclose my own diagnoses of Dyslexia and ADHD, people often say, “I think I might have ADD” or “I get so dyslexic after 3 in the afternoon!” They use my labels for cultural memes of self-deprecation. Sometimes, a defensive response will rise up in me.
How dare you? I think to myself.
Did you spend seven years of supplemental tutoring just to learn basic reading? How many times have you lost your keys? Your favorite jacket?
It can feel as if these casual acts of self-diagnosis marginalize the real struggles we face.
Nevertheless, it is a fact: the systems that decide who gets a divergent label is at its heart political, not scientific. The neurotypical school system works to limit the number of diagnosed people to 14% of the population. Most school systems are under pressure to reduce that number to 12%. Because the neurotypical system charges at least twice as much to educate divergents, there is constant pressure to reduce our numbers and save money.
Meanwhile, the science suggests that taken together we actually represent a much larger cross section. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity believes that 20% of the population fits the label of Dyslexia. A 2016 CDC report found that that 9.4% of children will receive an ADHD diagnosis, and they have doubled the number predicted to have ASD to 2% and climbing. In other words, the science suggests that as many as 30% of the population is divergent, but the schools want to limit that number to 12%. It stands to reason that somewhere between 10% and 15% of the population are in fact divergent but undiagnosed. Furthermore, almost all adult cases start as a self-diagnosis leads them to seek a professional evaluation—often costing them thousands of dollars out of pocket.
To the undiagnosed millions, we say: save your money. We encourage you to stand up and identify yourself as Divergent, to join the growing community. When someone like Jerry Seinfeld or David Byrne does this, they use their influence to shine a light on all of us. Yes, there is a big difference between Amanda Baggs and David Byrne—Byrne gets invited to a lot more parties—but they both add tremendously to all of our lives. And that’s the thing about a spectrum: it’s a spectrum. The further a person is from “typical,” the more difficult it will be to live in the systems designed for the majority.
Take, for example, the spectrum of height. We all fall somewhere on the height spectrum with ramifications for our abilities. Tall people are better at basketball and changing light bulbs; short people are better at hockey and hiding in small places. Meanwhile, out at the far ends of the spectrum of height it becomes more difficult to fit the mainstream. People who are very tall need special clothing, have trouble in buildings with low ceilings, and may experience medical issues. People who are very short need modified light switches, step stools to cook on a stovetop, and may experience medical issues. Although Amanda Baggs is clearly further out on the spectrum than David Byrne, I find them equally inspiring as voices of the culture. We need all of these voices in order to better understand what it means to be human.
Divergents Magazine wants the millions of undiagnosed people living with a sense of isolation and shame, never quite fitting the expectations of the world, to understand that they are not alone. Perhaps you have lived your life as a misfit. Perhaps you have struggled with depression, addiction, anxiety—or any of the ancillary diagnoses that stem from the core disconnect between neurotypical expectations and your truth. Divergents Magazine is for you, too. We hope you hear your story reflected in the fearless words of our authors. We hope you recognize the myriad feelings captured by our artists. We hope that, as you read and take in these images, you come to accept that there is nothing truly wrong with you. You are different but you are still profoundly human. And you are not alone.