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Confessions of a Non-Neurotypical Person

by Ramin Shokrizade on 10/17/17 10:07:00 am   Expert Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

No one has appointed me as an official spokesperson for the non-neurotypical community. We are a diverse population, and all have different experiences and ways of being. All opinions expressed here are my own, I speak for no one other than myself.

My experiences in industry the last several years, and especially this article in the Guardian explaining that some companies are actually looking at non-neurotypical people in a positive way, has convinced me that it is time to “come out” and help explain some things about what it is like to be non-neurotypical. This is not an easy thing for me, as I've been taught by my family, schools, culture, and work places to do my best to hide it my entire life. As I'm a public figure, many of you already know this about me but as I am one of those statistically rare non-neurotypicals that can function successfully in the work place, I have perspectives and advice that I hope can help neurotypicals and non-neurotypicals get along better.

First of all, let me get the most difficult parts out of the way. About 1% of the population is non-neurotypical. Neurotypicals like to describe non-neurotypicals as “autistic”, as having autism spectrum disorder. The clear assertion is that we are sick, broken, or defective in some way. We don't describe neurotypicals as having a disorder. The reality is that non-neurotypicals have more synapses in our brains, and those synapses are more active. This allows us to do some things that non-neurotypicals can't do, or can't do in any reasonable time frame.

So we are biologically different. High functioning non-neurotypicals, the ones that can blend into society without detection, like to think of themselves as Homo Sapien 1.1. Neurotypicals like to describe us as a diseased version of Homo Sapien 1.0, a version 0.9. Non-neurotypicals don't like this, but they don't speak out about it because it's actually better for us, given that we are only 1% of the collective species. The alternative might look a bit like the scenario described in the X-Men series of comics where a genetic variation in humans caused them to have some advantages (and disadvantages) compared to genetic “normals” and then be subjected to segregation in the form of various Registration Acts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registration_acts_(comics)).

The Mutant Registration Act is a critical plot element in the X-Men comics where the possible threat of genetically non-normals (“mutants”) to “normals” was seen as great enough to require all mutants to register in the same way we currently treat sex offenders. In the comics, these mutants were then often used by the government because their abilities, despite being potentially dangerous, were just too useful to not exploit. This is the worst case scenario for us so we much prefer the prevailing perception that we are defective, need the help/support of neurotypicals to function in society, and are cuddly harmless super computers like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Being non-neurotypical means we are processing data from our environment (including our own bodies) at a much higher rate than normal. The rate is so high that in many situations that a neurotypical person would find comfortable or even stimulating, it is very uncomfortable for us. We get overstimulated easily and this can literally be painful for us. I have several “not quite as high functioning” non-neurotypical friends that are spectacularly intelligent but will curl up in a ball on the floor or behind some furniture if they are exposed to too much noise or too much emotion. These are people who, by their mid 20s, already store 200 to 300 years of neurotypical knowledge and can do things that just should not be possible. These people are very secretive and do their best to avoid contact with neurotypicals out of fear that something could go wrong.

Bright lights can be painful for us, as can many fabrics because they create too much stimulation. Normal background office noise can be so overwhelming that our productivity can drop by over 90%, not to mention the situation being stressful. But where a neurotypical might become extremely uncomfortable trying to focus on one task for more than 30 minutes, and have to take numerous breaks, a non-neurotypical can often maintain complete focus on one task for a very long time, even 10+ years in some cases. This allows some tasks to be followed to completion in one lifetime that would normally not be possible.

So a non-neurotypical person does some things better, and some things less better, than a neurotypical person. Perhaps instead of seeing us as 1.1 or 0.9, it might be better to just see us as 1B. But neurologically we are different enough that we are almost a different species and we follow different neurological rules. When you compare a white skinned person to a black skinned person, there is almost no difference genetically. Well, to be more fair, a person who is 100% African is a 100% pure human. White-skinned people are typically about 98% human and 2% neanderthal according to the latest research. But even that 2% difference is smaller than the difference between a neurotypical and non-neurotypical person in the way that they present. I point this out to help show that as a species, we have much more biodiversity than we are generally taught. We are all deserving of equal rights and opportunities, but we are not equal in abilities, preferences, or characteristics. This diversity is a big part of what makes our species so adaptable.

So if racism against relatively pure humans by the whiter human-neanderthal hybrids is so pervasive in our culture, you can imagine just how much prejudice there is against non-neurotypical humans. So non-neurotypicals are forced to “filter” just like neurotypicals do in order to pass. By filtering I mean processing what you are thinking into speech that is more acceptable to your audience than what you were thinking. Neurotypicals do this almost constantly. For non-neurotypicals, this filtering is extremely laborious. It's so hard for us that it can take us decades to learn, if ever. Under stress, we flounder and start to speak truthfully which can expose us immediately as non-neurotypical.

I was arrested at the airport in Manchester, England in 2012 because I had been on 3 flights for two days without sleep or vegan food and by the time I landed I was too fatigued to filter properly. So I answered all of the questions the customs agent asked me, literally, instead of answering the questions she wanted to ask me. Normally I have to augment the speech of neurotypicals around me because they ask bad questions without realizing it and I have to translate them into “good” questions in order to give back the proper response. In this case I was just too tired to do it and the customs agent was alarmed at my responses. I was arrested and held without access to lawyer or consulate for most of a day, and subjected to repeated interrogations still without rest or access to vegan food.

But since I was doing nothing illegal, and had been 100% truthful the whole time, they could not charge me with any crime. They really seemed to want to. I just ended up being immediately deported because they thought the way I was talking was unusual. I bring up this example because similar situations can happen in the work place.

To be super clear, the 1% (non-neurotypicals) are not intolerant of the 99%. We know we are a very tiny minority. We are not trying to cause trouble. We normally do our best to act like 99%'ers so that we are not subjected to discrimination. It is the 99%'ers being intolerant of us that causes conflicts. Often this leads to a gaslighting campaign against us, which given the ratios is all too easy. As the Guardian article points out, it is very difficult for non-neurotypicals to get or keep jobs. This isn't because we are less productive, poor team players, anti-social, or “poor cultural fits”. This is because we are the victims of intolerance. Granted, some of this intolerance is misunderstanding caused by one species not understanding another species because they don't even realize they are dealing with another species. We might look completely the same on the outside.

For instance, if you and the guys are engaged in a full blown Bromance during work hours, and we are sitting there with our headphones on and not participating, that isn't because we don't love you and don't want to hang out with you. Whatever you are doing might be just too stimulating for us. Or maybe we are close to a solution for a problem we have been working on and want to work to completion without a break. If there were 99 of us and just 1 of you, and you were having a problem with us not Bromancing, it wouldn't be an issue. But when the numbers are reversed, we know that if we don't properly Bromance then we will most likely lose our job, sooner or later. Not because we were incompetent or mean to anyone, just purely because we were different and someone in the office didn't tolerate it.

I'm friendly. I'm funny. But I'm really quiet and don't need much stimulation in the traditional sense. I can walk among some trees and see and hear a thousand insects and be very stimulated. The wind blowing through the leaves is a symphony of sounds for me. A neurotypical might not notice any of that and might need to blast music on their iphone in order to avoid becoming understimulated, which is just as painful for them as overstimulation is for me. That doesn't make them or me a bad person, we are just different. Biologically different. Really.

But being non-neurotypical is increasingly a huge advantage in high tech jobs, as the Guardian article points out. Work places that contain even a few intolerant neurotypicals are going to end up being neuro-homogenous. A team in high tech that is 100% neurotypical is going to be at a significant disadvantage to a neuro-diverse team. The higher the tech, the more important that diversity becomes. Like it or not, game development is becoming high tech. Data and science is being used in ways that were just not part of the game development process even 10 years ago.

So as a neurotypical, how can you be a better partner to your non-neurotypical teammate? Don't be afraid to talk to us, that's probably #1. We don't get a lot of social interaction but we still crave it. But just as you are hoping that we will put some extra effort into filtering around you, it would be great if you could put some extra effort into not filtering around us. The more high functioning of us can tell when you are filtering, and it's a lot of work for us to translate what you are saying into what you are thinking. Plus you come across as sneaky and less trustworthy when you filter a lot. We would rather just hear what you are thinking. You can say it quiet in case you are afraid it might shock your neurotypical coworkers. Our hearing is better than normal as long as there is not a lot of background noise, so whispers work great.

Want to invite us out to do something after work? Awesome! But maybe inviting us to the local (loud/crowded) pub might not be the most ideal place to hang out for us. The same goes with places that have strong odors or very bright lighting. When I worked at the Wargaming Austin think tank, we had a very neuro-diverse team there. The lights were always so low in that place, with all the blinds down, that you almost needed a flashlight to get around. I can't remember anyone ever making any loud noises there either.

But most offices are set up to accommodate neurotypical workers, which makes sense since they make up 99% of the population and at least 99.6% of the workforce. It would never occur to most of them that they might need a dark room for the non-neurotypicals. They are expected to hang out with everyone else to improve company togetherness. Making the whole office dark and library-quiet would be a solution, but that might not work for everyone. So thus it does really work to have a quiet part of the studio for non-neurotypicals (because we are biologically different) but we don't want to be socially isolated. It is a difficult balancing act. Understanding and tolerance goes a long way.

The benefits are huge, because in the proper environment a non-neurotypical can do some kinds of tasks 10 or even 100 times faster than a neurotypical can. Since we know what we are good at, we probably gravitate towards precisely those tasks and that's why we were hired in that role.

For non-neurotypicals, what can you do to improve the office culture and cohesion? Well first of all, don't expect that your teammates just automatically understand your needs. They understand their needs which are almost certainly very different than your needs. They will assume your needs are the same as theirs. So if you need a different environment, speak up and say so. Do your best to explain that you have different needs because you are biologically different. If they don't understand, then suggest that you are disabled or physically/mentally inferior and need special accommodations. Most neurotypicals understand this sort of language and will then be willing to coddle your defective self. This isn't ideal of course, but still better than staying silent. This may start the doomsday clock leading to your being fired, but then at least you will have some time to be super productive and show your stuff. If you are American, you may even be able to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act later though I've never heard of any non-neurotypical exercising these rights. This is probably because we don't see ourselves as disabled, but just have to act that way in order to seem less threatening to our neurotypical coworkers.

Even if you find a quiet spot to work and have headphones on, make an extra effort to take breaks and socialize with your coworkers. Do your best to appear human. Filter as necessary. Find something to compliment them on. I'm considering putting a big obnoxious sign up on my desk that takes up half of it that says something like “I'm wearing headphones because I am prone to overstimulation. But I really love to talk so please come up and interrupt me whenever you want, I WANT that. If I'm too busy to talk, I will let you know. Thanks!”

Just telling your boss and coworkers that you are non-neurotypical during the hiring process is not enough. That doesn't mean they understand what you just said. If they say “no problem, we have a lot of very smart people working here!” (I get this a lot) then you may have just threatened them. They may think you are suggesting you are intellectually superior to their existing workers. These sorts of comparisons never end well for you. You were hired because you are really smart. But if they start talking like this, then there is an upper limit where you could be too smart. They aren't looking at this as a diversity opportunity, they are looking at it as a pro-parity situation. Lack of parity is threatening. As a non-neurotypical, you don't ever expect parity, but hope for tolerance.

The best way around this is to suggest that you have mental parity in your occupation (even if this is not true, filtering may be required) but that you have some physical limitations (again, not quite true, so filter it up). Be that exceptional Human 0.9. This won't threaten anyone and they might feel good about giving a handicapped person a chance where a lot of other companies would have just discriminated against you instantly because of your “disorder”.

Of course the ideal situation is to find yourself in a truly diverse work place. Gender, racial, cultural, and neuro-diversity is awesome! In situations where a 2% neanderthal is treating a (black) pure human poorly for their skin color, it's almost never going to work out well for the pure human to defend themselves. It really helps if an understanding and empathetic 2% neanderthal can come to the defense of the pure human minority. The same is true with neurodiversity. If you are neurotypical and you see your neurotypical coworkers shaming your non-neurotypical coworker, step up. Don't let them do that! Resist the urge to jump on the band wagon. Remind them that if they can't be nice, to at least be professional. If they are engaging in rumor mongering and assorted other gaslighting actions against any minority on your team, they are almost certainly going to be successful unless someone stands up and says “No!”. If you are actually interested in team success, then having a diverse team that can tackle any situation or obstacle is going to serve you well. This is a tough industry and layoffs are common. Getting someone fired because they are different might make you feel good in the moment, but it could doom the entire team and then everyone ends up losing their jobs.


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